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"Christian names", says the Elizabethan antiquary, Camden, "were imposed for the distinction of persons, surnames for the difference of families."
It would seem from this that, even in the sixteenth century, the etymological and historical significance of the phrase "Christian name" was growning dim, and it is commonly quite forgotten in our own time. But, strictly speaking, the "Christian name" is not merely the forename distinctive of the individual member of a family, but the name given to him at his "christening", i.e., his baptism.
It should be remembered that, in pre-Reformation England the laity were taught to administer baptism in case of necessity with the words: "I christen thee in the name of the Father" etc. To "christen" is therefore to "baptize", and "Christian name" means baptismal name.
Some vague idea that nomina sunt omina ("names are omens") seems to be a sort of primitive human instinct. Thus throughout Old Testament times the significance of names passed as an accepted principle. They were usually given in reference either to some trait in the child, actual or prophetic or to some feeling or hope in the parent at the time of its birth.
It was only a very slight development of this idea to suppose that a change of condition appropriately demanded a change of name. Thus the conversion of Abram into Abraham (the "father of many nations" Genesis 17:5) was imposed upon the occasion of the covenant of circumcision and ratified a claim to God's special benediction.
In view, then, of this recognized congruity and of the Hebrew practice of giving a name to the male child at the time of its circumcision on the eighth day after birth (Luke 1:59), it has been maintained that the custom of conferring a name upon the newly baptised was of Apostolic origin. An instance in point is declared to be found in the case of the apostle of the Gentiles who before his conversion was called Saul and afterwards Paul. But modern scholarship, and with reason, has altogether rejected this contention. The baptism of St. Paul is recorded in Acts 9:18, but the name Paul does not occur before Acts 13:9 while Saul is found several times in the interval. We have no more reason to connect the name Paul with the Apostle's baptism than we have to account in the same way for the giving of the name Cephas or Peter, which we know to be due to another cause.
Moreover, it is certain, both from the inscriptions of the catacombs and from early Christian literature, that the names of Christians in the first three centuries did not distinctively differ from the names of the pagans around them. A reference to the Epistles of St. Paul makes it plain that even the names of heathen gods and goddesses were borne by his converts after their conversion as before. Hermes occurs in Romans 16:14, with a number of other purely pagan names, Epaphroditus in Philippians 4:18, Phoebe, the deaconess, in Romans 16:1. Not less conclusive are the names which we find in the Christian inscriptions of the earlier period or in the signatories appended to such councils as Nicaea or Ancyra (see Turner, "Eccl. Occident. Mon. Juris", I, 36-90; II, 50-53), or again in the lists of martyrs. Even at a later date the names are of a most miscellaneous character. The following classification is one that has been worked out by J. Bass Mullinger founded on Martigny.
A. Names without Christian significance and probably derived from pagan ancestors
This category may be divided as follows:
B. Names of Christian origin and significance
These include the following:
On the other hand though the recurrence of such names as Agnes, Balbina, Cornelius, Felicitas, Irenaeus, Justinus, etc. may very probably be due to veneration for the martyrs who first bore these names, it is rather curious that the names of the New Testament are but rarely found while those of the Old Testament are hardly less uncommon. Susanna, Daniel, Moyses, Tobias, occur pretty frequently, but it is only towards the end of the fourth century that we find the name of our Blessed Lady or become at all familiar with those of the Apostles. Even then we cannot be sure that in the case of Paulus in particular there is any intentional reference to the Apostle of the Gentiles, but Johannes at least, and Andreas, with Petrus and its derivatives like Petronia, Petrius, Petronilla, etc. are less open to doubt. The name of Mary occurs occasionally in the catacomb inscriptions towards the close of the fourth century, for example, in the form LIVIA MARIA IN PACE (De Rossi, "Rom. Sot.", I, 143) and there is a martyr Maria assigned to to the date A.D. 256 (De Rossi, "Rom. Sot." III, 200 sqq. and compare other instances of the name, De Rossi, (Insc. Christ. I, 331; II, 160 and 173).
If we could trust the authentic and contemporary character of the Acts of St. Balsamus, who died A.D. 331, we should have an early example of the connection between baptism and the giving of a name. "By my paternal name", this martyr is said to have declared, "I am called Balsamus, but by the spiritual name which I received in baptism, I am known as Peter." It would seem in any case that the assumption of a new name for some devotional reason was fairly common among Christians. Eusebius the historian took the name Pamphili from Pamphilus, the martyr whom he especially venerated. Earlier still St. Cyprian chose to be called Cyprianus Caecilius out of gratitude to the Caecilius to whom he owed his conversion. Moreover St. Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 260) declared "I am of opinion that there were many of the same name as the Apostle John, who on account of their love for him, and because they admired and emulated him, and desired to be loved by the Lord as he was, took to themselves the same name, just as many of the children of the faithful are called Paul or Peter" (Eusebius, Church History VII.25). It would be only natural that the assumption, of any such new name should take place formally at baptism, in which the catechumen, then probably as now, had to be addressed by some distinctive appellation. On the other hand it seems likely that the imposition of a new name at baptism had become general. Every child had necessarily to receive some name or other, and when baptism followed soon after birth, this must have offered a very suitable opportunity for the public recognition of the choice made.
