It was all going well until the vicar decided to write everything in Latin…

Tristram Shandy’s baptism, by Hogarth

I’m currently transcribing the earliest register for Harwich in Essex, which starts in 1559. It began well, but someone with bad handwriting took over a few years in, then I had to deal with bad handwriting and faded pages. But once that was out of the way, I had nice clear ink and clear handwriting. Wonderful! It was all going well, and then…

…the vicar decided to write everything in Latin.

I got a C for GCSE Latin, which isn’t a grade I’m proud of, but at least that, plus French and Spanish lessons means that I’m not as foxed as I might otherwise be. It’s fairly obvious that “baptizata fuit” or “baptizata est” means “was baptised”. Other terms might crop up, such as conjuncti fuerant, “were joined in marriage” (hence “conjugal”), “nupti erant,” were married (hence “nuptials”), “uxorem duxit” – “he took to wife” (“the farmer takes a wife”). And once the baptisms and marriages are done and dusted, we end up “sepultus” or “sepulta” – buried.

What can be quite difficult is the fact that the names are all Latinised! So here’s my run-down of Latinised names and what to look out for:

  • Johis. and Johes.: these are both abbreviations of “John”. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s “Joseph”! They’re short for Johannis and Johannes. In Latin, the endings change depending on things like possession, so if John son of John is being baptised, the names in Latin become “Johannes filius Johannis”. The proper term is “genitive” – so the genitive of John, in Latin, is “Johannis”. Then they get abbreviated to “Johes. filius Johis.” Of course, the vicar could’ve saved trouble having to abbreviate the names if he’d stuck with English and just said “John”, however, vicars liked to demonstrate their Latin learnings to the world, and here is the result.
  • Gracia and Gracie: Grace. Again, these change their endings depending on possession. So Grace, the daughter of Grace, is “Gracia filia Gracie”.
  • Willmus. and Willmi.: you guessed it, Willielmus and Willielmi, abbreviated to Willmus. and Willmi. This is a half-Latin mangling, because the Romans didn’t have a W – you will sometimes see a full-Latin attempt with Guilielmus and Guilielmi.
  • Xpoferi, Xpiana: Just to make things even more confusing, these names are the Greek abbreviations of Christopher, Christian and Christmas, using Latin endings. As you may know, what looks like “p” in Greek, is in fact an “r”. So “Christian daughter of Christopher and Christian” is written “Xpiana filia Xpoferi et Xpiane”. There was a man in Harwich called Christmas Raymond (he was baptised, and perhaps born too, on Christmas Day 1579), and his name doesn’t escape – he becomes Xpomas.
  • Robtus. and Robti.: abbreviations of Robert. Robert son of Robert becomes “Robertus filius Roberti”, or abbreviated to “Robtus. filius Robti.”
  • Jacobus and Jacobi: don’t get caught out. This isn’t necessarily Jacob, but James! “James son of James” becomes “Jacobus filius Jacobi”.
  • Richardus filius Richardi: or abbreviated to Ricdus and Rici – Richard and… erm… Richard.
  • Edi.: this is the father’s name. It’s impossible to know if it should be Edward or Edmund, but thank heavens the vicar put an “i” on the end so that his Latin would be grammatically correct
  • Thome: Thomas, as the father. “Thomas” as the child doesn’t seem to be Latinised
  • Prudencia: Prudence, the mother in this case.
  • Winifredae: Winifred, the mother
  • Petrus: Peter
  • Egidii: Not Edgar, but, bizarrely, Giles, because the Latin version is Aegidius. In this case, Giles Hubbard was the father, so the entry reads “Elizabeth filia Egidii Hubberde”.
  • Andrea: “Johes. filius Andrea” means “John son of Andrew”.
  • Agnetis: “Johes. filius Agnetis” means “John son of Agnes”
  • Georgius and Georgii: “Georgius filius Georgii” means “George son of George”
  • Margareta and Margarete: “Margareta filia Margarete” means “Margaret daughter of Margaret”
  • Thurstani: One of the fathers in Harwich in the early 1600 was Thurston Ussherwood, and the rendering of his name into Latin shows how confusion can be caused by Latinisation when someone has an unusual first name.
  • Jeronimo: the hoot of exhiliration as someone bungee jumps into a ravine, or, the Latin version of “Jeremy”. You might also see Hierome.

Some words slip into the entries which might be very illuminating:

  • Johanna filia Thome Hannam Scoti Lithensis et Isabelle ux. advena baptiz. xi de Decem 1607

The quick reading, just for names and date, is: “Joan/Jane daughter of Thomas Hannam and Isabella his wife was baptised on 11 December 1607” – but there’s bonus information. Thomas was a Scottish, and perhaps a Lutheran, and they were visitors or immigrants – “advena”.

“Patrem ignoramus” doesn’t mean “the child’s father was a gigantic wally, but “father unknown”.

When you come across a vicar keen to show off his Classical languages, you can find notes that are presumably quite useful, but are written entirely in Latin, so their meaning becomes obscured. It’s particularly difficult when they use abbreviations. The example below has / where an abbreviation appears in the original below, from Harwich’s register:

  • Nathaniel filius Rici. Sherford et Margarete uxoris circum/ foraneorn/, de p/orchia uti acceptimnus [or acceptinnus?] de Cason in com/ Norff/, du/ parentes hic in nundinis mercatoram exercendi gratia meram trahebant natus est et baptizatus secondo die Maii 1607.

Which says… Nathaniel son of Richard Sherford and his wife Margaret. Who seemed to be from the parish [“parochia”] of Cason in Norfolk, and the child was born and baptised here (ie. in Harwich). “Acceptimus” might have something to do with their parish of settlement. But I’m really not sure about the rest of it. “Nundinis” mean “market day”, so “parentes hic in nundinis” means “the parents were here for market day” – because “mercatoram exercendi” – the father works as a merchant. “gratia meram trahebant” – the three words mean grace, hinderance, and drag or get. I can get my head around the vague meaning of it, but it’s not as easy as it would’ve been if it had been written in English!

I suppose vicars weren’t only showing off when they decided to write things in Latin in their registers. Latin was the approved language of the law, so wills are sometimes found in Latin, and some Chancery inquisitions post mortem from the mid-1500s that I’ve looked at lately have also been written in Latin. As irritating and challenging as it is when the register suddenly goes into Latin, it’s just one of those things when you’re working with primary historical sources. When we sit down to look at a register, we’re looking at the work of a man (and sometimes his family helped copy things up too) sitting in his vestry, or in his vicarage, scratching away in candlelight with his home-made ink. We’re very lucky it’s survived at all.

But thank goodness using Latin in Anglican parish registers was phased out in 1733.