This is a slightly revised version of the paper I gave to the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland (SNSBI) online Spring conference in April 2021. The revisions mostly take the form of acknowledgements and discussion of points raised in post-paper questions. A bibliography has also been added. For something closer to the full conference paper experience, the following can be read alongside the version of my presentation slides (with copyrighted material removed) that are available to view on the SNSBI website.
I’ve never been to the South Oxfordshire village of Benson, otherwise Bensington (at least until fairly recent times). I’m not sure if I’ve even travelled through it. So how come I elected to give a conference paper all about its name? My interest in it stems from some research I did a year or two ago on a number of 7th- to 10th-century charter texts in the archive of Old Minster, Winchester, for the purposes of an as-yet unfinished article on an unrelated topic (about which a little more later). More specifically, it arose out of the realisation not all that long ago of a long hoped-for thing; the digitisation of the mid-12th-century (circa 1130-50) Codex Wintoniensis “Book of Winchester”, alias The St Swithun Cartulary, as part of the ‘Medieval England and France, 700-1200’ project, a Polonsky Foundation-funded joint endeavour between the British Library in London and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.
Unrestricted access to digitised medieval manuscripts online — even if it’s ultimately no substitute for being sat in front of the real deal — is a wonderful thing for researchers, including those interested in place-names. What is more, that feeling has been heightened by all of the restrictions necessitated by, and frustrations arising from, the COVID-19 pandemic. This paper, therefore, is as much about what research can be done via the internet in times of lockdown as it is about exploring the significance of the titular Old English (hereafter OE) place-name. And in lieu of the toponomastic presentation staple of photographs of road signs bearing place-names, I can give you medieval manuscripts containing early spellings of them.
Chronicles and charters: the sources of the early name data
Relatively speaking, Benson is well attested in Old English-period sources. For starters, it occurs in two annals that appear in multiple extant recensions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, first for the year 571, and second 777 — but really for 779.
Her Cuþwulf feaht wiþ Bretwalas æt Bedcan forda. 7 .iiii. tunas genom, Lygeanburg. 7 Ægelesburg. Benesingtun. 7 Egonesham.
‘Here Cuthwulf fought against the Britons at Bedcanford and took four settlements: Limbury and Aylesbury, Benson and Eynsham’ (Swanton 2000, 18)
777 for 779
Her Cynewulf 7 Offa gefuhton ymb Benesingtun 7 Offa nam þone tuun.
‘Here Cynewulf and Offa fought around Benson, and Offa took the settlement.’ (Swanton 2000, 50)
Two notes of caution should be sounded about 571 annal. First, 571 is perhaps just beyond the event horizon when we can be certain an event said to have taken place in a given year did indeed occur in that year or very soon before/after — historical chronology becomes more and more loose the further back you go in the 6th century (see for instance Yorke 1993).
Second, Bænsingtun of the A recension appears to be written over an erasure, and for this reason — as well as on the basis of the spelling Benningtun found in an early 11th-century copy, MS G — it has been suggested to be non-original (e.g. Insley 2013, 227). But the annal for 779 from the same recension plus pretty much all other manuscripts provide the spelling Benesingtun. They also give the impression that this was a tūn that was fought over and captured, presumably denoting it as a place of military and political significance at the highest, i.e. royal, level.
777 for 779
The place-name Benson appears in a number of charter texts (none of which survives in the original, all being substantially later cartulary copies) and this is where the focus of this paper will lie, for reasons that will become clear before too long. Working backwards in time, the first instance is Sawyer (S) 887, which dates from 998 and makes a rather oblique reference to Benson in the context of locating a modest two-hide landholding in Bynsingtun land, perhaps within the orbit of the royal vill without being at all close to it. In the words of Susan Kelly;
‘The two hides […] need not have been located within the present parish of Benson, but could have been carved from any property, close or distant, formerly dependent on the royal vill.’ (Kelly 2001, 496)
We know Benson was a royal vill or centre thanks to Domesday Book but also through a charter text of the 880s, S 217, in which it is cited twice as the place from where six “serfs” (certainly men of above out-and-out enslaved status) resided before being granted to Pyrton, also in Oxfordshire;
sex homines qui prius pertinebant ad villam regiam in Beonsincgtune
“…six men who previously belonged to the royal vill at Benson”
Previous toponomastic assessments of Benson
It is apparent even from this quick run-through that there are a range of vowels and diphthongs present in these name spellings which would be worthy of closer attention — but not today! Here I am content to follow all previous published etymological analyses by place-name scholars, that have been satisfied they do not signify multiple places, but instead all pertain to Benson.
