Forcing Modern Categories on Early Modern Realities II: Naming Conventions

Erik’s comments on a previous post have prompted me to make an expanded post spelling out what I see as the broad issues surrounding naming things from early modern Europe. This issue comes up from time to time, and since it can be rather contentious, I thought I’d spell out my version.

Here’s my take: It’s complicated!

It’s complicated for many reasons, which I’ll spell out for those unfamiliar with the details. NB: This is a necessarily Euro-centric and Anglo-centric post; I am writing this in English after all.

The most fundamental problem revolves around language, or, more precisely, languages. Europe is of course a relatively diverse region with a few dozen languages grouped into several different families, and most scholars (myself included) can only read a small subset of them. In grad school you learn whichever languages you need to read the sources you need for your topic (usually the minimum is two foreign languages), and since most historians continue to write the history of a particular country, our linguistic boundaries are usually limited to the languages spoken in those boundaries – on occasion you get weird situations where a Prussian king wrote letters in the more elegant French language and these were later translated into German for nationalistic reasons. That being said, the two ‘standard’ languages for European historians, at least for America and western Europe, are English (which has become the dominant language of scholarly discourse over the 20C), and French a close second – the use of these two as a more general lingua franca throughout the West is important here also. Various historical traditions have also encouraged particular linguistic groupings – much work on Classical history was written by Germans in the late 19C, while Russian is obviously a good language for the 20C history of eastern Europe. The dominance of English and French coincides with the fact that, numerically, most early modernists study English or French history, with much smaller groups exploring German, Italian, Spanish, or Dutch history (which itself is also a function of the size of the academic history communities in these countries – I would not be surprised if there are almost as many historians of early modern Portuguese history in English and American universities as in Portugal). First problem: the detailed knowledge of most historians of EME is limited to the countries whose languages they can read, few can read more than a few, and no one can read all the primary and secondary literature in more than one or two. We each have our own view of one part of the elephant that is EME, and the French and English parts of the elephant (I’ll leave it to you to decide which anatomical parts those are) are most visible.

Another contributor to our confused conventions is linguistic ambiguity, translating from one language to another. The problem is that translation is never perfect, always approximate, and often introduces or eliminates nuances present in the ‘original’ version. This is further complicated by the variety of possible connotations for many words. For terms like “Austrian” or “German” (just to choose two examples), they might have geographical, linguistic, national, ethnic, political, dynastic, and/or religious connotations (probably others). Thanks to nationalization and unification, many of these connotations converged during the 19C-20C; in some cases they exploded in the wake of collapsed empires and world wars. Trying to disentangle the modern convergence from the earlier diversity of connotations is further complicated by the fact that each word today might have several connotations in one language, but different (or overlapping) connotations in another language – kind of like the difference between “science” in English vs. German. Further, the connotations might vary by the specific context – “Italian” might be meant in a geographical sense of the Italian peninsula, whereas it could also have other connotations in a different context in the same language, and perhaps have even additional ones in another language. Erik mentioned in his comment that the German term “Oesterreich” was primarily geographical (at one historical point, but it’s expanded since then), but once it gets translated into English as “Austria” (not a more literal “Eastern Empire/borderlands”), it potentially adds other connotations, that also vary by context. Plus, there are political implications for all of these, even if they are not intended by the user – nationalists demanding linguistic homogeneity or religious purity, linguistic colonizers forcing their European names on indigenous places, etc. Here too, the dominance of English and French encourage smaller European countries to demand equality for their own threatened languages – witness the European Union’s policy regarding its ‘official’ language(s). It would be interesting to develop a table that showed the variations for each aspect (linguistic, geographical…) for each ‘country’ and how they changed over time.

