What’s in a name?

I need to know what my Elizabethan characters should call each other.

I feel pretty well-versed in Regency and Victorian name etiquette. For the most part, with Victorian forms of address, someone was Mr., Mrs., or Miss to the opposite sex unless the speaker was closely related or engaged to them. Men almost never used first names with one another (unless they were a “Sir,” and then it was “Sir John” or “Sir Walter”–isn’t that odd?). Mr. Smith and Mr. Wallace became Smith and Wallace if they were good friends. Female friends might “propose” to one another, declaring themselves close enough friends to use first (“Christian”) names. Otherwise they were Miss [Surname] or sometimes, in the case of younger sisters, Miss [First Name]. Male servants were often called by their last names, female servants by their first unless they were older or high up in the servant ranking. Sometimes the mistress of a house would “rename” a servant, so Augustine might be called James and Georgette could become Jane if it fit the mistress’s whim or sense of propriety (not wanting servants to get “above themselves”).

That’s not too hard, right?

The trouble I’m running into is figuring out Elizabethan name etiquette. I’m not interested in Elizabethan forms of address for courtiers at the moment–they’re a whole different matter. But when did your average, relatively well-to-do Elizabethan man or woman call people by their first names? I have an MA in this period of British history, and I’ve never come across an explanation of the social rules of Elizabethan names. I read a stack of “Life in Elizabethan England” type books, and none of them offer the details I’m looking for, so I turned to primary sources–poems and plays from Renaissance England–to see what I could glean.

Men and women were generally called “Master [Surname]” or “Mistress [Surname].” Sometimes a women might be called “Mistress [First name]”, maybe especially by men who were close to her or to her family. I’m still trying to work out the details of when that was acceptable.

Family members used first names with each other, though men often called their wives “wife,” “lady,” or (less kindly) “wench.” The wives commonly called their husbands “sir.” This is an interesting insight into how important ranking was to the Elizabethan mind–the husband was (in theory) firmly ensconced as the head of the house, the wife likewise just below him in her role as mistress of the house, overseeing servants and daily work. Rank and role were central to identity, maybe more so than given names.

Elizabethans usually used “Master” and “sir” (or “Mistress”) toward their social superiors who didn’t have formal titles, used surnames and occasionally first names with their friends and equals of the same sex, and used first names or even pet names when addressing servants. Servants, however, seemed to use first names among themselves, regardless of gender. Maybe because they shared a similar social sphere (though of course there were ranks even among servants).

Does this mean a man and woman who are courting might call each other by their first names? What if they’re lifelong friends of equal social standing? Does using first names imply betrothal as it did with Victorians? The courting couples in the contemporary Renaissance plays I’ve read so far don’t use names much when they speak to each other, and the women don’t do a lot of talking. In Thomas Seymour’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, a man and woman carrying on a illicit affair still call each other “Master X” and “Mistress Y”, but that might be a devise to remind the audience that their relationship is adulterous.

If I can’t find a better answer, I’ll err on the side of Victorian-like formality, but I’m a firm believer that these little details set the flavor of the story, and I want to get them right. If anyone out there knows the answer, I’d love to hear it, and if I find one myself, I’ll post an update.

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