Not in my name or theirs: in defence and celebration of the diversity of what I study

In my previous post, I attempted to underline that medieval studies nowadays finds itself in a position of having an unusually high level of political relevance. Not through any moves obviously engineered by academic medievalists, rather through the rise in Europe and the US of popular nationalist politicians and political parties/movements, and the gradual creep of elements of the ideology and vocabulary of the far-right into more mainstream political debates. Their obsessions with hot-button issues of national and ethnic identity, migration, and the relationship between Christianity/Christendom and Islam/the Ummah, are all topics within the purview of medieval studies. Indeed, certain members of the medievalist community must rank among those who most rigorously study and best understand such issues, but this does not mean their voices are the ones that are heard in public discourse. There will always be risks surrounding the use, misuse, or non-use of scholarly research by non-specialists, whatever their political persuasion and motive. In this current political climate, I think it’s contingent upon those of us who want to contribute to wider debates to not just be the authors of research outputs in the public domain, but as far as possible the authors of the destinies of the ideas they contain as well.

What I wish to do here is scale back from such grandiose hopes by setting out how I, a humble doctoral-level student, approach my chosen topic of study – one that, as I have said before, is not overtly political but has the potential to be drawn upon for inappropriate political ends. This exercise is not intended to create a manifesto or credo that restricts and prejudices how I conduct my research in the future. Nor is it to state that I do things in a particular way in order to obtain the results I want/need so as to justify or reinforce a pre-ordained way of seeing things. Rather, my aim is to convey that I study a complicated topic with multiple facets and as a result need to do so in a multi-modal way that is open to a plurality of factors and outcomes. Only time will tell if there are concrete answers to be found – right now I’m still formulating some of the research questions to ask of my evidence!

Going the extra mile to examine things from a range of perspectives rather than just one or two may not drastically change my ultimate conclusions, but it can add some important details and throw up some interesting new lines of inquiry. And if you accept the benefits of seeking to understand a diverse and transnational topic through careful, extended investigation, then maybe you will appreciate the benefits of a diverse society, and a world in which conformity, domination and the exclusion of others are not the ultimate goals.

When I’m rethinking -ingas*

I study group names and group identities in post-Roman Britain, primarily as evidenced through place-names, and with a particular focus on ones derived from -ingas because it’s the best represented of the Old English generic elements used to form group-names (see also -warefolcsǣta/sǣtan, -hǣme) and the toponyms have numerous analogues in early medieval literature (the general failure to consider the former in terms of the latter has been a major impediment to a better understanding of the significance of -ingas as a name-forming element). -ingas were sub-ethnic groups (for the most part anyway), i.e. they were below the level and did not possess some of the defining traits of ethnic groups – although it may not be accurate to talk of the existence of such things at all in Britain at this time – so I tend to give the term ethnonym a miss when describing them. (Note I do not use sub-ethnic as a pejorative in the manner in which the label “sub-Roman” has come to be read; rather it’s a borrowing from Fernández-Götz 2014, albeit I use it in a different capacity to indicate social groupings of smaller size and complexity than those – in a continental European Iron Age context – he terms ‘ethnic communities’.)

* That was meant to be a take on the George Formby song title. Doesn’t really work, does it?


Meet the -ingas? A double burial, probably made in the 7th century CE, recently excavated at Exning in Suffolk – interestingly a place with a purported link to East Anglian royalty of the same period. Photo via BBC; copyright would appear to rest with Archaeological Solutions.

From their earliest appearances in written sources, it is clear that -ingas had largely had their day as fully autonomous entities by the end of the 7th century CE, although the groups themselves may have continued to function in some reduced form for longer. While there is nothing that absolutely precludes later-recorded -ingas place-names from having been formed at a different time and in a different socio-political environment (and it is unquestionable that the element continued to be used in new name coinages right through to the 11th century, if not even later), the first recorded instances are best treated as stemming from a relatively early, pre-historical period of social complexity. From this arise all manner of why/when/how/where/what questions – if all goes to plan, the search for answers to these will keep me occupied for the next few years! For the time being, here are three facets of -ingas name formations that I feel I know enough about at this stage of my research to offer a few observations on how they should and should not be interpreted.

