9/29/08 - popular names

In today's excerpt - after the Black Death, the terrifying plague that killed one-third to one-half of all Europe's inhabitants from 1347 to 1349, there was a change in the names parents gave their children:

"The centrality of religion in medieval European life is impossible to overstate. ... If you want to pray, you go to your parish and submit to the direction of a priest. If you want to confess, you sit in the confessional and [tell] your sins to the man on the other side of the partition, who pronounces judgement and penance. ...

"Then along comes the Black Death, mowing down the sinful and the sinless indiscriminately. ... You can be healthy on Monday, infected on Tuesday and a corpse on Saturday, leaving precious little time to wipe the sin slate clean by confessing and repenting in preparation for your personal judgement day. The biggest hurdle of all may have been luring the priest, any priest, to [one's] deathbed of contagion in order to perform last rites, the final cleansing. If a cleric does show up, he might charge an outrageous price for mumbling a few prayers. Stories of deathbed fee-gougers also abound, adding to the popular perception that extravagance and greed motivate more often than not. ...

"Once the epidemic is over, the survivors increasingly turn away from organized religion. Instead, they put their faith in the saints, especially those associated with pain and suffering. One modern historian conducted a comparative study of the most popular names for boys in Florence following the Black Death, in part to determine its effect on religious practice. That effect appears to be, in a word, enormous. Virtually no Florentine born before 1350 was named 'Antonio' after Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of the oppressed, the elderly, the poor, and the starving. After 1427, the name ranked second. At number six, also unknown preceding the plague, is Bartolomeo—after one of the original twelve apostles; he was purportedly flayed alive and crucified by the Romans, surely qualifying him for the pain-and-suffering category. (Michelangelo's 'The Last Judgement' shows Bartholomew clutching his skin, the organ of the body that most visibly bears the signs of Black Death.)

"Also rising out of nowhere to the heights of post-plague fashion is Lorenzo. Here the inspiration is Lawrence of Rome, a third-century deacon who achieved martyrdom by being roasted on a gridiron. The sudden vogue for 'Christopher,' patron saint of pestilence needs no further explanation."


Susan Squire


I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage


Bloomsbury USA, New York


Copyright 2008 by Susan Squire


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