Friday, February 16, 2018

Oh, Those Names!

One of the more annoying habits of our ancestors, from the perspective of a historical novelist, is their lamentable lack of imagination when it came to naming their children. This complaint applies particularly, but of course not exclusively, to the Russian nobility and the Russian royal family between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This apparent lack of imagination had several causes. Russians celebrated name days rather than birthdays, but it was not uncommon to name a child after the saint on whose day he or she was born, so that the two coincided. The more days in the calendar associated with Johns, Marys, or Gregorys, the more children carried those names. Saints could also rise and fall in popularity, so one can trace the growing cult of SS Boris and Gleb, for example, by the increased prevalence of those names among the population.

Another issue was family commemoration: entire clans had series of children named Nikolai or Boris or Anna or whatever after parents and grandparents and other relatives. Some families even gave two brothers or sisters the same names, confusing the picture mightily and forcing everyone else to distinguish between Ivan Petrovich the Elder and Ivan Petrovich the Younger. But even beyond that, there seems to have been a strong preference for certain names in the sixteenth-century Russian aristocracy. Ivan, Vasily, Fyodor, Dmitry, and Yuri—all names favored by the royal family—were often encountered among noble boys, whereas a lot of girls went by Anna, Elena, Anastasia, or Maria.

All this creates difficulty for a novelist trying to maintain some historical veracity. I managed to juggle the issue all through the Legends novels by focusing as much as possible on my own invented characters, whom I did my best to ensure had not just unique names but one form of their unique names (another problem with Russian custom that I’ll discuss someday). For the most part that worked, despite the pair of Yuris (uncle and nephew), the double Sigismunds (father and son), and more Vasilys and Ivans than one could shake a proverbial stick at.

But midway through my current work in progress, Song of the Siren, I ran smack into a dilemma. Bad enough that in 1542, when that novel is set, the Poles, who were in dynastic alliance with the Lithuanians, had two kings/grand dukes simultaneously named Sigismund—called Sigismund the Old (father) and Sigismund Augustus (son) to keep them straight. The Russians did them one better: then in a kind of political meltdown, they had become enmeshed in a conflict that I could explain only by citing the rival claims of three princes named Ivan. You can imagine the conversation from a poor reader’s perspective: Prince Ivan is fighting Prince Ivan for control of Prince Ivan. Huh?

I wrote it out, complete with a slap from my Polish character about the Russians’ not knowing any other names, unconcerned by his own people doing the exact same thing. Nope. Didn’t work. By the end of the conversation even I was confused, and I know a fair bit about the history involved. The other writers in my critique group were scratching their heads, and I didn’t blame them. I needed another solution.

As I’ve said before, I’m a historian first and foremost; the novels are fun, and I love writing them, but even if I can’t claim perfect accuracy—not least because our forebears tended not to leave detailed records of what went on in their heads at any given moment, any more than we do—I have mostly avoided changing the names of people who once actually lived and walked the earth. I grumbled and groaned and tried different tactics, but in the end I realized I had no choice: two of the Ivans would have to receive different names.

And so it is. In the historical note, I explain who they really were. And in fact, given how little we know about any of these historical figures, in some ways I find it works better to change their names, because now they are “mine,” in a way they were not before, and I don’t need to worry about someone noting I have them strutting around in the palace in Moscow when they were really besieging Kazan or some such thing. They can do and say and be whatever the story requires, beyond the broad strokes of the conflict that forms the backdrop to the novel.

Still, I must admit that I have acquired a whole new appreciation of diverse naming practices. They make a novelist’s life so much easier....

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, The Kissing Custom (1895). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. What are the chances that every guy lounging at the table is named Ivan?

1 comment:

  1. Ah, yes, the family name. My son Brian always used to say that he wished I had named him Jack Jr. Flattering, but impractical. He named his son Brian Jr., and now every time "Brian" is mentioned in a conversation, the flow comes to a halt while we work out which Brian is being discussed. Communication must have been impossible in Imperial Russia!

    I have been reading your posts for some months now, since a third party mentioned your site, but our genres are so different that I haven't had anything to say before, but I just posted a major article about character development, and to my own surprise, naming was the largest section in it. Of course, I linked to this post, and if you'd care to see it, it's at

    Finally, the standard disclaimer when I mention my own site on someone else's blog: Feel free to delete this if you feel it inappropriate, with no hard feelings; it is never my intention to spam someone else's site.

    Read well, and write better!


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