The Origins of Cold Huts

Collicutt CentreWhen the Romans ruled Britannia, they built many great roads to connect the towns and cities that they founded. Houses near these roads were required by law to offer hospitality to any weary travellers that came past. It is believed that the most popular of these houses became the first taverns (from the Latin taberna, meaning ‘shed’ or ‘hut’.)

However, in time, the Romans constructed purpose-built villas alongside many roads for the use of officials of the central government or other people on government business. Such people were required to produce official identification to prove that they were entitled to the use of these villas. The buildings were called mansiones, which is derived from the Latin manere, meaning ‘to stay’ or ‘to remain’. It is probable that the English word ‘mansion’ came from the same root but it is not a direct translation.

In some cases, sizable settlements grew up around the mansiones. There may have been a taberna for those who had money but were not entitled to use the official mansio. There was often a caupona, which served the same function for the lower classes. Cauponae were associated with prostitutes and dirty living.

When the Romans retreated from Britain they left their viae and mansiones behind, among other things. They fell into disrepair and ruin, as in most cases it seems that the native Britons had little use for a mansio. They became cold and inhospitable places, but nevertheless they still provided some shelter for a traveller in need. They became known in Old English as cealde cotan, which in modern English means ‘cold huts’.

As I said, around some of these cold huts some significant settlements had formed. When William the Bastard had the Domesday Book drawn up in the 11th Century, it listed some fairly sizable towns with names derived from the phrase ceald cote. Many still exist: a map of England today will show quite a few towns called ‘Caldecot’, ‘Caldicot’, ‘Caldecott’, ‘Caldecotte’, ‘Calicut’ and so on.

Among the various social innovations, for good and ill, that the Normans brought to England was the idea of a surname. Although the Romans had used familial names, the practice was not common outside the Roman Empire and was largely forgotten in Europe after the empire fell. Some historians believe that it was the Normans, and in particular their Domesday Book, that reintroduced the idea of a family name to Western Europe. Certainly, by the beginning of the 15th Century, most people in England had a family name as well as a “first” name. These surnames came from a number of sources. Some were just continuations of the old practice of identifying oneself by one’s lineage: ‘Wilson’ and ‘Edwards’ literally mean “Wil’s son” and “Edward’s son”. Others come from a distinguishing characteristic of an ancestor, such as ‘Short’ or ‘Brown’. Many come from an ancestor’s occupation: ‘Smith’, ‘Taylor’, ‘Archer’, ‘Fletcher’. Finally, many are derived from the place in which a family lived. This can be descriptive, as in ‘Field’ or ‘Hill’, or it can simply be the name of the town or village.

Thus there are now quite a few families in England (and emigrant families elsewhere) with surnames derived from place names which are in turn derived from ceald cote.

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Published in: on April 18, 2007 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I absolutely love this kind of crumbs of information! Thanks for sharing it with us! Btw, how do you pronounce ‘cealdecote’?

  2. Obviously no-one knows for sure what Old English sounded like as nobody speaks it any more but linguists have attempted to reconstruct it. Unfortunately, although some parts of the language are relatively easy to reconstruct, vowels and in particular diphthongs are quite difficult. I’ve read two different guides to pronouncing the diphthong ‘ea’ and I have no idea which one is closer to the truth. In fact, given the large regional variations in English pronunciation, it is quite possible that both are correct, each for some different part of England .Anyway, I pronounce ‘ea’ as an ‘e’ sound – as in ‘bet’ – that slides towards the back of the mouth. So it sounds like the vowel sound in ‘cared’. Sort of ‘eh’ sliding into ‘uh’. At least, that’s how I think about it, when I actually say it out loud I usually screw it up and just say ‘e’. I have also read that it should be pronounced in a similar way but starting with an ‘a’ sound – as in ‘bat’ – rather than an ‘e’ sound. I chose the other option mostly because I find it easier to remember. An ‘e’ on its own is pronounced like the modern English ‘e’ in ‘bet’ and an ‘o’ is pronounced like a modern English ‘o’ in ‘hot’. The consonants are the same as in modern English (in this case) so the whole thing sounds something like ‘kel-deh-kot-eh’ (except that the ‘kel’/’ceal’ bit is pronounced as described above.) cealde is the ‘weak’ form of the adjective ‘ceald’. Weak forms are used in certain special circumstances in Old English, such as after ‘this’, ‘that’ or ‘those’. So, most of the time in everyday Old English, the phrase would be ceald cote. However, I decided to use the weak form when I constructed the name ‘Cealdecote’ because it is closer to my real surname, which is one of the modern English surnames derived from that phrase.


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