So thus far we have Anglo- and Gallo-centric biases toward ‘standard’ forms (and we could attach the dominance of centralized political models based off these two countries’ histories as well), translational ambiguities, and political subtexts. Then we can add the more mundane fact that languages evolve over time, leading to new forms of existing words as well as new words and new connotations. These changes can be ‘natural’ or artificial, e.g. the Dutch spelling reforms of the 1950s, but they mean that words don’t necessarily have the same meaning, much less the same spelling, as they once did – a common example you’ll see is 18C title pages advertising the fact that they have “curious engravings”. (So make sure you have historical dictionaries on hand – many are available on Google Books, and LEME is an excellent resource for English.) Another form of linguistic evolution is expressed in spelling (orthography): before universal education and a national media helped develop a uniform language based off a ‘standard’ dialect (e.g. the “Queen’s English”, Parisian French) in the 18C-19C, there was little standardization in spelling, despite the efforts of the Académie française (the English government refused Defoe’s and Swift’s request for a similar English body). As a bizarre example, I’ve even seen a letter where the author (mis)spelled somebody else’s name several different ways in a single paragraph! And let’s not even mention the pitfalls of transliteration between Latin, Greek and Cyrillic alphabets.

Scholars who work in the field know the above, and since you can’t repeat all these caveats every time, the standard convention is to mention such caveats in a prefatory note to the reader, or maybe at its first mention, depending on space and format.

So, how are all these theoretical complications relevant to us EMEMHians? Proper Nouns. Here are half-a-dozen specific examples that you are likely to come across in your research, and you may well be questioned on your choices at a conference (or on a blog! ;):

1. WARS. In addition to the obvious issue of translating the name of a war from one language to another (the War of the Spanish Succession into la guerre de la succession d’Espagne into Spaanse successieoorlog), you also have the problem that for some wars different countries called them different things altogether. The War of the League of Augsburg is what it used to be called in English, is still usually called that in French (la guerre de la Ligue d’Augsbourg), and is what the Library of Congress subject heading uses. English scholars tend nowadays to refer to it as the Nine Years War (which can be confused with the Nine Years War in Ireland a century earlier), but it has sometimes also been called War of the Grand Alliance (the War of the Spanish Succession also had its own Grand Alliance). Wikipedia includes the War of the English Succession and the War of the Palatine Succession. Some of these are sub-conflicts within the larger conflagration, but the boundaries are rarely clear, and no one that I know of has bothered to set out a clear delineation; plus, you certainly can’t force others to follow yours in any case, so we end up with synecdoches. Things really get messed up with some of the Baltic/East European conflicts – which Great Northern War are we talking about exactly? In short, there is no universally-agreed-upon name for most conflicts, especially those that few care about, and the choice of one name over another can, again, become a political matter as it often is used to assign blame (e.g. the War of Northern Aggression…).

2.TOWNS. Place names don’t usually translate literally from one language to another, but they get mangled nonetheless. Most odd is how close English names for Italian towns are to the original – Venice for Venezia, Rome for Roma… is it so hard to just add an -a on the end of Rom(e)? Then you have places whose bastardized names become commonplace in another tongue – historical convention is to use the Anglicized versions in English-language works. Examples include Flushing for Vlissingen, Moscow for Moskva (transliterated into Latin from the Cyrillic), etc. Many place names also change over time as invasions and political sovereigns come and go – so common is this in central/eastern Europe that you will often find appendices that list the equivalencies between German, Slavic and English names (e.g. Gdansk-Danzig, and let’s not even talk about St. Petersburg). Even in the west you may need to search by Lille and Rijssel, Liège and Lüttich, Aix-la-Chapelle and Aachen… From personal experience, if you are in the French archives, don’t ask for the folder on Ghent – it doesn’t exist! Gand is what you are looking for. And don’t freak out if a Dutch book has a chapter on the unknown siege of Bergen – it’s Mons! Locating places mentioned in contemporary sources can be a particular challenge, and sometimes it does help to translate the names literally or phonetically (Ypres-Ieperen-Wipers). My favorite is ‘s Hertogenbosch (the duke’s wood), colloquially called Den Bosch by the Dutch, labelled Bois-le-duc by the French, while provincial Englishmen referred to it as the Buss, or, for those aping the French pronunciation, Boiled Duck.

