No Bones

From post-Roman and early medieval Europe, before surnames had been invented, people in history have come down to us with various epithets appended to their names for identification. It seems that the rule was to be blunt and unimaginative. In France, the Carolingian dynasty was begun by Pepin “the Short”, and also featured Charles “the Bald” and Charles “the Fat”, not to mention “Louis the Stammerer”. William, Duke of Normandy, was called “William the Bastard” because his parents weren’t married, not because he was a cruel and arrogant ruler, although he was.

In the North, rulers and notables got the same treatment. Sven Forkbeard and Harald Greycloak were obviously named for mere fashion preference, but Inge the Hunchback had no such choice. Eric Bloodaxe, variously king of Norway and York, was indeed a notorious hard man, but his successor in Norway, Haakon the Good, was a fighter as well, and was only named “Good” retrospectively for having been a Christian.

Ivar the BonelessThe second Viking King of Dublin was Ivar the Boneless, but the exact origin of his epithet has become confused. His brother was known as Sigurd Snake-eye, allegedly from having the image of the ouroboros in one eye, the snake circling his pupil, and one suggestion for Ivar is that he had a snakey nature too, hence “boneless”.

But there is mention in the sagas of Ivar being carried into battle on a shield, although it’s not clear whether it was a mark of honour, or because he was disabled. I like the latter idea, that even the violent Vikings could follow a leader for his force of personality, rather than mere physical strength.

Ivar and two of his brothers (not Snake-eye) led the Great Heathen Army which conquered much of Britain, until eventually halted by Alfred the Great. Which was pretty great, but Alfred actually got his name for promoting Christianity and scholarship. I’m more keen on the latter.

Before Alfred and the Vikings eventually came to terms, Ivar had left for Dublin and established a dynasty called in Irish history the Uí Ímair (in Irish, the letter “m” is pronounced “v” after a short vowel). He himself died in 873, according to the Annals of Ulster: “Ímar, king of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain, ended his life.”

I have no idea what I’d have been called in a time before surnames. Stephen the Excessively Pedantic. Or perhaps we could go a bit more Viking, with Stefan Blog-wielder? Or “he who plays the long instrument with just four fat strings”.

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