Page 2, 23rd February 1945

23rd February 1945
Page 2
Page 2, 23rd February 1945 — I THE NAME COVENTRY From Professor Tolkien Sia,--With reference to the

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Locations: Coventry, Reading, Oxford


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I THE NAME COVENTRY From Professor Tolkien Sia,--With reference to the

letter of "H. D." on the subject of Coventry, 1 am at a loss to know how the etymology of any place-name can be putsued " in keeping with Catholic tradition," except by seeking the truth without bias, whether one ends up in a convent or not. But. the consequences of St. Osburg's convent is in any case in no way concerned. The derivation of the name Oxford from art ancient drovers' ford in the west of the city casts no doubt on the importance of the University of Oxford in the Middle Ages. " II. D." would possibly feel happier if Oxford was called Doncaster, but the history of placenames is seldom so simple.

One thing at least has been made

clear by the critical study of placenames: guessing etymologies from the modem forms 15 useless. The accidental similarity of coven! in Coventry to Convent, Or to the older form covent (which does survive in Covent Garden), is a good illustration. For this name appears already in the Anglo-Saxon Chfonicle in the form Cofan-treo; whereas the word cOnvenl does not uppear in English until after A.D. 1200. Its earliest recorded form is Kturent cuvent), "assembly," and though it was frequently applied to icligious associations, it was not in the Middle Ages limited to that meaning: the application to buildings is modern, and still more recent is the limitation to the houses of religious yeomen. The Anglo-Saxon word for a religious house was mynster. and this is, of course, a frequent element in English placenames ; but most of the names of places where great religious houses later grew up were far older than the religious foundation and so do not refer to it, whether it be Abingdon or Ramsey or Glastonbury, to choose some of the most notable. The case of Afalmeshury, which blends the name of its seventhcentury Irish founder, Maildub, with that of its most famous abbot, St. Aldhelm, is es rare as it is curious.

The settlement and naming of the

Midlands lies far hack in English history, and in the main preceded the conversion of the Angles. indeed. the giving of names often preceded the formation of the " places," that is of the villages and towns, and so originally denoted isolated dwellings, boundarymarks, and local features, near which communities were later formed. Though many old names remain obscure, there is in the case of Coventry no room for reasonable doubt. The Anglo-Saxon name means " Cofa's tree." It may be observed that a very similar name occurs not far away to the south-east in Daventry. In this ease also the earliest spellings point to Dafan•treo, " Dafa's tree," and the fortunate absence of any modern word davent has prevented guess-work. In Cola and Data we have specimens of an ancient type of English personal name: a simple stem, unlike the more " aristocratic " double-barrelled names familiar in later history, such as Ead-weard or "Ethel-red. But names of the latter type arc also found combined with " tree," as, for instance, in Ausfrey (another Warwickshire place-name) which has suffered more from the wear and tear of time and armears to go back 10 Eadivulfer treo or "Eaclwalrs tree." Compare also Oiwestry and Allesiree (Ethelheard's tree). The name Cola appears in other place-names in other oarts, Covington. Covenham. and Cobham: but these names are the only records that these long forgotten " coves," these farmer-settlers, have left on the pages of history to-day. Interest in place-names is almost uni versal. but it would appear that much less widespread is the knowledge of how much work has been done in this field in recent years. especially by the late Sir Allen Mawer, and by Professor Stenton, of Reading, and by the Swedish scholar Filert Ekwell. to name only the most eminent. There is an English PlacelVame Society, and its volumes still annear fairly resularly. Most public libraries are members and subscribers and possess its publications, amongst them the Gulson Library. Coventry, if it is not destroyed. I refer any of your readers who do not already know all this to Volume x (Northamptonshire, for Daventry), volume xiii (Warwickshire). and volume i (i) (Introduction especially chapter iii. on the Enelish Element): anti also to Stenton's great work Anglo-Saxon Engiand, which

appeared in 1943.

J. R. R. Toextes.

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