3. BATTLES. The same national traditions apply, but are complicated by the fact that field battles were normally named after a nearby landmark, and most places had more than one landmark nearby. In the middle ages (itself a loaded term) heralds might confer afterward on what to name the battle (Agincourt or Azincourt?), but in the early modern period there are several examples where the two sides chose totally different names: Blenheim for the English (Blindheim in modern German), but the second battle of Höchstedt for the French (the first was a year earlier). Neerwinden is also Landen, and so on. Battles named after nearby towns (and sieges) follow the Town rules above; once again, it’s a mess in eastern Europe, particularly Hungary, which has a totally different Finno-Ugric language from Germanic or Slavic or Romance.

4. PEOPLE. Before we lost any semblance of standardized names (says a guy named Jamel), there were just as many problems. In addition to the lack of standardized orthography mentioned above, we have different types of names from different regions and different names and titles based off of social rank and status (herr, von, van, de…). If we focus on those at the top we also need to worry about shifting rank/status as one travels from, say, Henry St. John to Lord Bolingbroke. Know the rules and exceptions for your region. Then you get people whose name varies in different languages – King John, Jean, Johann, Jan… I always thought it would be more useful to refer to the kings by the name used in their country, but this hasn’t taken off, probably because we are still focused on our national constructs. Maybe kings didn’t use the same language that is used nowadays (Gustavus Adolphus anyone?). And then there’s the influence of cosmopolitan languages like French or English used all over Europe… Linguistic name variation also applies to last names, for example Ouwerkerk (the Dutch version) was Overkirk in English and Auverquerque in French. What do we conclude from the fact that he signed himself with the French spelling? Keep lists of all the variations your people had throughout their lives, which naming conventions are used by each resource (family name or title?), and if possible use wildcards in your searches to catch spelling variations.

5. TREATIES. The Town rules apply here since treaties were usually named after the town where they were negotiated or signed. So you have the treaty of Ryswick, unless you’re Dutch and want to refer to it by it’s Dutch-appropriate name, Rijswijk. You also have a separate issue that if the war was large enough, there were multiple signatories and they would sign (hopefully not very) different versions of the treaty at different times in different locales. So you have the “peace of Utrecht” which includes the treaty of Utrecht, the treaty of Baden, the treaty of Rastatt… Remember that diplomacy took place over months if not years, and many different sides were involved, so don’t expext a single terminus for an early modern war.

6. NATIONAL GROUPS. As we alluded to in the comments to the previous post, on the one hand historians talk about how nationalism didn’t really exist until the 18C and especially 19C, that it was ‘constructed.’ One popular example is to say that someone living in Nantes saw himself as Nantais, perhaps Breton, but not really “French.” Yet, on the other hand, for centuries before that we can find plenty of evidence that contemporaries referred to themselves and others by such national groupings, as “English,” “French,” etc., raising the question of defining Englishness, Frenchness…, as well as how you define national. Contemporaries had various racial and climatic explanations for the ‘national’ characteristics of one race versus another – see Moréri’s description of France in his Historical Dictionary for one example. They certainly had views of national ways of war, whether these were based on racial, constitutional or historical foundations – search in Google Books for titles with “ingénieur françois” for example. The famous French historian Fernand Braudel even argued that armies were a prime driver of national identity, as people from all over France joined together to fight for king and also for country, forging a shared identity in the process. What these early references to national identity mean isn’t clear to me, other than it was very complex (and ambiguous, and dynamic, and contested). Some of this proto-nationalism might be foreigners simply defining the Other in binary opposition to themselves. Maybe this was a particularly English tendency, as England tended to be more nationalistically self-aware earlier, yet the complications of defining ‘English’ as compared to ‘British’, ‘Irish’, ‘Scottish’, etc. have occupied British isle historians for the past few decades. It certainly doesn’t make things clearer that our period saw the occupation and formal incorporations of Ireland and Scotland to the English crown and eventually to the English government. People back then spoke in terms of “Austrians,” “Dutch” (or “Hollanders”) and “Danes” – but what exactly this means, and how it shaped their identity, isn’t clear.

