France is another nation whose history is très intéressant. There is evidence of Homo sapiens in present-day France dating back to prehistoric times about 40,000 years B.C. By 6,000 B.C. there were agricultural communities sprinkled throughout the region. Then, around 1,000 B.C. the Celts moved in – arriving from central Europe east of the Rhine and peacefully co-existed with the early farmers. Eventually the region of France as well as modern-day Belgium and Switzerland would be known as Gaul (or Gallia in Latin); the name given to them by the Greeks and Romans as derived from one of the Celtic sub-tribes that came to dominate the territory. Julius Caesar was made famous for conquering the Gauls/Celts at the culmination of the Gallic Wars in 51 B.C. and although the language used was still Celtic (related to Gaelic and Welsh), the whole of Gallia came under Roman control and authority and Latin infiltrated their language. Romans occupied the area, brought their own government and administrators, constructed buildings and public amphitheatres, taxed the people, and generally went about “Romanizing” early France.
This new province of Rome called Gallia was still vulnerable to “barbaric” invasions from the east for centuries. One such Germanic tribe known as the “Franks” became successful under the leadership of Clovis I, who united the Franks and defeated the Romans near the end of the 5th century (at this point the Roman Empire was in full collapse). The western part of Gaul became “Francia” or, Country of the Franks. Roman Catholicism remained. The language evolved into French, a form of Latin which developed through years of dialects. The Scandinavian Vikings moved into the northern part of France around the ninth century, made peace with the Franks and eventually were given a large portion of land known as Normandy (these Vikings were called Normans or “northmen, Norsemen”).
From this history we can understand all of the various linguistic influences on the evolution of names. In antiquity and early Middle Ages, names were derived from the Celts, Frankish, Scandinavian and other Germanic tribes, Latin under Roman occupation and finally progressed into the modern French (Latin-based) language. Medieval France was ravaged by the Black Death, The Hundred Year’s War (territory fights with England) and outbreaks of the bubonic plague. Times were precarious, and children were named after important religious figures and early admired saints as a protective measure. Names came from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints. Cateline (Catherine); Marie (Mary); Élisabeth (Elizabeth); Françoise (Frances); Jeanne (Joan); and Agnès were common for girls. Jacques (James); Jean (John); Pierre (Peter); and Jean-Baptiste (John the Baptist) were typical for males. Still prevalent were names of Germanic origin such as Gautier (Walter); Guillaume (William) and Hugues (Hugh). There were also Provençal names like Aliénor (Eleanor). Names of popular monarchs and royalty impacted name trends: Louis, Charles, Philippe, Henri. Or Queen consorts Emma of Normandy, Aliénor of Aquitaine, Queen Anne, and Catherine de’ Medici. Nicknames such as Blanche (“white, fair”) or Estelle (“star”) were also used.
One distinguishing feature of French naming practices includes an 1803 law which officially and legally restricted parent’s name choices to Catholic saints, illustrious French figures from the past and/or people of historical importance from the Classical Era. Xenophobic much? In the mid-20th century a new law allowed the limited inclusion of new names: mythological, diminutives, regional, alternative spellings and some foreign names. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that French parents were given the freedom to name their children without constraint – although the birth registrar still records all names and officials are permitted to intercede if they decide a chosen name might unduly create a detrimental situation for the child by exposing him/her to mockery and social stigmas. More countries than you might think have the authority to stop a bad name in the making. Imagine if that were the case in America?
In modern France names have ditched their once “saintly” origins and now follow trends typical throughout the western world. Most popular male names in France today are: Nathan, Lucas, Jules, Enzo, Gabriel, Louis, Arthur, Raphaël, Mathis and Ethan. For girls, they are: Emma, Jade, Zoé, Chloé, Léa, Manon, Inès, Maëlys, Louise and Lilou.