Moreover, the majority of published etymological assessments of the name treat it as an example of the Old English -ingtūn type. Currently† this two-part OE place-name ending is understood to signify some form of association between the tūn and the named individual — in this case *Benesa, an -isa-suffix, i-mutated variant of a byname *Bana meaning ‘killer, slayer, murderer’ (Insley 2013, 227). Chill.
† Though perhaps not optimally; this is a statement that will make a lot more sense to people who were present for and remember what I suggested in my SNSBI Spring Conference 2019 paper — which is another case in point of a well-received conference presentation that has languished unseen ever since.
A pyramid of contrasting etymologies of Benson
“Benesa’s farm” (Gelling 1953, 116)
‘The tūn of the Benesingas’ (Ekwall 1960, 37)
“The estate associated with a man called *Benesa” (Mills 2011, 53)
As far as I can establish, to date there’s been one significant dissenting voice to this line of interpretation: Eilert Ekwall, who took Benson to be an -ingatūn formation with a plural, not singular, medial element, and an overall meaning of ‘The tūn of the Benesingas‘ (1960, 37). This was typical of his understanding of -ington names, and in the case of Benson grist to his mill was provided by this early name spelling not admitted by Gelling nor by Watts for Benson; Banesinga uilla, from a charter text, S 93, stated to date from the year 739. The entire charter text is a right old mish-mash that can’t be accepted as being that old in its received form, but Susan Kelly and others have detected credibly earlier 8th-century elements — including where the place-name occurs, highly irregularly as part of the subscription of Bishop Forthhere of Sherborne (Kelly 2000, 25). What’s up with that then?
Arguments in favour of the incorporation of bits taken from one or more document of the 730s tend to be based on the names of the four bishops who appear in the witness list to S 93. Perhaps a bit more speculatively, there’s also an argument to be advanced based on Banesinga uilla being a bilingual composite, with an OE specific and Latin generic. In this regard it bears comparison with the renderings of place-names provided by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum and in other 8th-century sources. Consider here the following two forms of Malmesbury: the earlier, from the so-called Moore Bede, a combo of Old Irish personal name Maildub with an inflected form of the Latin urbs; the latter, from a considerably later manuscript of the late 9th-century Old English Bede, with the expected OE burh in its place.
So, Banesinga uilla seems to check out as a genuine earlier 8th-century reference to a place with a name that looks an awful lot like Benson, although of course it’s not as simple as that — and not just because there’s no shortage of later examples as well (e.g. S 464, an original single-sheet diploma of 940). I will return to address the key stumbling blocks later in this paper.
Early Benson: archaeology bearing out the historical sources?
Two points can be made at this juncture. First, for better or worse, no previous published onomastic account of the place-name Benson has acknowledged and appraised the full range of available OE-period name spellings. Second, the early textual sources demonstrate Benson was an important elite — indeed at least for periods royal — centre; a place that was occasionally fought over; and one at which elite men gathered for the purpose of witnessing charters and/or other reasons. This may have held true as early as the late 6th century, but we are on considerably firmer ground when stating this was the case by the late 8th century.
There could be some archaeological substantiation for the historical testimony, if a recent reinterpretation by Adam McBride of the results of a 1999 excavation in the heart of the historic village is accepted, and some of the rectilinear and pit features uncovered do indeed represent portions of a ‘great hall’, typical of 6th—7th-century elite sites. They are associated with a radiocarbon date of 545–659 cal AD obtained from a nearby and very possibly contemporaneous feature (McBride 2016).
And, as if that wasn’t exciting enough, there may just be a “new” earlier attestation of Benson to enter into the equation and help tie things together even more.
The promulgation place of Sawyer 235
The place-name attestation in question is to be found in S 235, a charter that on the face of it concerns what was (or would later became) part of Surrey, not Oxfordshire: a grant of 60 hides of land by King Caedwalla of Wessex to support a new monastic foundation at Farnham — hence my original interest in it. What is of most interest here is the clause identifying the place where the charter was promulgated (i.e. declaration and witnessing); “Done in the place whose name is Be singa hearh”.
This name has no certain cognate in surviving or later-recorded English toponymy but has attracted a number of suggestions over the years. There may have been suggestions made before this by Ekwall but it sets the tone for the prevailing orthodoxy (if there can be said to be one);
‘I have suggested that the place [Basingstoke] is referred to as Besinga hearh in 688’
‘An etymological connection with Basing and Basingstoke is probable. Supposing Besinga- to be a scribal error for or a legitimate phonetic variant of Basinga-, the name would mean “the heathen temple (OE hearg) of the people of Basing”.’