So, to sum up this long post, early modern naming conventions are complicated because they are all relative and arbitrary to begin with, as they are created by diverse groups of egocentric humans, whose groupings and languages themselves change over centuries, and they are based on human ideas that only stand in for real objects, and most of these referents are themselves intangible – language, identities, and so on. There is no objective standard when you are going across cultures (or even within) unless you assume the superiority of one over another. So you choose one standard, go with it, and you move on, because otherwise you get caught in an infinite regression of how to choose one arbitrary standard over another. Figure out what your point in writing is: Do you try to minimize the mental disruption to your readers (assuming you judge accurately who your readers are) by using the terms they are most familiar with? Do you show off how knowledgeable you are about the latest theoretical deconstruction of the category? Do you highlight the conventions and their subtle influence on our thoughts by openly breaking them (e.g. using ‘hir’ or ‘herstory’) – and if so, are you assuming that someone else using a different naming convention doesn’t already know the issues, or that they should accept your conventions instead? Or maybe you alternate between various standards to totally destabilize the entire project? What if the reader doesn’t understand the backstory to this transgression of boundaries, or if the author was aware but didn’t think it merited discussion? Each to their own, but rather than try to sort all that out I tend to take an agnostic stance: recognize the problematic areas, acknowledge them when queried (or when teaching), make a choice, but don’t get bogged down by the semantics, because there is no perfect solution, no value-neutral option. Besides, there are more important things to talk about, like when the millennium really began!



9 responses to “Forcing Modern Categories on Early Modern Realities II: Naming Conventions”

  1. Wienand Drenth says :

    Thank you for this relevant post! In my own study of regimental lineages some similar problems occur: what is the proper name for a regiment and who is the boss (colonel).

    Your example of Ouwerkerk/Overkirk/Auverquerque is one I encountered frequently. More complicated, as it was Nassau-Ouwerkerk, sometimes I find reference to Nassau, sometimes to Overkirk, sometimes to Auverquerque.

    Nassau-Zuylenstein is one of the other issues. As Willem-Hendrik van Nassau-Zuylenstein became Earl of Rochford and Viscount Tunbridge, this second subsidiary title was also held by his son, also Willem-Hendrik. As he was colonel of an English regiment raised in April 1706, that regiment was known as Lord Tunbridge’s and only looking into colonel’s pedigrees will yield family ties.

    Other examples of Dutch getting a peerage in England or Ireland are Portland and Athlone, whereas it will be easy for an outsider to get confused by the Duke of Albemarle and the Earl of Albemarle.

    Another issue comes from the continuous advancements in peerages. Someone became a Viscount one day, advanced to become Earl and eventually ended his life as Duke. If he held different regiments at different periods, literature may give reference to Viscount John’s Musketeers, then to Earl of Utrecht’s Dragoons and finally to the Duke of Marlborough’s Foot. It is easy, both for readers and authors to assume they were different persons. Unfortunately, the bible of lineages, Frederick’s Lineage book of British Land Forces, contains many of these errors.

    Here is my “solution” to this. When I present a list of regiments, for example in an order of battle, I use the names then in use. For example, the Earl of Utrecht’s Dragoons. However, in the list of colonels I follow the rule to use the final title of the good man, hence the Duke of Marlborough. This way, when covering a longer period in one project, the naming in lists of colonels is consistent throughout the project. Some comment made in an appendix of the like should make this clear, and some biographical notes to the colonel can help as well.

