Academy of Saint Gabriel Members' Guide: Boilerplate

Academy of Saint Gabriel Members' Guide


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Boilerplate: Bits and pieces we often need to include in letters

We find ourselves writing the same things over and over in letters.  Here are some common problems, explanations of what they are, and suggestions for how to explain them.

Procedural Problems

Stunt Documentation
Our clients often ask us to supply documentation so that they can register their names, without any concern for the culture where we may find the documentation.  This is called stunt documentation, since it is simply an attempt to satisfy the College of Arms without any real concern for historical re-creation.  The Academy doesn't do it, and when a client asks for it, we usually begin our reply with a warning like this:

A similar problem is that clients ask whether a name is registerable. Here's a reply to that question:

Questions submitted second-hand
We often get questions from consulting heralds, submitted on behalf of their clients.  We prefer to speak directly to the client, so that we can get the clearest picture of his interests and so that we can send our advice to him directly, without any intermediaries who might garble the information.  We won't reject questions because they come from heralds, but we will occasionally ask them to try to put their clients in direct touch with us.

Cultural Terminology

There's no such thing as a Celtic name or persona
Many people use the word Celtic to describe their names or personae.  The usage is incorrect and, more important, it often reveals a fundamental mis-understanding of the nature of the different Celtic languages and cultures.

Another approach:

Flemish and Flanders
In modern usage, <Flemish> is used as the name of one of the dialects of Dutch spoken in northern Belgium and as a word to describe the people who speak it; and <Flanders> is often used to describe the region where it is spoken.  These usages are based mostly in modern politics and culture, and aren't appropriate to our period.  In period, <Flemish> referred to the County of Flanders: A <Flemish name> was a name in the Flemish dialect.  Here's an explanation of this issue that you can include in reports:

General Naming Problems

Mixed-Language Names
Quite a few of our customers want names that mix languages to represent parents of different nationalities.  Here are a couple examples of how we've explained the problems with this approach.  This first one is written for the case where someone's persona has parents from two countries and wants to use a given name from one language and a surname from the other in order to illustrate his ancestry.  With minor changes, it could also be used for a client whose parents come from two cultures that were present in the same country (e.g. Gaelic & Norse in parts of 12th century Scotland, or French and Dutch in late period Flanders).

Here's another approach:

And another:

Made-up Names
Making up a name is never a good idea, since it is automatically not authentic in the strict sense.  Some cultures apparently did coin new names, but only in very narrowly-defined ways.  Creating a name that they would have considered reasonable is difficult at best.  Here's how we've explained that problem on one occasion:

You might use a different example that more closely matches the culture your client wants to re-create.

Names from Literature
Literature is a poor source for selecting a medieval name.  Modern writers are often sloppy, and medieval writers often made-up fanciful names.  As a general rule, we advise clients not to use fiction as a source for names.  Regarding modern literature, we can say:

Meaning of names
An awful lot of people want to choose a given name that has the right meaning.  We need to explain to them that given names didn't have meanings. Here is one way to do that.  You may want to use a much shorter statement in your report.

You may want to add something along these lines:

Bad name sources
Many of our clients have found names in name-your-baby books, genealogies, or other sources that are not intended for medieval onamastic research.  Here's an example of how to explain that problem.  It's a bit long-winded, and you'll certainly need to to tailor it to the client's question.

See also the boilerplate on the word Celtic.

Spelling variation
It is widely known that spelling was not fixed in period languages, but many people believe that this means that spelling had no rules at all. This is incorrect.  Here are a couple ways to explain it.


Old Testament Names
Most Old Testament names did not come into use until quite late or after our period:

Gaelic Naming Problems

Scots vs. Gaelic
In our period, Scotland included more than one language.  Many of our clients do not understand the distinction between them, which is crucial to understanding how period names are constructed.  How we explain this issue depends on the exact period the client is trying to fit; here's an example for the last couple centuries of our period.  We often also direct these clients to Scottish Names 101.

Also read Effrick's advice for letters about Irish and Scottish names.

Languages of medieval Scotland
The preceding boilerplate is fine for late 14th century Scotland or later; Here's a version that spans a broader period; use the bits that you need.

General Background on Languages in Gaelic-speaking Lands
Some clients want Gaelic or Anglicized Gaelic names, and don't care whether the result is Scottish or Irish.  We have used this paragraph for background for the last few centuries of our period.

Another approach:

Metronymics in Gaelic
Metronymics are vanishingly rare in all dialects of Gaelic.

The word did not exist in period Gaelic, and it is usually misused in any case.  

Clan affiliation bynames came into use in the 10th century
Bynames that indicated clan membership were just coming into use in 10th century Ireland, and became popular in the 11th.  Reference Royal Irish Academy, _Dictionary of the Irish Language: based mainly on Old and Middle Irish materials_ (Dublin : Royal Irish Academy, 1983), s.v. ua.

Irish names before the late 7th century
Constructing Oghamic Irish names, 4th to mid-7th century, is difficult and speculative.  The result is usually something that looks very little like what our clients think of as an Irish name.  If a client asks for a name in a wide range of time including anything before 700 or so, we usually focus on the later part of his period and offer to address the earlier part if he is interested.

