Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Thoughts of an Indexer: I name this cow....

Our Marc Fitch project archivist, Helen Watt, reflects on some of the common (and unusual names) given to our bovine friends...)

As a recent authority states, we have been naming animals for thousands of years; not only did the ancient Egyptians give names to animals, but also the ancient Greeks, for example, Alexander the Great called his horse, Bucephalas (‘ox-head’)1. Apart from horses, other types of animal, particularly farm animals, may be given names for many reasons, predominantly because the animals are seen as individuals and are treated as such among the herd or flock, long before the days of factory farming with large herds and uniform breeds. Otherwise, they might be named according to any distinctive markings or characteristics, apparent to their handlers in everyday work.

Sources for names of animals are often provided by wills and when Canon J. S. Purvis, first Director of the Borthwick, compiled his Classified Subject Index for material held there, he included a section for Agriculture covering names of horses, cows and oxen. Examples for these were taken from various series of York Province ecclesiastical documents such as Probate Registers, Dean and Chapter Probate Registers and the Cause Papers. Only a few references to named animals in one of the registers of the Archbishops of York, Register 28 of Archbishop Lee (1531-1544), are given. However, it is now possible to add many more such references from other registers, thanks to the University of York’s project funded by the Marc Fitch Fund, developing the earlier Archbishops’ Registers Revealed Project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The results of this project are now available on line via and provide an index to all the entries in Registers 31 and 32, covering the period 1576 to 1650. In the process of adding keywords to entries for the many wills of clergymen found within, several legacies of horses and farm animals, especially cows, including those mentioned by name have been identified.

'a cowe called nightegale'
Apart from flower and bird names, such as ‘Primrose’, ‘Marigold’, ‘Nightingale’ (1581, Reg. 31, fol. 94r) and ‘Daisy’ (‘Daze’, 1625, Reg. 31, fol. 249r), names given to cows show many of the characteristics identified by scholars such as Leibring and also Keith Thomas and George Redmonds, particularly with reference to Yorkshire names and including some of those listed by Canon Purvis 2. For instance, ‘praise’ names, such as ‘Lucky’ (1632, Reg. 32, fol. 29r), or names celebrating the animals’ nature, such as ‘Stately’ (1599, Reg. 31, fol. 139r). Others might denote the animal’s physical markings or makeup, such as cows called ‘Brownie’ (1577, Reg. 31, 80v), ‘Great Brownie’ and ‘Young Brownie’ (1588, Reg. 31, fol. 106v), also ‘Great Allblack’ (1609, Reg. 31, fol. 158v).

Other names may seem to be harder to classify, including such names of heifers as ‘Jeliver’ (1594, Reg. 31, fol. 132r), ‘Tymlye’ (1629, Reg. 32, 96v), ‘Flowrell’ (1584, Reg. 31, fol. 97r) or ‘Sternill’ (1625, Reg. 31, fol. 249r). However, some of these appear to be favourites, handed down over the years. For instance, ‘Tymmyll’, perhaps a variant of ‘Tymlye’, occurs nearly a hundred years earlier (1546, Probate Register 13, fol. 171), as does ‘Starneld’, perhaps a variant of ‘Sternill’ (1565, Reg. 30, fol. 24r). One name which seems to have persisted in some form in the York Probate Registers between at least the 15th and 16th centuries is ‘Motherlike’ (‘Moderlybe’, 1441, Probate Register 2, fol. 25; ‘Motherlicke’, 1585, Probate Register 23, fol. 186), which may be of particular interest as it has been compared with similar types of cattle names from Scandinavia, perhaps suggesting an earlier origin, who knows, possibly even from Viking times 3.

This phenomenon is not restricted to Yorkshire, but is found in other areas of the country; evidence from Essex wills also shows the same kind of naming practices, with  cows called ‘Gentle’ and ‘Brown Snout’ and even ‘one black cow called Tytt’ 4. Back in Yorkshire, if I had to choose one of these kinds of name, my favourite of all – for a cow difficult to milk, maybe –  is Shorte Papps (1588, Reg. 31, fol. 106v)!

'A cow called shorte papps'
1. Katharina Leibring, ‘Animal Names’, in Carole Hough (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming (Oxford, 2016), Part VII, section 43, 615-627.
2. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World (London, 1983), pp. 93-6; George Redmonds, Names and History: People, Places and Things (London, 2004), p.148.
3. Katharina Leibring, ‘Animal Names’, in Carole Hough (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming (Oxford, 2016), Part VII, section, Names in Europe’s Traditional Agricultural Societies.
4. F. G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Home, Work and Land, Essex Record Office Publication No. 69 (Chelmsford, 1991), p. 52.