What’s in a Name?

April 24 2023 | by

IN LISBON in 1195 there were no such things as registry offices or records of births, baptisms and deaths. Thus more than 800 years later it is absolutely impossible for us to retrieve precise details of St. Anthony’s birth.

What should we do? Are we to rummage through the mists of the past? Indeed, there has been much academic dispute even over Anthony’s date of birth: some argued that he was born in 1190 or 1191; others, and recently they have become an overwhelming majority, claimed he was born in 1195. Furthermore, it had never even crossed the minds of Anthony’s fellow friars in Lisbon to call their Anthony “Anthony of Padua,” for them he had always been “Anthony of Lisbon.” Fortunately, we do have some information about him.


Date of birth


Anthony’s date of birth was made public only a year after his death. The reliability of this first piece of important information, however, cannot be compared to a computer readout from the official registry office. In fact this particular date of birth (1195) only appeared in the year 1232 during Anthony’s canonization. However, since the source of this piece of information is completely unknown; one can only assume that it is the Franciscan friar who wrote the first biography of the Portuguese Saint.

As we do not know the name of this friar, it has become common practice to call his biography after the first word of the first sentence of the text, Assidua, which is a Latin word that can be translated as ‘insistent or pushy’. In fact the Assidua begins with the sentence: “Guided by the insistent demand of friars and inspired by the merit of sanctifying obedience, for the praise and glory of almighty God, and to satisfy the love and devotion of the faithful, I am led to write about the life and deeds of the most blessed father and our confrere Anthony” (Assidua, Chaper 1).

This was how our anonymous Franciscan friar began his writing; and it was obvious from this very first sentence that he was not going to provide us with a sterile table of dates, but with an interpretation of the life of an extraordinary individual – nothing more and nothing less.


Place of birth


This is evident from the second chapter after the foreword: “I have been told that there is a certain city in the kingdom of Portugal, situated in its western regions at the extreme limits of the world. It is called Ulixbone by its inhabitants because it is commonly thought to have been founded by Ulysses. Within its walls there stands a church of admirable size built to the honor of the glorious Virgin Mary. In this church rests the precious body of the blessed martyr Vincent, guarded with all honor and worthy of every veneration.

The fortunate parents of Anthony owned at the west side of this district a house worthy of their social condition, its entrance being close to the threshold of the church.  They were in the first flower of their youth when they begot this fortunate child and gave him the name Ferdinand at the holy font of baptism.

Indeed, they entrusted him to this church, dedicated to the holy Mother of God, so that he learn the sacred writings there, and, as if led by a presentiment, they confided the future herald of Christ to the education of Christ’s ministers.”

Here we have Anthony’s place of birth, which is placed in the vicinity of a specific and important church; his initial name (Ferdinand), and that his parents were Catholic and therefore had their child baptized. This was how a holy life had its beginnings.

Our attention is therefore drawn to the profound significance of the initial period of Anthony's life; a period that was revealed shortly after he had died. What can we learn from it?




  Anthony’s late-in-life choice to live and work in Padua had its roots in his origins at the end of the world – as Lisbon was considered at the time. In fact, ten kilometers west of Lisbon all that was known came to an end; the Atlantic began and what lay beyond this ocean was the subject of wildest speculation.

Lisbon itself was certainly no capital city. The King of Portugal held his residence at Coimbra, and only 48 years before Anthony’s birth, in 1147, Lisbon had been reconquered from the Moors, and only became the capital city for the first time in 1260.

Even the city where Anthony was born had very little in common with the city we know today. In November 1755 a devastating earthquake completely destroyed the city; and after rebuilding, very little was recognizable from the past. One of the few buildings that survived the earthquake and the passage of time is precisely the Cathedral of ‘Santa Maria Assunta’, where the Portuguese baby from a good family was baptized.


Cathedral school


There, in the church of ‘Santa Maria Assunta’, Anthony was to receive his grounding in the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, a foundation which was to prove so useful later on in his life. This cathedral school taught him to read and write, for although this was certainly not the regular course of events at that time, Anthony was fortunate enough to come from a good family, and to be a good student.

Like Francis, the son of a newly rich textile trader, Anthony’s roots were not in the slum areas of the poor, even though he would later leave his mark quite clearly among this class of people. He definitely came from a very good family, but what more do we know about his parents?


Martin and Maria


The author of the Assidua did not give us the names of Anthony’s parents; he told us that they were the owners of a house right next to Lisbon Cathedral, and that they were of good standing. However, Anthony’s parents may not have been so young when their son was born, despite the fact they are described as being in the “first flower of their youth.” Moreover, we do not know if Anthony was their firstborn or not.

Fortunately, later sources do reveal the names of his parents: Martin and Maria. Both were of noble origin. Martin was even known as a “Knight of King Alfonso of Portugal.” The descriptions of Anthony’s life that followed go as far as to say, to put it mildly, that Anthony was even of royal descent. This is, however, more a flight of fancy than reality. Later legends claim or ‘romanticize’ that Anthony’s grandfather had received the title of knight thanks to his exploits as a soldier during the reconquest of Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. Thus, Anthony’s father would have inherited both the title and the house in the centre of Lisbon.


Inflamed for peace


We have already mentioned that Saint Anthony of Padua was for his contemporaries – at least his Portuguese ones – ‘Saint Anthony of Lisbon’. Now we also know that his baptismal name was not Anthony. At the beginning of our story, we are dealing with a lesser known man, called Ferdinand.

However, this name also has its own particular history: Ferdinand is the Portuguese shortened form of a German name, high German to be precise: Frithunanths. This name originally derived from two different ones: Frithu means ‘peace’ and Nanth can be described as ‘inflamed, enthusiastic, eager’.

Ferdinand, therefore, means a person who ardently desires peace, a person who carries the message of peace on his banners; a remarkable fact during the times of the Crusades, conquests, wars and minor and major skirmishes. It is a peace that must come from another source: the same peace that a few years later will inspire the ancient Franciscan message of Pax et Bonum, that is, Peace and All Good.


High sounding


Just as Saint Francis’ father, Pietro Bernardone, changed his son’s name (he was abroad when his son was born in Assisi and was baptized with the name of John), so Anthony chose another name to mark a new beginning of the path he had decided to follow; a path he had discovered from the Franciscans. This choice can also be explained in the words of the author of the Assidua: “Having changed his former name, he himself adopted that of Anthony, thus giving a sign of how great a herald of God’s word he would become. Indeed, ‘Anthony’ more or less means ‘high sounding’. And, truly, when he spoke to the learned of God’s wisdom hidden in mystery, his voice like a strong trumpet proclaimed so many and such profound truths of the Bible that even a person who was accustomed to scriptural interpretation could rarely understand his eloquence” (Assidua, Chapter 5).

However, some time still had to pass before Ferdinand of Lisbon was to reach this point in his life.



Updated on April 21 2023