Margaret

Names for children pass out of fashion, but this one is likely to return, given its history. In the Middle Ages it was especially popular in the royal families of Europe.

One of Renaissance women so named who achieved distinction was Marguerite, Queen of Navarre (1492-1549), author of The Heptameron. Educated to a level hard now to imagine, she was of humanist inclination, sailing close to the wind in her sympathy with Luther. In happier times, both politically and personally, she might have become a correspondent of Erasmus, who admired her and whose outlook she shared, but their exchange of letters in 1525 did not develop. Her writings, her poems and her charitable achievements are remarkable: see, for example—much has been written about Marguerite—, Barbara Stephenson, The Power and Patronage of Marguerite de Navarre, Routledge, 2017.

But who was St Margaret? Here there is an embarrassment of riches: at least eight women of that name have been canonized by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the earliest being St Margaret of Antioch, martyred in 304.  There is the Englishwoman, St Margaret Clitherow of York, put to death painfully by the operation of crowd behaviour in 1586, for trying to live as a Catholic.

μαργαρίτης—Lat. margarita—means a pearl: the word seems to have come from the Levant into Greece, and thence to Italy.

Margaret Clitherow is sometimes referred to as the Pearl of York – and a similar title is bestowed on some of the other saints of this name.

In France, the word marguerite already meant also a daisy by the fifteenth century, and it came to be so used occasionally in England: its attractive sound made it popular with poets. Well into the twentieth century, women called Margaret often had the pet name of Daisy.

Pearls and daisies have often appeared in the emblems of—and references to—women called Margaret.