1. The first aspect of my research that I fear could be misappropriated concerns the geographical origins of the people behind the -ingas names. Traditionally (and arguably still to this day in many quarters) -ingas place-names have been approached in terms of models of Anglo-Saxon migration to post-Roman Britain. The social groups behind them have been interpreted as bands of trans-maritime settlers who brought their pre-existing shared identities with them from their continental homelands, either at the vanguard of the process in the 5th century CE or else as a secondary phase, attributed to the 6th century, in which newly-arrived people were compelled to “colonise” areas beyond the loci of initial immigration and settlement. However, it’s starting to become clear to me that many -ingas group identities were of insular, not continental, formation. The small number of -ingas place-names with what look more like Brittonic than Old English specifics are very hard to explain in any other way (Avening in Gloucestershire is an obvious example: (to) Æfeningum 896 [11th] < *Afeningas, ultimately Brittonic *abona, ‘river’ + OE -ingas). Likewise, the source of many others of wholly OE composition is perhaps better sought not in imported collective identities, but in the social and cultural flux within Britain in the post-Roman period – albeit not necessarily as early as the 5th century.

This may be born out by certain non-toponymic -ingas formations. The Oiscingas, the royal line of the kingdom of Kent recorded by Bede, based their name on that of Oisc (alias Oeric), an early member of the royal line. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (II.5) is, along with the Historia Brittonum (chapters 31, 44, 45) and various recensions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (annals for 449, 455, 456, 465, 473, 488), one of the three 8th- and 9th-century narrative works that provide the information on the origins of the Kentish kingdom and its royal line. What is clear from them is that all of Oisc’s achievements that are known to us (successes in battle, succession to the kingdom, 24-year reign) took place in Britain – the sole additional detail is Bede’s statement that Oisc was with his father Hengist on the journey across the sea to make landfall at Ypwinesfleot (see Brooks 1989, 58-64, for a benchmark analysis of these sources). As such, and provided the admittedly-limited historical testimony is representative the original body of stories about Oisc, it is perverse to think that the name Oiscingas was coined outside of Britain (I might add that the way in which Bede words his account does not give the impression that he made up the name for the purpose of his historical narrative).


“488. This year Esc [i.e. Oisc] succeeded to the kingdom, and was king of the Kentish people for 24 winters”. Annal from 12th-century C-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (BL Cotton Tiberius B I f. 118v)

But to see -ingas name formations as a distinctive “English” institution is to miss the point about them. Early authors, from J. M. Kemble onwards, went out of their way to make the link between English place-names that looked as if they might be based on -ingas in one of its inflections and continental cognates, whether toponymic or literary. Although it turned out many of the quoted names were of different derivation, there are many other examples that are indeed valid cognates, like Ekwall’s (1962, 39) pairing of Poynings in Sussex (Puningas 960) and Püning near Münster in Germany (Puningun 890; in this case both are based on a personal name *Pūn(a)). It could indeed be that these place-names represent the start and end points of a trans-maritime migratory journey, but they are also amenable to be understood as the products of very similar lexicons of personal-naming and social structures prevailing (synchronously or otherwise) in their respective locations. Either way, the names descend from the same Proto-Germanic root *ingoz, whence OE -ingas and its cognates. How these stems were used to form group-names did vary across the different language groups and proto-languages (as explored in this recent article), but the fundamental point arising is that Old English -ingas names mustn’t be seen in isolation – even if that makes my study of them a more difficult undertaking!


Did I ever mention how all the fuss made about Magna Carta back in 2015 did my head in? All that nonsense about Runnymede being the birthplace of democracy and (from what I can recall) fulsome demands that every US school should display a copy of the charter. Well, it’s great to find there are historians like Dr Reynolds who would prefer people were aware of the bigger picture – here’s a link to access the full article (which will cost ya, btw).

2. Geographically, my research will have a primarily English focus. This is inevitable, for several reasons – and no, a sense of patriotism is not one of them. It’s no accident that England happens to be largely coincident with the area in which Old English was spoken as a first language (not precisely coterminous of course, what with Cornish in Cornwall, Cumbric in Cumbria, and the regions that underwent Scandinavian settlement from the later 9th century), and this guides my hand to a considerable extent. Thus it is an inescapable fact that the vast majority of place-name formations in Old English -ingas are found in England. Moreover, virtually every name of this type is helpfully calendared and analysed in a single book of definite Anglocentric nature (despite being authored by a Swede); Eilert Ekwall’s 1962 second edition of English Place-Names in -ing. Alongside the name data, I’ll be looking at non-linguistic forms of evidence. To help in this, I’m fortunate (as are you, internet user!) to be able to draw upon various electronic databases that collate material of predominantly English provenance or subject: to name some notable examples, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds for “archaeological” material (albeit more often than not found outside of excavation or controlled field-walking), and The Electronic Sawyer and Open Domesday for historical sources.


