Names are important. Something’s name is a crucial part of its identity, and also an important part of the identity of the person who named it – just think of the implied difference between someone who names their dog ‘Kylie’ and one who names it ‘Lucifer’. This is just as true of people as of objects or animals. People give names to play up ethnic identities (think of fourth-generation Irish-Americans with names like Muirchertach), family connections (Bill Jnr.), celebrity fixations (Kylie again), political or religious opinions (Francis Xavier), or even simply the aesthetic tastes of the name-giver (liking the way the name sounded seems to be why south India has a politician named Adolf Hitler).
In the early medieval period, where surnames were uncommon to the point of non-existence, names have attracted a lot of historical attention as a marker of family connections. Some names are so common in families, the argument goes, that they can themselves be used as to indicate that someone with such-and-such a name belongs to such-and-such a family. There’s certainly a case to be made along these lines: the Carolingians, notoriously, were big fans of the names Charles and Louis, such that one ends up reading genealogies along the lines of ‘Charles begat Louis begat Charles begat Louis begat Charles begat Louis begat Charles begat Louis’ (an entirely genuine line of descent, incidentally). Whether or not this works as much as many scholars, particularly French- and German-speaking ones, think is for me a bit of an open question.
Partly, this is because we have so little explicit reasoning about why people gave their children the names they did. Cases such as Arnulf the Great of Flanders, explicitly named to highlight his connection with his royal ancestor St. Arnulf of Metz, are rare; cases such as King Zwentibald of Lotharingia (a Carolingian, but named after his godfather King Sviatopolk of Moravia to highlight the alliance between Zwentibald’s father and the Moravian ruler) where the reason can be readily inferred are more common, but only slightly.
Sometimes, though, one comes across a name that provokes all kinds of speculation, and this happened to me this week. Reading through a 908 charter of Bishop Argrim of Langres in which the bishop makes an exchange of land, goods and people with his follower Arnold, I came across a list of slaves. Most of them had perfectly ordinary names for the time and place – Benedict, Alberada, Adalsind, Sigelm – but one rejoiced in the name of Bellerophon. This raises so many questions.
Bellerophon was the Greek hero who rode Pegasus and slew the Chimera; he appears in the Iliad and a few other ancient Greek works. It’s not a common name in the early medieval West – I’ve never seen it before in ninth- or tenth-century France, and the only other bearers of it I can find are two middling-status Italians from the eighth century. Our Bellerophon, though, is no priest or noble – he’s an unfree dependent, property. This makes me think that he’s likely named after the Bellerophon, which provokes the most interesting question of all: where did his parents hear the name?
Two possibilities arise. First, that the name comes from interaction with high culture: his parents knew their way around Latin – or even Greek – well enough to know a fairly-obscure Classical myth well enough to name a child after it. Second, it comes directly from pop culture: the story of Bellerophon – and presumably by extension other Classical myths – were still in circulation, directly continuous from the Roman past. Here, we would have a peasant thought world which hasn’t changed all that dramatically for centuries.
For me, the former is more likely. The parents didn’t have to read Homer themselves to know someone who did. Bellerophon’s estate, Bannes, is right next to Langres, so it could be trickle-down from the episcopal court; it could simply be a well-educated local priest or lord (as we know were around at this time). The story here is implicitly rather sweet: it implies a real appetite for learned culture on the part of the slaves (which is not itself surprising) but also good enough relations between social groups as to allow for transfer of knowledge.
(Of course, as I wrote this, the darker interpretation, that this was like nineteenth-century slaveholders naming their slaves ‘Caesar’ as a sick joke, occurred to me. A priori, I wouldn’t give Carolingian lords that level of social control; but I don’t actually know.)
In the end, all these stories are imaginary. We don’t know why Bellerophon was given that name. Whatever story lies behind it, though, Bellerophon’s name speaks to the depths of the social world of the Frankish peasantry.