No doubt the thirtieth of the supposed Arabian Canons of Nicaea: "Of giving only names of Christians in baptism" is not authentic, even though it is of early date; but the sermons of St. John Chrysostom seem to assume in many different places that the conferring of a name, presumably at baptism, ought to be regulated by some idea of Christian edification, and he implies though this does not seem to be borne out by the evidence now available, that such had been the practice of earlier generations. For example he says: "When it comes to giving the infant a name, caring not to call it after the saints, as the ancients at first did, people light lamps and give them names and so name the child after the one which continues burning the longest, from thence conjecturing that he will live a long time" (Homily 12 on First Corinthians, no. 13). Similarly he commends the practice of the parents of Antioch in calling their children after the martyr Meletius (P.G., L, 515) and again he urges his hearers not to give their children the first name that occurs, nor to seek to gratify fathers or grandfathers or other family connections by giving their names, but rather to choose the names of holy men conspicuous for virtue and for their courage before God (P.G., LIII, 179).
History preserves sundry examples of such a change of name in adult converts. Socrates (Church History VII.21) tells us of Athenais who married the Emperor Theodosius the Younger, and who previously to marriage was baptized (A.D. 421) receiving the name Eudoxia. Again Bede tells us of the case of King Caedwalla who went to Rome and was baptized by the Pope Sergius who gave him the name of Peter. Dying soon afterwards he was buried in Rome and his epitaph beginning "Hic depositus est Caedwalla qui est Petrus" was long pointed out (Bede, "Hist. Eccl.", V, vii). Later we have the well-known instance of Guthrum the Danish leader in England who after his long contest with King Alfred was eventually defeated and consenting to accept Christianity was baptized in 878 by the Æthelstan.
But while various Fathers and spiritual writers, and here and there a synodal decree, have exhorted the faithful to give no names to their children in baptism but those of canonized saints or of the angels of God, it must be confessed that there has never been a time in the history of the Church when these injunctions have been at all strictly attended to.
They were certainly not heeded during the early or the later Middle Ages. Any one who glances even casually at an extensive list of medieval names, such as are perhaps best found in the indexes to the volumes of legal proceedings which have been edited in modern times, will at once perceive that while ordinary names without any very pronounced religious associations, such as William, Robert, Roger, Geoffrey, Hugh, etc. enormously preponderate (William about the year 1200 was by far the most common Christian name in England), there are also always a very considerable number of exceptional and out-of-the-way names which have apparently no religious associations at all. Such names, to take but a few specimens, as Ademar, Ailma, Ailward, Albreza, Alditha, Almaury, Ascelina, Avice, Aystorius (these come from the lists of those cured at the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury) are of quite frequent occurrence.
The point however cannot be dwelt on here. We may note on the other hand that a rubric in the official "Rituale Romanum" enjoins that the priest ought to see that unbecoming or ridiculous names of deities or of godless pagans are not given in baptism (curet ne obscoena, fabulosa aut ridicula vel inanium deorum vel impiorum ethnicorum hominum nomina imponantur). Some of the seventeeth century French rituals have gone further than this. For example that of Bourges (1666) addressing parents and godparents urges: "Let them give to boys the names of male saints and to girls those of women saints as right order requires, and let them avoid the names of festivals like Easter (Pâques), Christmas (Noël), All Saints (Toussaint) and others that are sometimes chosen." Despite such injunctions "Toussaint" has become a not uncommon French Christian name and "Noël" has spread even to England. The addition of Marie, especially in the form Jean-Marie, for boys, and of Joseph for girls is of everyday occurrence.
In Spain and Italy again, ardent devotion to our Blessed Lady has not remained content with the simple name Maria, but many of her festivals etc. have also created names for girls: Conceptión, of which the diminutive is Concha, is one of the best known, but we have also Asunción, Encarnación, Mercedes, Dolores etc. in Spanish, and in Italian Assunta, Annunziata, Concetta, etc. It is strange on the other hand that the name Mary has by no means always been a favourite for girls, possibly from a feeling that it was too august to be so familiarly employed. In England in the twelfth century Mary as a Christian name is of very rare occurrence. George again is a name which despite the recognition of the warrior saint as patron of England, was by no means common in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, though strangely enough it grew in popularity after the Reformation. A writer who has made a minute examination of the registers of Oxford University from 1560 to 1621, has made out the following list of the more common names borne by the students in order of popularity: John, 3826; Thomas 2777; William, 2546; Richard, 1691; Robert, 1222; Edward, 957; Henry, 908; George, 647; Francis, 447; James, 424; Nicholas, 326; Edmund, 298 (see Oxford Hist. Soc. Transactions, XIV). In Italy and Spain it has always been a tolerably common practice to call a child after the saint upon whose feast he is born.
The practice of adopting a new name was not limited to baptism. Many medieval examples show that any notable change of condition, especially in the spiritual order, was often accompanied by the reception of a new name. In the eighth century the two Englishmen, Winfrith and Willibald, going on different occasions to Rome received from the reigning pontiff, along with a new commission to preach, the names respectively of Boniface and Clement. So again Emma of Normandy, when she married King Ethelred in 1002, took the name Ælfgifu; while, of course, the reception of a new name upon entering a religious order is almost universal even in our day. It is not strange, then, that at confirmation, in which the interposition of a godfather emphasizes the resemblance with baptism, it should have become customary to take a new name, though usually no great use is made of it. In one case, however, that of Henry III, King of France who being the godson of our English Edward VI had been christened Edouard Alexandre in 1551 the same French prince at confirmation received the name of Henri, and by this he afterwards reigned. Even in England the practice of adopting a new name at confirmation was remembered after the Reformation, for Sir Edward Coke declares that a man might validly buy land by his confirmation name, and he recalls the case of a Sir Francis Gawdye, late Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, whose name of baptism was Thomas and his name of confirmation Francis (Co. Litt. 3a).
APA citation. (1911). Christian Names. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10673c.htm
MLA citation. "Christian Names." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10673c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas. Dedicated to Thresiamma Augustine.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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