Speaking of -ingas names and coins, here’s a pale gold Pada sceat of the period 665-80 CE found in the environs of Dorking in Surrey (in fact, from a site that might be the root of the place-name; I hope to be able to say more about this in the coming months). PAS Unique ID SUR-2CF753. Image used on a CC BY attribution licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme / The Trustees of the British Museum

But in Britain, the sorts of names I am studying are not just found in England. Thanks to Bede (V.12), one of the most historically-enlightening -ingas names of all is Incuneningum 731 [8th] < *Cuneningas, the part-Brittonic name of a district now known as Cunninghame in North Ayrshire on the west coast of Scotland (Ekwall 1962, 78-79). It appears in a vividly-told passage about a man who dies in his sleep only to come back to life filled with a new sense of religious fervour, that includes specific and so hugely valuable references to ‘the head of a family’ (pater familias), ‘his household’ ((cum) domu sua; this and the previous phrase potentially – but not unequivocally – describe the *Cuneningas), and ‘the village church’ ((aduillulae oratorium = a typical accoutrement of an -ingas-named place/territory?). Perhaps even more exciting are the early literary uses of a Primitive/Old Welsh -ing, a plural noun ending with the same general significance as OE -ingas, though often found used in a quasi-territorial sense of ‘(land of) the progeny of’. Dr Caitlin Green kindly drew my attention to a number of such references, and has indicated to me that she hopes to put together a future blog post to introduce these names and their sources. I’m very much looking forward to reading it!

What is more, -ingas was used in Old English literature to identify social groupings in some very exotic locations. Among the many group-names in the catalogue poem known as Widsith (note: the linked translation isn’t the best), for example, are those of the Amothingas (line 86), Exsyringas (line 82), and Sercingas (line 75). Joyce Hill, in her compilation Old English Minor Heroic Poems, identified these as pertaining respectively to the Ammonites or Amorites of the Bible, the Assyrians, and the Chinese or people(s) of the Far East in general (1994, 61, 66, 80). Gösta Langenfelt’s none-more-thorough 1920 monograph Toponymics adds some more -ingas name-formations created through Scriptural translations: Sodomingas and Gomorringas (i.e. the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah) from the later 10th-century “Northumbrian” gloss to the Book of Matthew in the Rushworth Gospels, and Moabitingas (Moabites) from the mid-11th-century Anglian Psalter (Langenfelt 1920, 58). In other words, -ingas was the perfect suffix to identify spatially and/or temporally distant groups of people (although they may have known nothing about it!), as well as ones much closer at hand.


The start of Widsith, preserved in the 10th-century Exeter Book. Look carefully and you might be able to pick out some names in -ingas (inflected in the dative plural form -ingum). Image from The Making of Medieval England: Text, Manuscript and Context – sounds like a great course!

3. Female personal names are conspicuously absent from -ingas formations, despite what is claimed for a small handful of -ingas place-names. Here I’m thinking primarily of the opinion (e.g. Ekwall 1962, 22) that Rickling in Essex incorporates the name of the late 6th-/early 7th-century East Saxon queen of Kentish royal birth, Ricola (no idea why PASE pegs her as male!). Formally, it is better understood to consist of a male personal name *Rīcel(a) + -ingas, because in this case the name-stem is a plural form of a singular -ing that had a meaning “son of”, as can be seen from its use in Old English royal genealogies of the 8th and 9th centuries (a topic I’ve had cause to blog about before). This is not to state categorically that toponymic -ingas formations communicate the patrilineal descent of the (lead) members of the eponymous group. While they may well have done so, at least initially, in many cases, -ingas names with topographical protothemes/specifics like the aforementioned Avening – along with closely-dateable, relatively early formations like Bealdhuninga[s], “the (monastic) community of Bealdhun”, referred to in 790 by Alcuin in his letter to Colcu (edited in Dümmler 1895, 32-33; translated in Whitelock 1979, 840-42) – show that it possessed a more general applicability to groups of people united by their identification with a named person or place.


