The past couple of months have seen the relaunch of two important Anglo-Saxon websites (if that doesn’t read like a huge contradiction in terms), one to do with charters and the other place-names. In light of this I thought I’d put together a short overview to highlight the purposes, advantages and disadvantages of both sites.
ASChart dropped off the radar around the time I was writing my guide to charter-related websites, which was a shame as in my estimation it ranked as one of the best of its kind. Happily it’s now back in more or less the same form as first time around. In fact I’m not sure anything has been added to the reincarnated version; I can’t remember the heading “The late tenth and eleventh centuries” but it is of no practical value at present seeing as how there are no links to texts and other information below it. It’s the lack of any texts from the period circa 900-1066 that is the one major drawback of the site as it is currently constituted, and for these readers will need to continue to refer to The Electronic Sawyer or ascharters.net. On the other hand, the manner in which key generic sections of the charter texts are highlighted (and can be compared using the relevant subheadings on the Diplomatic Indices tab) can be of huge help to a barely-trained user like me. Hopefully in time the chronological scope of the site will be extended and it can really come into its own as an Anglo-Saxon charter reference point offering added value over and above equivalent sites.
The Key to English Place-Names has no such problems when it comes to competing with other websites with overlapping subject matter. Hosted by the Institute of Name Studies at Nottingham University, it is unique as a tool for place-name research. The idea is a simple one; a basic Geographical Information System allowing users to search the map of a chosen county populated with points representing major settlements that when clicked on bring up a box giving the probable meaning(s) and composition of the place-name. The main enhancement stemming from its recent revamp seems to have been the integration of a new base map. Unfortunately when you zoom in the dots marking the place-name rarely if ever seem to coincide with the settlement which now bears the name, as those local to south-west Surrey might be able to discern from the screenshot below.
This is one of a number of gripes I have with what I had hoped would be a much more useful and dynamic site than has turned out to be the case. Place-name studies has a default position of playing it safe (sometimes too safe) when it comes to suggesting etymologies. As well as being professionally justified, it can sometimes be advantageous to the lay researcher, such as with the options for the first portion of the name Peper Harow shown in the screenshot. However, clicking on the “Refs” button for this or any other Surrey entry reveals that the bibliography is limited to no more than four works: The Place-Names of Surrey, and the dictionaries compiled or edited by Eilert Ekwall, A D Mills and Victor Watts. In none of the entries I have viewed so far is any other work, philological or otherwise, cited. This is in spite of The Key being said to draw “on the work of the English Place-Name Society” which encompasses books other than its county series and its Journal (the 2010 volume of which included Keith Briggs’ ‘Harrow’ article that could and should be cited in relation to Peper Harow, for example). A much fuller bibliography, which in the first instance could be synthesised without too much trouble from the references given in Watts’ dictionary, would help those with more prior knowledge without confusing visitors coming to the site and the subject “cold”. The absence of the earliest form or forms of each place-name also denies users the interest of a historical sidelight on the matter. Instead the place-names and the languages from which they are formed exist out of time – no wonder the “Dark Ages” tag remains so hard to shake off!
The Key is thus adequate as a go-to for people starting out researching one or more major place-name, and the information it provides does at least come with the combined INS-EPNS academic hallmark. However, for those who are a little more aware of the canon of place-name research it does feel a lot like a missed opportunity to overcome the conservatism of the subject and really update the national picture to reflect the latest scholarship. Its one saving grace is that, as an electronic resource, The Key can be more easily updated than any printed dictionary, and just like ASChart it can only be hoped that the recent update is not the last.