The Naming of Places -Alma Boykin
(With profound apologies to T. S. Elliott)
The Naming of places is a difficult matter
It isn’t just one of your holiday games.
And you may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you a place may have three different names (or four, or five, or six, or eight).
We humans often mark our turf with names. Descriptive, possessive, mysterious, religious, rude, or yes (Killpecker Creek in Wyoming), place names and the stories that associate with them often show traces of the people who lived there before, either in the etymology or the language, and of the intentions of the people who renamed them. Central Europe provides interesting examples of the problem of place names, especially for the span of 1850-2000. Names changed, rechanged, reverted, were left, and vanished off the map with nary a trace. This greatly oversimplified little list barely scratches the surface of a touchy and tricky subject, one I suspect politicians, nationalists, and others will be fighting over until [deity] or [legendary king] comes/returns or the sun burns out.
Take Galicia, for example. The region arced along the northeastern rim of the Carpathian Mountains and, among other things, held most of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s oil in the 1800s-1918. The largest city, Lemburg (Lviv or Lvov), had a thriving Jewish community, while Polish nobles held most of the rural areas on estates inhabited by Ruthenian peasants. Today it is part of Poland and Ukraine, and Galicia (and Ruthenia, and Lemberg) are artifacts of a past some wish others would forget.
Karlstejn, (Karlstein) in the Czech Republic, remains Karlstejn even though the name is quite obviously not Slavic in origin. Tucked into the forest about eighteen miles from Prague, the castle came into being as a “small” hunting retreat for Emperor Charles IV (of the House of Luxemburg) between 1348 and 1357. Charles’s reign is recalled fondly by Czechs as part of Bohemia’s golden era, when the region’s mineral wealth and culture, and the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, gave it great international respect and prestige. The castle, perched on a cliff above a steep, tree-covered ravine, includes the Chapel of the Holy Cross where the crown and regalia of Bohemia were kept, and still forms one of the spiritual hearts of Bohemia today (Rip Hill is the other.) Although Hussites renamed the small town nearby, the fortress retained its original German-based name to this day, in part because of the positive “national memories” associated with it. Every five years, during the national elections, the crown makes a pilgrimage from Prague to the castle and back. An interesting ritual for a democratic nation, yes?
Karlsbad, however, became Karlovy Vary after WWI. The names have the same meaning, Charles’s springs, and derive from the thermal springs that occur there. Karlsbad was one of the places to go to take the waters for medical (or social) reasons in the 18th and 19th century. After the creation of Czechoslovakia, and even more after the promulgation of the Potsdam Accords and the erasure of the Suddetenland, the Czechs wanted to sever the region’s linguistic connection to German. During the Communist era Karlovy Vary remained a place to go soak off your ills, although as a member of a trades union and not of the gentry.
Pannonhalma is another location that gained a new, more national name, this time in the Nineteenth Century. The Benedictine monastery, founded by Prince Geza of Hungary in 996, perches on a prominent hill above the floodplains of a branch of the Danube and its tributary, the Rab. You can see the creamy yellow mass of the monastery for several kilometers around, including from the edge of the regional center of Györ (German Raab, Slovak Ráb, Celtic Arrabona), one of the hotspots in the Turkish wars. The monastery itself suffered attacks from the Mongols in the 1220s and later the Turks, as well as burning down by accident in between, but was rebuilt each time, returned to life in 1802 as a center for teaching after Joseph II’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1700s, and endured the Communist era. However, its name changed. Originally it was the Benedictine Abby of the Hill of St. Martin. As part of the Magyarization and language reforms that went along with the growing Hungarian nationalism in the late 1800s, the area was rechristened Pannonhalma, from the Roman name Pannonia. Pannonia referred to the area west of the Danube limes and in turn derived from an earlier tribal name based on Indo-European roots meaning “swampy area.” The town at the foot of the abbey’s hill changed to Pannonhalma as well in 1965, although the 252 meter tall hill remains St. Martin’s Hill. The new name was thought to be more patriotic and Magyar.
Other name changes came from the desire to erase the past entirely, leaving no trace of unwanted history. When the first member of the Eszterházy family attained fame, fortune, and good position in the court of the Habsburg emperors in the 1700s, he promptly went out and began building an estate. He renamed the village and lands around it Eszterháza. After the revolution in 1948, the Communists erased the name and the village became Fertöd, after small lake. Why leave any trace of the feudal parasites that had gained wealth by exploiting the peasants and supporting foreign overlords (and paying for some of the greatest classical music written [if you like Hayden])? The glorious workers’ future demands the removal of the dead past. After the next revolution, the residents later voted to keep Fertöd for the town but the estate is once more Eszterháza.
Now, Central Europe does not hold a monopoly on renaming. Istanbul is no longer “Constantine’s city,” London has long ago lost the name the Bronze Age residents gave to the area, and Leningrad is St. Petersburg once more. North America has dozens of formerly Spanish or Indian locations, and New Amsterdam long ago vanished under the streets of New York City.
Interestingly, I have yet to read many science fiction or many fantasy stories that use this idea. Lost civilizations, yes, conquests, but not names and renaming. I’ve considered it for the Colplatschki stories, because the Turkowi renamed places as the captured and resettled them, but on the other hand, my characters look on the Turkowi conquests as temporary disasters to be undone as soon as possible, and refuse to acknowledge the changes. Fantasy in particular might be a place to use the ideas of names and their power: if a location’s name provides access to magic, and the newcomers shun such things, then what does it mean if someone insists on recording the old, abandoned toponym? Or if rebels against an evil king suddenly adopt the place names from the long-vanished earlier kingdom?