If you were thinking you’d seen/heard the name Ricola somewhere before, let me help you…

While they may not have been remembered in -ingas names, it is clear that women could play prominent roles within the context of such groups. Nowhere is this made more obvious than in the actions one of the best-known female characters in the OE poetic canon: Wealhtheow from Beowulf. (NB. All translations in this paragraph are from Bradley’s popular compendium Anglo-Saxon Poetry.) Wealhtheow is characterised successively as þa ides Helminga, ‘the lady of the Helmings’ (her own royal house/people: line 620), and ða ides Scyldinga, ‘the lady of the Scyldings’ (the house of her husband Hrothgar/the Danes: line 1168). The ability of the episodes and characters in Beowulf to be read in a variety of ways is one of its simultaneous joys and frustrations (at least so far as being able to get a grasp of the mass of available scholarship) of the poem, but it is an undeniable fact that the poet did not make Wealhtheow an incidental figure.

Instead, she’s an overtly political actor; not merely a beag-hroden cwen, ‘ring-bejewelled queen’, but one recognised to be mode geþungen ‘distinguished for the quality of her mind’ (lines 623-24). As such, she has the agency to deliver two extended speeches in front of all those present in the restored hall of Heorot (lines 1168-86, 1216-31), and play the leading role in bestowing upon Beowulf an extraordinary array of gold items drawn from the þeod-gestreona, ‘communal hoard’ (line 1218). Among these was heals-beaga mæstþara þe ic on foldan gefrægen hæbbe, ‘the greatest torque of any I have heard tell of on earth’ (lines 1195-96) – analogous in form at least with the one gifted to Widsith by Ealhhild, possibly queen of the Myrgingas (Widsith, line 97; for the difficulties in ascertaining the identity of Ealhhild’s husband, see Hill 1994, 64-65).

In being the equals of their royal husbands or kingly counterparts in some important capacities, Wealhtheow and Ealhhild have parallels with 7th-century figures like Seaxburh (who ruled the West Saxon kingdom in her own right for at least a year) and Balthild (slave-turned-wife of Clovis II, sometime regent, and just possibly seal-ring owner). But what about female members of the -ingas groups that gave their names to places and territories? Is there evidence for these women possessing the same degree of authority and agency in sub-royal social echelons? Narrative sources are suggestive without being conclusive – hence Kenswith, St Cuthbert’s former nanny, is said to have lived in a settlement named Hruringaham (probably < *Hruringas + hām, ‘home(stead), village, estate’) yet she is not acknowledged as being the head of the community (Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, Chapter VII).


The gold seal matrix in the name of “Balthild” (the precise name-form is the Latinised BALDEHILDIS) in all its glory; one-time possession of a real-life ‘ring-bejewelled queen’? From the History@Manchester blog; copyright may rest there or with Norfolk Museums Service.

Charters are scarcely any less equivocal. Among the more likely to record a leading female member of an -ingas group is S 46 from the Selsey/Chichester archive, concerning 18 hides of land intended for the construction and sustenance of a monastery at Wystryng’ (a late medieval copyist’s error for a place-name equivalent to East and West Wittering in Sussex). It incorporates a note recording how the recipient of the original royal grant, Diozsa (characterised as uenerabili uiri, “venerable man”), gave the endowment to his unnamed (!) sister, apparently palming off the hard work of monastic foundation onto her – presumably on the promise that she would be its head at the end of the process. Beyond his “venerable” status, Diozsa is obscure, and his sister even more so, hence – tempting as such speculation might be – it is far from certain that they were members of the *Wihtheringas after which their landed endowment was named.

S65a and S65b, a pair of short royal diploma texts of the period circa 693 x 709 in the name of Swæfred, king of the East Saxons, granting a total of 40 hides to a woman named Fymme, allow us to start to move away from the historical towards the archaeological. The land grants seems to have been for the establishment of a monastery under her control named (in) Nasyngum (< OE *Næssingas), equivalent to modern-day Nazeing(bury) in Essex. Excavations there revealed an inhumation cemetery, made up of 86 female and 32 male graves, associated with two timber churches. It has been suggested that two burials within one of the churches represent those of Fymme and a prominent ‘colleague’, and that the site represents a female-led double monastic community, although others have questioned this interpretation (Huggins 1997, 111, vs. Blair 2005, 83 inc. footnote 22). Wherever her monastery and final resting-place were, there is once again no overriding reason to accept the notion that Fymme had a pre-existing connection to the area through being a scion of the *Næssingas.

