Never mind Mohammed, the main naming trend of 2014 is one of de-Christianisation

William and George both appear in the top twenty of most popular boys names in the UK in 2014 (PA)

It seems to be a solid British tradition now: the annual debate about whether Mohammed is now the most popular boy’s name in Britain, or whether it’s Oliver.

The issue comes down to whether one counts all spelling variations as one name, in which case Mohammed/Mohammad/Muhammed etc would be number one; or, as others argue, Oliver and Ollie would therefore be added together to take first place.

The difference, however, is that Mohammed/Mohammad are variations of the same name, while Ollie and Harry are diminutives, which count as separate names in themselves. After all, lots of names started off as diminutives, which is part of the evolution of names: Jack from John, Lisa and Isabella from Elizabeth, and Daisy from Margaret. (The real issue of course is whether one is concerned about the growth of Islam in Britain, and this name debate is really just a little dance around that subject.)

But there is another significant trend that doesn’t get so much attention – name diversification, which reflects numerous social trends, secularisation most of all.

For centuries most people in England shared only a small number of given names. In the 16th century more than 95 per cent of men were called either William, Robert, Henry or John, and the most famous observers of the War of the Roses, the Paston family of East Anglia, reflect this slight lack of imagination. John Paston, the patriarch of the family, had two sons – both of whom he called John.

By the later 19th century one in four women in Britain were called Mary, and in Ireland that was considerably higher, while more than one in ten Englishmen were called John. In contrast the top name from last year was Oliver, with 6,949 Olivers accounting for about one per cent of the 698,512 births across the country.

This previous conservatism was partly due to naming patterns being quite simple; the first-born son was named after the father’s father, the second after the mother’s father and the third after the father, after which they were named after uncles. But it also reflected a common culture – most people were named after saints who were the idols, celebrities and rolemodels of a culture stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals.

In his seminal work The Making of Europe, Robert Bartlett outlined how European civilisation emerged out of a region around the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne, an area often referred to as “core Europe” – France, western Germany, northern Italy, the Low Countries and southern England. From the turn of the millennium the culture of this region spread out, across central Europe, Spain, the Celtic lands and, less successfully, the Middle East, in the process homogenising into a common European culture. At the very heart of this “Frankish” world was the Latin Christian faith, and one of the symptoms of this development was the move away from locally-specific names. He writes:

Simultaneously changes were taking place in the very pattern of naming and worship of the saints throughout Latin Christendom. Everywhere the universal saints and the dominical cult were increasing in importance. The apostolic saints, especially Peter and John, the Mother of God, and God himself, as Trinity, Holy Saviour or Corpus Christi, were eclipsing the local shrines and cults of earlier medieval Europe. In the twelfth century, for example, the churches of Wales adopted universal saints, like Mary and Peter, as additional patrons, to reinforce their obscure local saints. In the thirteenth century, after the arrival of the friars, ‘the cults of universal saints and their relics began to take strong hold in Brittany’. And, following in the wake of their rise to prominence, European naming patterns began to homogenise as parents, kin and priests began to choose names for children from these universal saints. The highly localised name repertoires of the early Middle Ages were replaced by a more standard pattern in which the universal saints were increasingly common. Transformation and convergence – these are the two terms which describe the naming patterns of Europe in the medieval period.

Bartlett cited the royal houses of Scotland and Mecklenburg, Anglicised/Francified Celts and Germanised Slavs respectively. The former start off with names like Duncan, Malcolm and Donald and the latter with Niklot, Pribislaw and Wartislaw; by the thirteenth century almost all have Germanic/Frankish names.

Scots called themselves William and Henry, the names of the Norman kings of England; the Slavs adopted Henry and Hedwig, the names of important German rulers and saints. Since these Norman and German traditions of the name Henry had themselves a common origin in the naming habits of the late Carolingian aristocracy, one can again see, in this small example, the impact of the Carolingian cultural sphere on lands and families on its fringes, slowly drawing them, even in their names, into its orbit of influence.

In England this Europeanisation accelerated with the Norman conquest, so that by 1225 just 6 per cent of peasants in a survey in Lincoln had Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Scandinavian names. That wide range of English names deriving from local saints and minor kings had died, with the exception of a handful such as Alfred, Edward, Edmund and Ethel (for Etheldreda, although its French variation, Audrey, is far more popular).

Immediately after 1066 the Normans seem to have viewed the local saints with suspicion and derision. The conquest had brought them from the sphere of one set of saints, familiar to them, to the sphere of another set, alien and unsettling saints with strange names. Lanfranc, the first Norman archbishop of Canterbury, wrote: ‘These Englishmen among whom we are living have set up for themselves certain saints whom they revere. But sometimes when I turn over in my mind their own accounts of who they were, I cannot help having doubts about the quality of their sanctity.’ He acted on his doubts by dropping St Elphege and St Dunstan from the Canterbury liturgy. At the abbey of St Albans there was a wholesale destruction of the shrines of pre-conquest saints by the first Norman abbot, who regarded his Anglo-Saxon predecessors as rudes et idiotas – ‘uncouth and illiterate’.

“The kind of competition between cults that resulted and the tensions this brought to local society are vividly revealed in the following story, taken from an account of the life and miracles of the Anglo-Saxon saint Ethelbert: There was living in the neighbourhood of the place where the church of the martyr [Ethelbert] was built a man called Vitalis, who was of Norman origin. Because of the great inborn hatred between English and Normans he deemed our martyr unworthy of honour and reverence. On the day of his wife’s churching he made her go to another church and perform the solemn rites of purification there. She completed the service and returned. Vitalis happened to enter the house of a certain knight of great righteousness called Godiscalc, and the lady of the house, Lecelma, criticized him for daring to treat St Ethelbert’s church with such contempt. He, however, torn by an insanity of spirit and half mad, said, ‘I would rather have my wife worship the mangers of my cows than him whom you call Ethelbert.’ As he said it the wretched man fell immediately to the ground and died miserably before them all.

While in the 13th century English names became uniform, the late 20th century saw a reverse in naming patterns, so that for the first time in eight centuries Englishmen call tell each other’s class just by their name.

Another, Europe-wide trend is the return of national-specific names; in Ireland Gaelic names have come back in fashion to a huge extent, while in Scandinavia the likes of Ulf and Thor are also popular now that Christianity has retreated. England seems to be something of an exception in this regards; or perhaps it’s only a matter of time before Mohammed and Oliver are challenged by Ethelwulf, Athelstan or Elfreda.