Steensen, Stensen, Steno…
In this blog you will find several different versions of Niels Steensen’s name. Why are there different versions, and why have we settled on Steensen as our preferred form? To answer this we turn to Kaspar Kallan’s article, “Wie heisst Niels Steensen eigentlich? Dänische Namenssitten im 17. Jahrhundert” from the anthology, Stenoniana: Nova Series; 1.
In 17th century Denmark naming traditions differed from those of today in two ways: Surnames were not common, and people readily translated names, primarily into Latin.
It was the same in the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages. A person had a name corresponding to our first names. For further identification, which we today manage by the use of a last name, they might add a place name, e.g. Thomas Aquinas, Gottfried von Strassburg, Martinus de Dacia.
It was simple to create Latin versions of biblical names, or names of Latin or Greek origin: Peder/Petrus, Hans/Johannes, Niels/Nicolaus. Even names of Danish origin could be tweaked to sound like Latin: Knud/Cnuto, later Canutus, Cend/Sveno, Steen/Steno.
In Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia patronyms were used instead of surnames, i.e. one identified oneself as the son or daughter of so-and-so, e.g. Steensen = son of Steen, Steensdatter = daughter of Steen. In Niels Steensen’s family tree Niels/Nicolaus is the son of goldsmith Steen/Steno and is therefore named Niels Steensen/Nicolaus Stenonis. Niels Steensen’s father was the son of Peder/Petrus and was therefore called Steen Pedersen/Steno Petri
Today only Icelanders still follow this practice.
In the 17th century family names became more common in Denmark. Professor Thomas Bartholin, Niels Steensen’s teacher, was descended from one Berthel/Bartholdus whose son substituted the name Berthelsen/Bartholdi with a new creation: Bartholin(us). This surname is still in use today. In his latin correspondance with Steensen, Bartholin used the form Stenonius instead of the genitive form Stenonis and attempted to nudge his student into following suit. We see this usage in some of Steensen’s correspondance and also on the famous portrait of him in the Uffizi Gallery, but he himself never adopted it and Bartholin gave up trying to influence him and returned to using Stenonis.
Southern Europeans had no knowledge of Danish naming customs, and the genitive form Stenonis was misunderstood. They replaced it with the nominative form Steno. In Italian usage this became Stenone and in French Sténon, just as Cicero becomes Cicerone in Italian and Cicéron in French. Steensen didn’t argue with them. He uses “Niccoló Stenone” when signing his Italian letters, Nicolas Sténon when writing French, and in English Nicholas Steno. When he became bishop his problems were solved. He simply signed his name Nic.(olaus) ep.(iscopus) Titiop.(olitanus), i.e. Niels, bishop of Titiopolis.
Steen is an authentic Danish name meaning “stone”. Both the name Niels and the surname Steensen are still quite common in Denmark. In the Steensen literature his name is often spelled Stensen–with a single ‘e’. Steensen himself spelled it with a double ‘ee’, just like his father Steen. The single ‘e’ spelling was introduced by A.D. Jørgensen in his Steensen biography from 1884. Under the influence of Pan-Scandinavianism, Jørgensen attempted to reconcile Danish/Norwegian orthography with the Swedish and settled upon the form Nils Stensen. The great Steensen scholar Gustav Scherz adopted Jørgensen’s style, but only half-way: He kept the ‘e’ in Niels. He justified his decision by claiming that this spelling ensured a correct pronunciation of Steensen’s name across the globe, but in fact he ensured exactly the opposite. In Denmark today Steensen with double ‘ee’ is the most common spelling of the name.