‘Basingstoke has as a second component OE stoc “place”, probably also more pregnantly “monastery” and “meeting-place”.’ (Ekwall 1962, 13)
Ekwall’s ‘etymological connection with Basing and Basingstoke’, names amply attested in the OE period to give great certainty that they derive from OE Basingas < OE personal name Basa, was given a whole different complexion by the excavation in the late 20th century of a 6th—7th-century high status settlement at a site named Cowdery’s Down in between Old Basing and Basingstoke, but much closer to the former (Millett and James 1983). Actually, it’s only been in recent years that the link has been made with Be singa hearh. Perhaps the most enthusiastic proponent is John Blair, who has painted vivid pictures of the “cultural collision” between paganism and Christianity at the site — as well as making a fair attempt at explaining the occurrence of e rather than a as the first vowel.
‘The plausible identification of the Cowdery’s Down hall complex with the cult site of Besingahearh, where Caedwalla of the Gewisse held an assembly in 688, raises the startling possibility of overlap between pagan and Christian ritual.’ (Blair 2018, 136)
‘The spelling Besing- rather than Basing- introduces a potential difficulty, but not a serious one given that this text survives only in a late transcript.’ (Blair 2018, 126 footnote 97)
The equation was also accepted by the late Richard Sharpe in an essay that may or may not be available in print but most definitely is available to read online, which is significant because in it he offers the most in-depth examination of the reign of Caedwalla that I’ve come across. It reconstructs a chronology and in effect an itinerary of the movements of Caedwalla and the saintly bishop Wilfrid in the years 682—89, with the ‘ceremony held at Besingahearh’ tentatively attributed to May 688 (Sharpe 2020, 22).
If the promulgation place is taken as Cowdery’s Down/Old Basing/Basingstoke, this means archaeology has influenced historical interpretation more than the relevant place-name evidence, which isn’t the optimal way of going about such things (and I say this as a curatorial archaeologist by trade!)
What’s the big deal?
Why am I making such a fuss about this when the name spelling can be reconciled with both extant place-names and archaeology simply by positing a transcription error? Because of the way the name is written; there’s a gap beween the e and the s that by rights shouldn’t be there.
A quick look at the other compound place-names present in the charter text — Farnham, Binton, and Cusanweoh — is instructive (perhaps a little more so than I realised when I presented this paper);
It can be argued that all three are not single strings of letters. This is most manifest in the case of Cusan weoh, but also looks to be true for in Bintungom and possibly Fern ham. In each case, the gaps accord with its most predictable location: between the specific and generic for Farnham and Cusanweoh, and between preposition and name for Binton (the last representing a group-cum-place-name *Bintingas). This is not the case for Be singa hearh; if, as John Insley has posited, the first element of ‘Besinga’ is the masculine personal name *Besa (Insley 1999, 192), then a division *Bes inga hearh would be more likely.
Another alternative is to treat the first two letters as the OE preposition be ‘by/near to/at/in’. This was the focus of discussion after I gave my paper; I hadn’t adequately explored this possibility and Dr Ellie Rye was first off the mark to point this out, soon followed by no less than Dr Alexander Rumble. The idea that a scribe in mid-12th-century Winchester, faced with an unfamiliar place-name in the exemplar text they were transcribing into the Codex Wintoniensis, made a logical but incorrect deduction that the first two letters were a preposition rather than part of the toponym is a perfectly credible one. It’s almost certainly not capable of proof, although greater knowledge of Early Middle English as it existed and is attested at Winchester in the middle of the 12th century could go a long way to obtaining greater clarity on the point. Dr Rumble’s PhD thesis on the Codex Wintoniensis seems now like the obvious place to start in order to find out more!
For now, I highlight two difficulties with the “prepositional proposition”. Firstly it entails *Singas being seen as a credible group-name, which is an incredibly hard-sell because the first part of it would be so incredibly short (a monothematic Sige at a push? Note the hard to explain on Lingahæse from S 132 of ?795 > Hayes in what’s now West London). Second, hearh has the wrong inflectional ending given the be proposition — it should be dative singular hearge. In other words, the scribe would had to have known the significance carried by the letters be but not what this meant for the ending of the name, nor the knock-on effect upon the coherence of the remainder of the place-name in between. Nothing terminal to the idea but some pretty potent criticisms of it, I would advance. Hmmm.
Speculations about the textual history of Sawyer 235
In view of this impasse, should we perhaps look at Be singa hearh from a different perspective, that of it being an incomplete OE place-name spelling? And, to bring the topic of conversation back around to Benson, could it stand for an original *Benesinga hearh?Obviously having got this far I’m going to make a case in favour of just such a possibility, and I will start with previous scholarly assessments of the source text.