The Nazeingbury burials would appear to narrowly post-date a phase of ostentatious female interments in the mid- to late-7th century, exemplified by the bed burials at Swallowcliffe Down, Trumpington and (perhaps most spectacular of all) Street House, although it’s a struggle to correlate any with an -ingas-derived place-name. So far as I can determine, this also applies to the much larger sample of such burials (including the above-mentioned trio) assembled and discussed by Helena Hamerow in a recent article. In her conclusions, she contemplates the reasons behind the trend, including the idea that women in the 7th century could have powerful non-monastic religious identities because they did not have to perform roles as war-leaders as men did. Perhaps more immediately relevant so far as -ingas names and identities goes is the following idea, borrowed from Matthew Innes’ primarily Carolingian-based research:

‘the transmission of family memory was largely the responsibility of women, making them central to the legitimation of family power. This, coupled with their child-bearing role, would have made women lynchpins of the dynastic structure of aristocratic families.’ (Hamerow 2016, 445-46). 

One of the working hypotheses of my PhD research is that the social groups recollected in -ingas place-names were local or supra-local elites, which can – with caution – be read as them possessing aristocratic status (hence the frequency of monasteries being founded at -ingas-named places, plus a bunch of other stuff I won’t go into here). I find the idea of women playing a pivotal role in the curation and perpetuation of family/dynasty identities exciting precisely because it is so far away from the male domination of the majority of toponymic -ingas name formations. Certainly, it’s one of the aspects of my research that I’m most curious to see develop and, with any luck, yield some real insights.


What I’ve tried to show above is the things I study – and to be honest the Middle Ages in general – are not simple. People are inherently complicated, groups of people even more so, and that’s before you throw an intervening period of a millennium-and-a-half into the mix. Consequently, no analysis of them can return conclusive results from minimal effort. I am as certain as I can be at this stage of my research that there is no single explanation of -ingas place-names and of the groups behind them. The next phases of my research will seek to establish in how many ways a given facet of the name formations or their geographical locations can be explained. Just because the majority of evidence points in one direction does not mean that the minority can be ignored as meaningless – on the contrary, it can help to finesse or even overhaul interpretations. Above all, however, I hope I’ve conveyed just how interesting -ingas name formations are, and the excitement I feel from working at the borders of language and archaeology.

REFERENCES (hyperlinked if available for free online)

Blair, J., The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Bradley, S. A. J., trans. and ed., Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: J. M. Dent, 1995)

Brooks, Nicholas, ‘The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent’ in Steven Bassett, ed., The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: Leicester University Press, 1989), 55-74

Dümmler, E., ed., Epistolae Karolini Aevi, 2, Monumenta Germaniae Historica Epistolae, 4 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1895)

Ekwall, Eilert, English Place-Names in -ing, second edition (Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1962)

Fernández-Götz, Manuel, Identity and Power: The Transformation of Iron Age Societies in Northeast Gaul, Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 21 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014)

Hamerow, Helena, ‘Furnished female burial in seventh-century England: gender and sacral authority in the Conversion Period’, Early Medieval Europe, 24 (4) (2016), 423-47

Hill, Joyce, ed., Old English Minor Historic Poems, revised edition, Durham Medieval Texts, 4 (Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1994)

Huggins, Peter, ‘Nazeingbury 20 years on, or “where did the royal ladies go?”‘, London Archaeologist, 8.4 (1997), 105-111

Langenfelt, Gösta, Toponymics, or derivations from local names in English: Studies in word formation and contributions to English lexicography (Uppsala: Appelbergs Boktryckeri Aktiebolag, 1920)

Whitelock, Dorothy, ed., English Historical Documents, Vol. 1 c.500-1042, second edition (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979)


About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Annals, Archaeology, Bede, Charters, Coins, Dating, History, Language, Latin, Literature, Old English, PhD, Place-Names, Politics, Twitter and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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