Sometimes historical records aren’t as detailed as we’d like them to be. Often, all we’re left with is a date and a name. How much use is that?
Quite a lot actually.
In England, surnames often derived from jobs (Mr Baker was often a baker, Mr Smith was a blacksmith and so on…), in Scandinavian countries, surnames often follow through the patriarchal line (Karlsson = Karl’s son). Names are also a good indication of popular culture of the time. In the past decade, there has been a huge increase in Elsa’s and Khaleesi’s due to the popularity of pop culture phenomenons Frozen and Game of Thrones.
Going back as far as Medieval England, the name Robin Hood (whether he was real or not, or one person or lots of people) is believed to have been more of a description of an action (to ROB somebody IN a HOOD). Will Scarlet is thought to have either been named after his red outfits or as a shortening of ‘scathe lock’ meaning ‘skin head’ and Little John was an ironic joke because he was over seven foot tall. In those most recent examples, even if you don’t consider them to be the real ‘merry outlaws of Sherwood’, each of those names have been recorded in official documentation and there are many humorous and practical reasons provided for people’s names all over the world.
A name can often indicate a person’s age. If I were to say the name ‘Brenda’ you would already have an idea about how old that person is. You may also get an indication of somebody’s social class if I were to say the name ‘Quentin’.
If a name is preceded by ‘Sir’ or Lady’ or followed by academic credentials, you would have a very different idea about the person mentioned. It’s an intrinsic part of human life: making assumptions and filling in the gaps.
It’s also helpful when role-playing. The Vikings would earn their titles as they left their mark on the world. It’s how they would want to be remembered by future generations or feared by their enemies. Picking a name that suits your character is crucial. Yet, the opposite is true as well: characters can be built from something as simple as a name.