Dorothy Whitelock perceived the aberrant spellings of a number of personal names in the witness list of S 235 as evidence of the following;
‘The scribe, who misread a miniscule open a as u, must have had an eighth- or early-ninth-century exemplar before him’ (Whitelock 1955, 484)
This does seem to square with individuals attested elsewhere or names with attested parallels (Edwards 1988, 133). This dating, it must be remembered, is later than the date of Caedwalla’s reign and grant, implying an intermediate copy between the original diploma and the extant text.
This palaeographical supposition about three successive versions of the text of S 235 can be duplicated to a degree in musing on the condition of the document/s the scribe/s had as exemplars. Could damage have caused two letters to be lost or made illegible? Charters from early medieval England survive in the original as far back as so-called S 8, of 679. Look at all that lovely, still-legible uninterrupted uncial script…
…and now look at the absolute state of this bit of S 1171, an 8th-century single-sheet copy of a diploma in favour of the monastery at Barking originally drawn up at pretty much the same time as S 235. There are whole words that have been lost by the looks of it.
Of course, the damage as we see it today is the product of some 1300 years of wear and tear, whereas the timeframe involved in making part of *Benesinga illegible would be much less than half that. But, by way of a slightly better analogy is this snippet from S 1246, another charter from the Barking Abbey archive. It’s a text that doesn’t stand a chance of being as old as it claims to be but nonetheless is based on 7th-century sources, and had been damaged to a degree by the 16th century that the name of a female benefactor’s husband was no longer legible for its antiquarian transcriber;
Septima supra uicum . Lundoniae . data a Quoenguyda uxore . […]aldi . x . manentium .
‘Seventh, ten hides above Lundenwic given by Cwengyth wife of […]ald’
I don’t dispute that this is a rather esoteric way of explaining the mid-12th-century manuscript name spelling be singa hearh, but it is one demonstrably within the bounds of possibility. Accepting it as at least a possibility leads immediately to the challenges of finding explanations for two aspects of the reconstructed place-name relative to Benson.
Challenge 1: changes in generic element
The first issue to grapple with is seeking to account for the change of generic element, from OE hearh to tūn, via Latin villa. Insightful studies of variations in the composition of OE place-names over time have been produced (Ekwall’s 1962-published study was quoted earlier; see also Carroll 2012) but here we can also call upon treatments of the three nouns in question.
We’ll start with Keith Briggs’ excellent 2010 study of ‘Harrow’ names, which demonstrates among other things how long-standing readings of OE hearg as having predominantly religious connotations are not very compatible with its occurrences in OE—Latin glosses. OE hearg is found as gloss for Latin Lupercal, sacellum, simulacrum, lucus, fanum, Capitolium — but not villa (Briggs 2010, 51–52). Though we would do well to remember there may not have been sharp separation of secular and religious activities, especially in the period before the Christian conversion instigated by the papal mission led by Augustine of 597 onwards, the glosses point to connotations of military/political centrality. Hence Briggs argued;
‘Gumeningahergae [Harrow on the Hill] and Besinga hearh would make good sense as the capitol, headquarters or citadel of the respective tribes’ (Briggs 2010, 53)
That tūn was also used of “central places” in this period was argued for by James Campbell with reference to the Latin and OE versions of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, and Benson even gets a run-out as an example:
‘The OE translation of Bede rightly draws no distinction between his villa and vicus; both are usually translated tun’ (Campbell 1979, 48)
‘Bensington was a place which later had four and a half hundreds associated with it’
‘It is […] likely that, from an early date, one of the meanings of tun was “royal vill” […] Such an early meaning for tun would help explain the much later translation of tun by pagus, if the term were extended from a royal vill to the area dependent on it’ (Campbell 1979, 50)
I’ll spare you a Venn diagram to illustrate the point, but there is good reason to believe there was semantic overlap between the three terms, although this is not to deny that the change from hearg to tūn could have been one that carried considerable implications.
Challenge 2: plural -inga to singular -ing
The sense of a profound change having occurred, one reflected in the place-name spellings, is heightened by consideration of the other fundamental issue at hand; how the medial element could have gone from OE genitive plural -inga to singular -ing. The simplest explanation — that -inga is nothing more than a scribal error — was given an imaginative twist by Margaret Gelling in a 1980 review of Walter Piroth’s ill-starred book on -ingas and -inga names. She claimed the following;
‘Dr Piroth follows Ekwall in citing as the earliest spelling Banesinga villa c. 730; but this is from a forged charter […] and it is doubtful whether it has any validity.