    • jostwald says :

      Good point. I should have added that as a 7th category, regimental names. It’s a slightly different problem from translating languages, but it is definitely a pain. I’ve seen a few early 20C British authors use the modern numerical designation – that does tend to rub me the wrong way, but for the audience of regimental histories, it might be the most meaningful for them. Maybe I’ll go back and update my post.
      As you mention, there were a bunch of hyphenated Nassaus (Nassau-Orange, -Ouwerkerk, -Siegen, -Saarbrücken…), which does confuse matters further.
      We also have the convention in some works, such as in Pinard’s Chronologie historique-militaire, where you use the highest rank that person achieved, which may be well after the period of his life you are studying. All sorts of problems.

      • Wienand Drenth says :

        Some other thing about forcing modern terminology on early modern realities came to mind, and has all to do with what a battalion was, constituted, represented etc.

        In these days, a battalion is an administrative unit, with a lieutenant-colonel as chief. Usually a battalion is part of a bigger ‘regimental family’, that can be purely administratively (as in the British army) or also tactical (like the US regiments in WW2).

        However, for the 17th century, I tend to believe, but I may be mistaken, that a battalion was more like a sort of SI unit for the battlefield, making the math and handling easier for generals.

        But, in many (modern) narratives I frequently read about, for example, the ‘1st Battalion’ of the Grenadier Guards, etc. Whereas, when I look into older papers they merely mention ‘a battalion’ from the Grenadier Guards. Which is I think an important difference. The former seems to indicate that the regiment was organized into battalions. The latter simply tells that the regiment was a big one (25+ companies or so by 1700), and a handful of companies could be grouped together for overseas duties. And dubbed a battalion.

        I haven’t looked that close to the regiments of other nations. So I cannot tell whether it was a British issue, of something more universal. And that the battalion, as a permanent entity part of a regiment, was of later date.

      • jostwald says :

        What’s a SI unit?

      • Wienand Drenth says :

        My apologies. SI refers to the international system of units. This system has seven base units, from which all other units of measurement are derived. The metre is the unit of length, from which, for example, volume is derived.

  2. Erik Lund says :

    So there’s a Swiss-born general who gets some attention for having fought at the relief of Vienna before dying at Moellwitz in 1741: Peter, Freiherr Goeldlin von Tieffenau, or Fieffenau. Or Goeldy von Tieffenau. Or Fieffenau. Fortunately, biographical dictionaries go by the “G,” or you’d never track this guy down, as I eventually did, to find that his apparent longevity is a myth born of spelling confusion. It was a cousin of the Vienna veteran who fought Frederick the Great in his first battle.

    Only it turns out that the cousin is actually a slightly more distant relative, because there are two branches of the Goeldys. Or Goeldlin. There are the Goeldys von Tieffenau. Or Fieffenau. Or Goeldlins.

    And there are the Goeldys von Dieffenau. Or Fieffenau.

    And, the Swiss having a slightly spirited take on German at the best of times, I’m not going to rule out Goeldys von Bieffenau. Or Goeldlins. Goeldy von Vieffenau, anyone?

    There’s only one explanation for this: the Goeldys were messing with us. Deliberately. They were sitting around in their family chateau at Oma’s birthday party, and they got to imagining how their family entry would look in a Swiss biographical dictionary in a century or two, and they decided to mess it up just as much as they possibly could. I’m about half-a-cup more of coffee away from making up some social-theoretical claim about “self-fashioning” in order to make this case in seriousness.

    • jostwald says :

