Women, namelessness, anonymi, naming practices, Bede, Lactantius, Gregory of Tours
A representative sample of late antique and early medieval texts reveals that nearly two-thirds of female characters within them are left nameless by their authors. Whether for narrative or feminist reasons, the instinct of modern historians is to identify as many such women as possible by name. In this article, we instead investigate the range of reasons why late antique and early medieval authors left women nameless and establish a methodological footing for the analysis of female namelessness in such texts. We focus on royal women, as these were among the most high-profile women of the time whose names were often known widely. Leaving such women nameless therefore reveals particular rhetorical or political choices. In order to track changes and continuities of such choices over the period of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, we compare the representation of named and nameless royal women in three case studies: tetrarchic empresses as described in Lactantius’s De Mortibus Persecutorum, Merovingian queens in Gregory of Tours’s Decem libri historiarum, and Northumbrian queens in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. Our main finding is that throughout the period of investigation there was no straightforward relationship between female namelessness and the erasure or even oppression of women, at least in the case of royal women. Instead, it was often through the naming of women that a negative message about them was conveyed and through polemical texts that women’s names were preserved.