Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Medieval Spanish Names I

A dismayed young Gonzalo is comforted by his mother, Sancha, in the upcoming trailer.
I recently had the first 50 pages of SNKL critiqued by someone who'd never seen it before and has no history with me. It didn't occur to me that I might get comments similar to ones I got very early on and on which I've been working and fixing and obsessing over ever since. It didn't happen much (which indicates I have indeed fixed previous problems, thank God!), but an amusing observation came through that touched on one of my earliest fears: "The father and son are named the same thing? Are we going to be able to tell them apart? You really should give them different names."

Two of the most important protagonists of SNKL are Gonzalo Gustioz and his son, Gonzalo González. Those are the names they either had in history or were chosen for them by the wise and gentle medieval jongleurs and historians. Faced with this identity crisis, I agonized over what to do. I was afraid the text would get confusing and off-putting.

In the end, I left the names as I found them and used convenient cues to make certain the reader knew which Gonzalo I was writing about: the father gets the title "Don," even though the son is also a knight, and the son often gets the descriptor "young" before his name. I also kept the nickname Gonzalico strictly for the son. It turned out that the father and son don't spend much time in the same scenes, so once I'd established point of view (because they're so strong, they pretty much call the shots in their respective chapters), I could drop the shorthand clues. For example, in Chapter VII, everyone knows I'm talking about Gonzalo the son, because the father is off on a journey he started in the last chapter.

I could always tell the difference between them, which seems to mean readers can, too. I never got a single complaint about the issue before this one.

It points out a challenge in writing historical fiction about medieval Spain: the lack of distinctive names. I think one reason the old texts always refer to the villain by the full name, Ruy Blásquez, is not only to establish psychic distance, but also because the listeners in the first audience would have appreciated knowing which Ruy the singer meant among all the Ruys in all the histories and among their acquaintances. Spanish parents in the tenth century displayed a lack of creativity in naming their children, giving rise to the use of patronymics, place names, and, one presumes, nicknames that haven't survived very often in the historical record. And more than one pulled-out hair among historical fiction authors. And possibly more than one opportunity for the same authors to take their own creative license.

To be continued with women's names...


  1. I faced the same issue with three Muhammads in a row; the grandfather, father and son, so just know the Moors weren't any more inventive than their Christian counterparts. I solved it by using titles, Muhammad I, II, III. When personalities are distinct enough, it should be easy to keep track. Just know I feel your pain.

    1. Thanks, Lisa! It helps to know it's not just me!