One female client asked for a name appropriate c.100 AD.  We replaced the last paragraph above with:

Modern usage of Gaelic bynames
Modern usage of Gaelic style surnames differs from period usage.  Here's how we've addressed that confusion.  Note that parts of this paragraph are specific to Scottish Gaelic naming.

    <MacNeill> is an English or Scots spelling of the Gaelic patronymic byname <mac Ne/ill> "son of Niall".  <Mac> surnames like this one were used literally in Gaelic before modern times: A man was called <mac Neill> only if his father's given name was <Niall>; for example, Do/mhnall who was the son of Niall mac Aoidh would be <Do/mhnall mac Neill>, not <Do/mhnall mac Aoidh>.  The modern practice of using <Mac> surnames to indicate clan membership did not develop until well after our period.  The byname <Mac Ne/ill> was not uncommon in late-period Scottish Gaelic.  We find it recorded in Scots documents as <Makneyll> 1526, <MacNeill> 1633, <McNaill> 1541, <McNeyll> 1518 [*].  It was pronounced \mahk NEE-@l\.

Modern forms of Gaelic names
Many period Gaelic names have survived in modern use in spellings that wouldn't have existed in period or in anglicized forms.  We often have to explain this problem and give the correct Gaelic spelling.  

Gaelic spelling
Gaelic spelling conventions changed significantly around 1200. Earlier spelling was simpler but less precise; later spelling matched the spoken language more closely and indicated lenition, palatalized consonants, etc.  Here's how we might explain the change to a client whose period spans 1200:

Note that this change was not uniform.  Some later sources use the earlier, conservative spellings.  However, we usually recommend the standard spelling for the client's period as the most typical.

The genitive and lenition in Gaelic names
These issues crop up in almost every letter we write about Gaelic names, especially feminine names.  There are full discussions of some of these issues on Effrick's website, especially her step-by-step article on lenition and Quick and Easy.  Here are samples of how we deal with these issues in a letter.  For a woman who asked about a period that spanned the spelling change c.1200:

The discussion of <ingen> and the lenited spelling would need to be adjusted for clients who were entirely pre-1200 or post-1200.

For a man:

Drop the last two sentences if the name does not require lenition.  The footnotes are:

What is normalized spelling?
When we don't have an example of a Gaelic spelling for the client's period, we often offer the normalized spelling.  The italicized clause is optional, to be used when appropriate.

One might wonder why we would prefer a theoretical spelling to a documented one.  Our documented spellings mostly come from the Annals, which may be unrepresentative.  In particular, we have reason to believe that they tend to use archaic spellings.

Gaelic long e
<e_> represents a "long e" character in Gaelic, which looks like a lowercase <f> without the crossbar.  Depending upon context, this is rendered either as <ea> or as <e> when using English characters to represent Gaelic words.

Spellings in the Irish Annals
What we know as a set of Irish Annals are manuscripts that were each compiled during a particular time period, usually using older material as sources. For example, when the Annals of the Four Masters were written from 1632 to 1636, they covered events that occurred centuries and millenia before (including legendary history). So, when an entry in this set of annals refers to a person who lived in the year 738, the spelling used for that person's name is very likely not using the spelling that would have been used in 738.

Naming Problems in other cultures

Runic spellings of Norse names
Old Norse used the runic alphabet.  We sometimes invite clients with Norse names to contact us if they are interested in runic spellings.  Other times, we explain runic spelling in some detail.  Here's one explanation that we've used before.

The use of von in German names
Many people believe that German surnames in von imply nobility.  That was indeed true after the 17th century, but not in our period.  This discussion is rather long; you may need to trim it.  An example of how to do that follows the detailed discussion.

If you want to be more brief, you might try an approach like this:

Basic Japanese name construction
We've used this text several times:

This applies from the late Heian period (12th century) onward.

Japanese Made-up Names
A significant number of clients come to us with names made up by combining kanji.  Many get their ideas from A Japanese Miscellany.

German Dialects
This short explanation usually suffices:

There is a map of German dialects at, and a simpler one at, along with a concise discussion of the major dialects, which will usually be good enough.

If you'd like to give a more detailed explanation, you can use this:

Languages of France
In France in our period, there were two major languages. Here's a blurb on that subject (which also appear on the French page of the Medieval Names Archive).

There are maps of the Occitan dialect region at and

Languages of Iberia
We have a good article on the languages of period Iberia, but in letters we sometimes need something more concise.  The following blurb is appropriate for the 14th-16th centuries.

Maps of the linguistic regions are available for c.900, c.1150, and c.1300.

Languages of Welsh
An explanation of the spelling systems used in medieval Wales. This is good any time after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans.

The last couple sentences will not be appropriate for all reports.