‘Probably the post-Conquest forger added -a in Banesinga because he felt this made an elegant Latinisation.
‘Other spellings […] demonstrate that the name is an -ingtūn formation.’ (Gelling 1980, 84)
Stylistically elegant it may be, yet there’s no obvious reason why such an embellishment should have been made here but nowhere else in the charter text when there were potential opportunities to do so. Thus, Banesinga uilla may in fact have a lot more validity than was admitted by Gelling, who, it should be noted, did not dismiss that it pertained to Benson.
How to build upon all of this and bridge the gap between *Benesinga hearh and Benesingtun? The documentary evidence shows Benson was a place of enduring importance. As such, it is easy to imagine that its “history” was both richer and more widely-known than most other, lesser places. The *Benesingas disappear from view after the 730s, and may have ceased to exist long before. One possible interpretation, previously put forward by John Insley (1999, 192), is that it was a Kultverband, a ‘cultic group’ led by a pagan priest, which perhaps ceased to operate in the wake of an episcopal seat being established just down the road from Benson at Dorchester on Thames in 635.
*Benesa may have been the subject of the cult or a founder-priest. More to the point, he could well have been a figure indelibly connected to the Benson area. Thus, his name and legend persisted long after the demise of the *Benesingas, and consequently was apt to be commemorated in the new name of the royal centre. The recorded capture of Benson by King Offa of Mercian in the late 770s may be crucial here. I argued in my 2019 SNSBI Spring Conference paper (and in my guest post for Onomastics.co.uk long before it) that -ingtūn may be a Mercian place-naming innovation of the mid- to late 8th century. If so, in the case of Benesingtūn it would seem to have been used in an “historicising” fashion, to evoke a traditional rather than current association with *Benesa; not so much ‘tūn called after *Benesa’ as perhaps “tūn at the place (traditionally) associated with *Benesa”?
I’m the first to admit more work is needed here, but it’s more or less beyond question that Benson was a significant centre well before the time when -ingtūn place-names are first attested, pointing to it having had an earlier appellation. (A number of the conference papers presented the day before mine had resonance regarding this whole issue, which was a great reminder of the unexpected benefits that derive from attending conferences like SNSBI’s.)
Concluding thoughts: bets hedged!
Benson was a major centre of strategic and political importance in the early middle ages, possibly as early as the 6th century and more certainly by the early 8th century. It was also a meeting-place at which prominent people gathered. However, its most frequently recorded name, Benesingtūn, is not consistent with this early history. These things are clear.
The rehabilitation of the apparently-earlier form Banesinga uilla by charter scholars (along with the weakness of arguments against its etymological validity) opens up new possibilities for understanding the name and the place. Bringing the name spelling Be singa hearh into the frame as the earliest credible attestation of Benson has not been done before but can be justified on several counts:
- It is not the expected way for an OE compound place-name to be written in either the late 7th or mid-12th centuries, but morphologically and grammatically defies straightforward and convincing explanation.
- It is found in a charter text that bears tell-tale signs of an intermediate copy and hence a complex transmission history which could quite conceivably have involved an earlier version becoming damaged and partly-illegible.
- And it would befit the bellicose nature of Caedwalla and the tumultuous nature of his short reign to have convened such an important assembly in a place that repeatedly found itself on the frontier between warring peoples and polities.
- Certainly, identifying Benson as *Benesingahearh would fit with what is understood about the political context of 688 at least as well as most people’s current preferred option, Basing/Cowdery’s Down.
Additionally, what I hope this paper has shown is that it is easier than ever to refer to the manuscripts from which onomasts take so many early attested forms, even during the pandemic, and how paying very close attention to the way in which early name attestations are written can inspire new lines of thinking.
In his comments following the end of my presentation, Dr Rumble was kind enough to say that he agreed the idea of S 235 having been promulgated at Benson must be considered a real possibility alongside the other options. And, given the uncertainties of the evidence at hand, that was about the best outcome I could have hoped for from this bit of research!
Postscript: A point which occurred to me subsequent to giving the paper (inspired in part by my work on the names Basinghall/Bassishaw in the City of London) is that Basing and Basingstoke appear ?universally with Ba- spellings (Watts 2004, 41), just as the early name spellings of Benson all begin Be- with the exception of Banesinga uilla and the much later, evidently analogical Basingtun’ 1217 and Basington’ 1237 (Gelling 1953, 116). Unfortunately, therefore, the first vowel of Be singa hearh cannot be cited as probative of the name referring to a place away from the Basing/Basingstoke area.
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