      Indeed. I should’ve added that problem as well, the dreaded ‘which of his four names (X de Y, title of Z de A) should I use, and should I use the full compound name every time or shorten it’? You could have composite first names (Pierre-Paul, which might be shortened to Pierre, or maybe not) and composite last names, and possibly composite titles on top of this: Jean-Claude-Eléonore le Michaud d’Arçon, to give one example. How do you cite this guy in your bib? Le Michaud d’Arçon? Michaud d’Arçon? d’Arçon, Le Michaud? Arçon, Michaud d’?… Or maybe you’re citing a French translation of a Spanish author and don’t know whether you should use both Spanish surnames or not; or whether to sort by Van Hasselt instead of Hasselt, van; or maybe you don’t know how the Russian system of patronymics works, or that Hungarians usually list the family name first but you don’t know what Hungarian first names sound like anyway… Unhelpfully, you can look at different scholars and they’ll cite them differently.
      It further confuses identification when you have first names reused in families, or maybe they add a compound name for the child, but continue to refer to him by the first name. Take for example a few of the Chastenet family who held the title of marquis de Puységur: Jacques de Chastenet (1602-1682), Jacques François de Chastenet (1656-1743), Jacques François Maxime de Chastenet (1716-1782), Armand-Marie-Jacques de Chastenet (1751-1825), and Jacques François Maxime Paul de Chastenet (1755-1820). I’m not sure that tracking down how his contemporaries referred to him would necessarily help us much, even if we could find that info. A mess indeed.

  3. jostwald says :

    Just realized that Storrs wrote a chapter on the ways in which Carlos II’s armies were and weren’t “Spanish.” As is usually the case, it depends on what you’re measuring.
    Storrs, Christopher, “The (Spanish) Armies of Carlos II (1665-1700).” In Guerra y sociedad en la monarquía hispánica: política, estrategia y cultura en la Europa Moderna, 1500-1700. Edited by Enrique García Hernán, 485-499. Madrid: Laberinto, 2006.

  4. jostwald says :

    Montaigne knew what we are talking about.

    From gutenberg website:
    CHAPTER XLVI——OF NAMES (From his Essays)

    What variety of herbs soever are shufed together in the dish, yet the whole mass is swallowed up under one name of a sallet. In like manner, under the consideration of names, I will make a hodge-podge of divers articles.

    Every nation has certain names, that, I know not why, are taken in no good sense, as with us, John, William, Benedict [note that the translator obviously translated the names into English, even chose English names – William isn’t a particularly French name]. In the genealogy of princes, also, there seem to be certain names fatally affected, as the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Henries in England, the Charleses in France, the Baldwins in Flanders, and the Williams of our ancient Aquitaine, from whence, ’tis said, the name of Guyenne has its derivation; which would seem far fetched were there not as crude derivations in Plato himself.

    Item, ’tis a frivolous thing in itself, but nevertheless worthy to be recorded for the strangeness of it, that is written by an eyewitness, that Henry, Duke of Normandy, son of Henry II., king of England, making a great feast in France, the concourse of nobility and gentry was so great, that being, for sport’s sake, divided into troops, according to their names, in the first troop, which consisted of Williams, there were found an hundred and ten knights sitting at the table of that name, without reckoning the ordinary gentlemen and servants.

    It is as pleasant to distinguish the tables by the names of the guests as it was in the Emperor Geta to distinguish the several courses of his meat by the first letters of the meats themselves; so that those that began with B were served up together, as brawn, beef, bream, bustards, becca-ficos; and so of the others. Item, there is a saying that it is a good thing to have a good name, that is to say, credit and a good repute; but besides this, it is really convenient to have a well-sounding name, such as is easy of pronunciation and easy to be remembered, by reason that kings and other great persons do by that means the more easily know and the more hardly forget us; and indeed of our own servants we more frequently call and employ those whose names are most ready upon the tongue. I myself have seen Henry II., when he could not for his heart hit of a gentleman’s name of our country of Gascony, and moreover was fain to call one of the queen’s maids of honour by the general name of her race, her own family name being so difficult to pronounce or remember; and Socrates thinks it worthy a father’s care to give fine names to his children.