Armory Problems

Heraldry for a Non- or Pre-Heraldic Culture
Lots of our clients choose personas in times and places when heraldry didn't exist.  We warn them of the conflict.  For a pre-heraldic persona, we might start:

For a persona after the invention of heraldry, but from a culture that didn't use it, you might say instead:

For both cases, you could continue:

Arms for Gaels
Heraldic arms are not native to Gaelic cultures; they were introduced by French and English settlers and gradually adopted by the local cultures. Most Gaelic personae would not have used arms.  We have four versions of this boilerplate, customized for different times and places.  To each of them you probably want to append the second part of the boilerplate for non-heraldic personas.  For any Gaelic persona before the 13th century, use the entire boilerplate for pre-heraldic cultures.

Arms for Welshmen
Heraldic arms are not native to Welsh culture; they were introduced by French and English settlers and gradually adopted by the local culture.

Append the second part of the boilerplate for non-heraldic personas.  

Arms for Vikings
A version of the boilerplate for pre-heraldic personas, specialized for this case.

Sources for period Iberian armory
We often refer clients to books to see examples of armory from their cultures.  Here's text that did that for a Spanish client:

Dragons weren't used in arms until rather late in period.  Here are the facts, not all of which will necessarily be relevent to your case.

Rodney Dennys notes that dragons or their heads or wings are borne as charges by some 300 Continental families.  For non-English historical information he mentions that Bouly de Lesdain notes five examples of the dragon on French seals before 1300.  The earliest is the mid-12th c. seal of Raimund de Montdragon, a Provençal baron, which shows two 'dragons' combattant.  They are not on a shield, and they are very odd dragons by modern standards.  They are two-legged and have human heads, their tails end in small dragon's heads, and they appear to have feathered wings and bodies.  As Dennys says, they look more like basilisks with human heads than like the conventional dragon.  Each is tugging on its beard with one foot.  The beards, like the hair on the head, seem to be composed of a multitude of small serpents.  (The family of Montdragon later bore a single human-headed gold dragon of this type on a red field.)

In 1229 and 1249 Dragonet de Montauban used a seal with a design apparently identical to that of Raimund's.  (Note that while this may not quite qualify as armory, it *is* a cant on a forename.) Finally, Dennys notes that Rietstap lists the French family of Anthon as bearing 'Or, a dragon with a human face gules'.

Gelre has a fair number of dragon's heads as crests, including (fo.76) 'Argent, a cross anchory and gringoly gules' for Hune or Huyn of Amstenraede; the crest is a dragon's head gules, and the eight snake's heads at the ends of the cross are really dragon's heads.

It also has (fo.58v) H. Jan Haucoert, 'On a chevron three escallops' (unpainted, so no tincures) with a crest 'a dragon's head barry ermine and sable, eared gules, the back crested, breathing flames'; however, the notes identify this person as the famous John Hawkwood and add that the correct tinctures ('Argent, on a chevron sable three escallops argent'). The blazon reads d'hermines, but the photograph clearly shows clearly shows ermine, not counter-ermine.

From fo.53v: Scibor de Sciboryc has as crest a dragon's head sable with gold eyebrows issuing flames gules.

From fo.50: Raoul Sieur de Rayneval has as crest a dragon's head winged argent.  (The tips of the wings are visible as if the dragon were responding enthusiastically to 'Hands up!'.) The same crest (with the dragon langued gules) is borne by Waleran de Luxembourg-Ligny, Count of Saint Pol (fo.46v).

Neubecker (34) reproduces from Gelre the dragon crest of Aragon; it's a gold dragon's head with argent teeth and gules tongue and insides of ears; parts of the feet and the tips of the reptilian wings are visible.  A 1515 version of the same crest is shown on p.157.  On p.190 he mentions that the crest of the arms of Brabant was a dragon in the late 13th and early 14th c.  (It's quite possible that this was true both before and after that date, since he's using this crest only to explain another from that period.) On p.218 he mentions that Emperor Sigismund created the Dragon Order of Hungary, and the dukes of Austria also created a Dragon order.  I don't know just when these were created, but on p.220 there's a picture of the Tirolean minnesinger Oswald von Wolkenstein (1377(?) - 1445) to the sash of the Tankard Order of Aragon he has added the Hungarian Order of the Dragon.

Fox-Davies (Art of Heraldry, p.426, discussing Pl. XCVIII) has the arms of Specker in the 1547 roll of arms of the Geschlechtergesellschaft 'Zur Katze' in Constance as 'Argent, a wyvern sable vomiting fire, the feet, legs, and underpart of the ears gules'.  He says that the same coat appears on a 1382 seal of one Cunrat Speker.  The wyvern has the usual long, pointed ears and an unbarbed tail.  

Note also that there's a wyvern in the c.1340 Zuricher Wappenrolle, Strip II back, page 13, number 303.

Purpure was a rare tincture in period armory.  

National Symbols
Many of our clients wants to incorporate national symbols into their arms to proclaim the nationality of their persona: shamrocks or harps for Irish, fleurs-de-lys for French, double-headed eagles for German, thistles for Scottish.  This sort of symbols wasn't used in period armory.  In fact, the thistle was quite rare in Scottish heraldry! Here's one ways we've addressed this problem recently.

Here's another:

Maintained by Arval; last updated 19 Apr 2004.