Tuesday 28 October 2014

An early Anglo-Saxon sorcerer at Teversham, Cambridgeshire?

An earlier post on this site looked at some possible place-name evidence for pagan priests and Kultverbände or cultic groups in early Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire and East Anglia. The following post briefly examines a further place-name that may be of some relevance in this regard.

The location of Teversham, set against a map of the post-Roman landscape eastern England and some of the Willingham and Ingham names discussed in the previous post (drawn by C. R. Green).

The place-name in question is Teversham, near Cambridge, a name that contains the Old English element hām, 'estate or homestead', and so is of a type that is often thought to date from the early Anglo-Saxon period, perhaps being coined in the fifth or sixth century.(1) Early forms of this name include Teuuresham (1042x66) and Teuresham (1086) and it is usually stated to involve either an Old English personal name *Tēofer or, more commonly, an occupational term *tēafrere/*tīefrere, 'painter', combined with hām. So far, so prosaic, one might be inclined to think. However, the first element in this name is rather more interesting than it might first appear to be. As Victor Watts has observed, 'the cognates of both Tēofer and tēafrere are associated in other Germanic languages with magic', a point reinforced by John Insley, who remarks that Old English *tēafrere, 'painter', is 'a word which belongs to the same root as Old High German zoupar n. "magic, sorcery"'.(2) Similarly, Eilert Ekwall long ago commented that:
Old English tīefran ['to paint'] corresponds to German zauburn, Dutch tooveren 'to practice sorcery', and Old English tēafor 'red pigment' to Old High German zoubar, Old Frisian tāver, Old Norse taufr, 'sorcery'.(3)
As such, all may well not be quite what it seems with regard to the first element in the place-name Teversham. In this regard, it should be noted that Watts clearly considers the meanings sorcery/to practice sorcery/sorcerer and so forth 'to have been the original sense' here, indicating that the meanings of red pigment/to paint/painter and the like are probably a secondary, later sense and 'developed from the practice of staining magic runes this colour [i.e. red]'.(4) Given the fact that the name Teversham is usually believed to have had its origins very early within the Anglo-Saxon period, this must be considered a point of some considerable significance. Indeed, Ekwall does, in fact, carry on from his analysis quoted above to argue in his discussion of the place-name Teversham that 'Old English tīefran may well have been used in the sense "to practice sorcery", and tīefrere in the sense "sorcerer"'.(5) In other words, a consideration of the likely meaning, usage and history of the first element of Teversham suggests that this place-name can perhaps be best understood as meaning originally 'the estate/homestead of the sorcerer', an etymology that has been endorsed as a real possibility by not only Ekwall, but also both Watts and Insley.(6)

A potential origin for Teversham in 'the estate/homestead of the sorcerer' is, of course, most intriguing. With regard to the interpretation of such an etymology, it is worth reiterating the point made at the start of this post, namely that Teversham is a major place-name of a type often thought to date from the early Anglo-Saxon period, perhaps being coined in the fifth or sixth century—or 'the pagan period', as it was once more commonly known.(7) In consequence, if Teversham does indeed mean 'the hām of the sorcerer', as argued above, then the name would probably have been meant literally: that is to say, that it would have denoted a significant estate (or homestead) belonging to someone who was considered a sorcerer in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Needless to say, in such circumstances, John Insley's suggestion that Teversham is 'a name... with possible cultic implications'(8) would certainly seem worthy of some serious consideration.


1    See, for example, B. Cox, 'The significance of the distribution of English place-names in -hām in the Midlands and East Anglia', Journal of the English Place-Name Society, 5 (1972–3), 15–73; J. Kuurman, 'An examination of the ‑ingas‑inga‑ place-names in the East Midlands', Journal of the English Place-Name Society, 7 (1974–5), 11–44; B. Cox, ‘The place-names of the earliest English records’, Journal of the English Place-Name Society, 8 (1976), 12–66; M. Gelling, ‘English place-names derived from the compound wīchām’ reprinted in K. Cameron (ed.), Place-name Evidence for the Anglo-Saxon Invasion and Scandinavian Settlements (Nottingham, 1977), pp. 8–26; K. Cameron, English Place Names, 2nd edn (London, 1996), pp. 70–1, 141; J. Insley, 'Siedlungsnamen §2. Englische', Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, 28 (2005), 344–53, especially pp. 346–7.
2    V. Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge, 2004), p. 605; J. Insley, 'Siedlungsnamen', 347. Note, the abbreviations included in these quotations and those that follow are expanded here for the convenience of the reader.
3    E. Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, 4th edn (Oxford, 1960), p. 464.
4    Watts, Cambridge Dictionary, p. 604.
5    Ekwall, Oxford Dictionary, p. 464.
6    Ekwall, Oxford Dictionary, p. 464; Watts, Cambridge Dictionary, p. 605; Insley, 'Siedlungsnamen', 347.
7    As in Cox, 'Distribution of English place-names in -hām', passim.
8    Insley, 'Siedlungsnamen', 347.

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