    Item,’tis said that the foundation of Notre Dame la Grande at Poitiers took its original from hence that a debauched young fellow formerly living in that place, having got to him a wench, and, at her first coming in, asking her name, and being answered that it was Mary, he felt himself so suddenly pierced through with the awe of religion and the reverence to that sacred name of the Blessed Virgin, that he not only immediately sent the girl away, but became a reformed man and so continued the remainder of his life; and that, in consideration of this miracle, there was erected upon the place where this young man’s house stood, first a chapel dedicated to our Lady and afterwards the church that we now see standing there. This vocal and auricular reproof wrought upon the conscience, and that right into the soul; this that follows, insinuated itself merely by the senses. Pythagoras being in company with some wild young fellows, and perceiving that, heated with the feast, they comploted to go violate an honest house, commanded the singing wench to alter her wanton airs; and by a solemn, grave, and spondaic music, gently enchanted and laid asleep their ardour.

    Item, will not posterity say that our modern reformation has been wonderfully delicate and exact, in having not only combated errors and vices, and filled the world with devotion, humility, obedience, peace, and all sorts of virtue; but in having proceeded so far as to quarrel with our ancient baptismal names of Charles, Louis, Francis, to fill the world with Methuselahs, Ezekiels, and Malachis, names of a more spiritual sound? A gentleman, a neighbour of mine, a great admirer of antiquity, and who was always extolling the excellences of former times in comparison with this present age of ours, did not, amongst the rest, forget to dwell upon the lofty and magnificent sound of the gentleman’s names of those days, Don Grumedan, Quedregan, Agesilan, which, but to hear named he conceived to denote other kind of men than Pierre, Guillot, and Michel.

    Item, I am mightily pleased with Jacques Amyot for leaving, throughout a whole French oration, the Latin names entire, without varying and garbling them to give them a French cadence. It seemed a little harsh and rough at first; but already custom, by the authority of his Plutarch, has overcome that novelty. I have often wished that such as write histories in Latin would leave our names as they find them and as they are; for in making Vaudemont into Vallemontanus, and metamorphosing names to make them suit better with the Greek or Latin, we know not where we are, and with the persons of the men lose the benefit of the story.

    To conclude, ’tis a scurvy custom and of very ill consequence that we have in our kingdom of France to call every one by the name of his manor or seigneury; ’tis the thing in the world that the most prejudices and confounds families and descents. A younger brother of a good family, having a manor left him by his father, by the name of which he has been known and honoured, cannot handsomely leave it; ten years after his decease it falls into the hand of a stranger, who does the same: do but judge whereabouts we shall be concerning the knowledge of these men. We need look no further for examples than our own royal family, where every partition creates a new surname, whilst, in the meantime, the original of the family is totally lost. There is so great liberty taken in these mutations, that I have not in my time seen any one advanced by fortune to any extraordinary condition who has not presently had genealogical titles added to him, new and unknown to his father, and who has not been inoculated into some illustrious stem by good luck; and the obscurest families are the most apt for falsification. How many gentlemen have we in France who by their own account are of royal extraction? more, I think, than who will confess they are not. Was it not a pleasant passage of a friend of mine? There were, several gentlemen assembled together about the dispute of one seigneur with another; which other had, in truth, some preeminence of titles and alliances above the ordinary gentry. Upon the debate of this prerogative, every one, to make himself equal to him, alleged, this one extraction, that another; this, the near resemblance of name, that, of arms; another, an old worm-eaten patent; the very least of them was great-grandchild to some foreign king. When they came to sit down, to dinner, my friend, instead of taking his place amongst them, retiring with most profound conges, entreated the company to excuse him for having hitherto lived with them at the saucy rate of a companion; but being now better informed of their quality, he would begin to pay them the respect due to their birth and grandeur, and that it would ill become him to sit down among so many princes—ending this farce with a thousand reproaches: “Let us, in God’s name, satisfy ourselves with what our fathers were contented with, with what we are. We are great enough, if we rightly understand how to maintain it. Let us not disown the fortune and condition of our ancestors, and let us lay aside these ridiculous pretences, that can never be wanting to any one that has the impudence to allege them.”

    Arms have no more security than surnames. I bear azure powdered with trefoils or, with a lion’s paw of the same armed gules in fesse. What privilege has this to continue particularly in my house? A son-in-law will transport it into another family, or some paltry purchaser will make them his first arms. There is nothing wherein there is more change and confusion.

