What’s in a name (2)

Looking at Asser’s Latin text  Vita Ælfredi regis, there are interesting points about the place names that he uses. Sometimes he quotes a  name ‘saxonice’, sometimes ‘latine’, sometimes ‘britannice’/Welsh, or one, two or all three of them in various permutations. So for Selwood Forest, as we’ve seen, he first refers to it by its Saxon name Seluudu,  then Latine autem sylva magna and Britannice Coit Maur. The British/Welsh form and the Latin have the same meaning – ‘great wood’, but the Saxon name is not (apparently) equivalent, since Selwood is supposed to derive from the word for ‘sallow’ or ‘willow’. It  seems rather strange that there should be an extensive forest which is predominantly sallow  (salix) – which usually grows near rivers and streams, but … So Asser, being a Welshman, simply translated the Welsh name into Latin but does not comment on the Saxon.

The river Wylye (Guilou) near Wilton, lined with pollarded willows

The river Wylye (Guilou) near Wilton, lined with pollarded willows

Anyway, it seems that there are only two Welsh names in the text which have no gloss or alternative. The meaning of one is clear: the river Guilou is the Wylye in Wiltshire, because ‘Wiltun’ is said to lie on its southern bank of the river which gave its name to both Wilton and Wiltshire.

The other example is arx Cynuit, where there is no clue as to where it is except that it was in ‘Domnania’ and from the context it was probably on the north coast of Devon/Somerset. Latin arx appears a number of times in Asser’s text and is usually translated as ‘stronghold’ or ‘fortress’. The Penguin edition of Keynes and Lapidge translates it as in front of the ‘stronghold at Cynuit [Countisbury]’ which is partly best guess (Countisbury) and partly a puzzle. ‘AT Cynuit? Cynuit seems to be somebody’s proper name, so ‘Cynuit’s stronghold’ seems to be the meaning.

Cynuit needs to be scrutinised more carefully. There are two possibilities, which may be the same one, but there’s still a bit of a mystery. Next time …



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