    But this consideration leads me, perforce, into another subject. Let us pry a little narrowly into, and, in God’s name, examine upon what foundation we erect this glory and reputation for which the world is turned topsy-turvy: wherein do we place this renown that we hunt after with so much pains? It is, in the end, Peter or William that carries it, takes it into his possession, and whom it only concerns. O what a valiant faculty is hope, that in a mortal subject, and in a moment, makes nothing of usurping infinity, immensity, eternity, and of supplying its master’s indigence, at its pleasure, with all things he can imagine or desire! Nature has given us this passion for a pretty toy to play withal. And this Peter or William, what is it but a sound, when all is done? or three or four dashes with a pen, so easy to be varied that I would fain know to whom is to be attributed the glory of so many victories, to Guesquin, to Glesquin, or to Gueaquin? and yet there would be something of greater moment in the case than in Lucian, that Sigma should serve Tau with a process; for

    “Non levia aut ludicra petuntur

    [“They aim at no slight or jocular rewards.”—AEneid, xii. 764.]

    the chase is there in very good earnest: the question is, which of these letters is to be rewarded for so many sieges, battles, wounds, imprisonments, and services done to the crown of France by this famous constable? Nicholas Denisot—[Painter and poet, born at Le Mans,1515.]— never concerned himself further than the letters of his name, of which he has altered the whole contexture to build up by anagram the Count d’Alsinois, whom he has handsomely endowed with the glory of his poetry and painting. The historian Suetonius was satisfied with only the meaning of his name, which made him cashier his father’s surname, Lenis, to leave Tranquillus successor to the reputation of his writings. Who would believe that Captain Bayard should have no honour but what he derives from the deeds of Peter Terrail; and that Antonio Iscalin should suffer himself to his face to be robbed of the honour of so many navigations and commands at sea and land by Captain Paulin and the Baron de la Garde? Secondly, these are dashes of the pen common to a thousand people. How many are there, in every family, of the same name and surname? and how many more in several families, ages, and countries? History tells us of three of the name of Socrates, of five Platos, of eight Aristotles, of seven Xenophons, of twenty Demetrii, and of twenty Theodores; and how many more she was not acquainted with we may imagine. Who hinders my groom from calling himself Pompey the Great? But after all, what virtue, what authority, or what secret springs are there that fix upon my deceased groom, or the other Pompey, who had his head cut off in Egypt, this glorious renown, and these so much honoured flourishes of the pen, so as to be of any advantage to them?

    “Id cinerem et manes credis curare sepultos?”

    [“Do you believe the dead regard such things?”—AEneid, iv. 34.]

    What sense have the two companions in greatest esteem amongst me, Epaminondas, of this fine verse that has been so many ages current in his praise,

    “Consiliis nostris laus est attrita Laconum;”

    [“The glory of the Spartans is extinguished by my plans.
    —”Cicero, Tusc. Quaes., v. 17.]

    or Africanus, of this other,

    “A sole exoriente supra Maeotis Paludes
    Nemo est qui factis me aequiparare queat.”

    [“From where the sun rises over the Palus Maeotis, to where it sets,
    there is no one whose acts can compare with mine”—Idem, ibid.]

    Survivors indeed tickle themselves with these fine phrases, and by them incited to jealousy and desire, inconsiderately and according to their own fancy, attribute to the dead this their own feeling, vainly flattering themselves that they shall one day in turn be capable of the same character. However:

    “Ad haec se
    Romanus Graiusque, et Barbaras induperator
    Erexit; caucus discriminis atque laboris
    Inde habuit: tanto major famae sitis est, quam

    [“For these the Roman, the Greek, and the Barbarian commander hath
    aroused himself; he has incurred thence causes of danger and toil:
    so much greater is the thirst for fame than for virtue.”
    —Juvenal, x. 137.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: