Where did Ockeghem come from—and how did he spell his name?
Jehan de Ockeghem was born around 1420 in the town of Saint Ghislain, near Mons, in the county of Hainaut and in the diocese of Cambrai. Saint Ghislain lies in modern-day Belgium, about 50 miles southwest of Brussels and less than ten miles from the present border with France.
The county of Hainaut or Hainault was a lordship within the Holy Roman Empire with its capital at Mons (Bergen in Flemish). The name comes from the river Haine. Hainaut comprised what is now the Belgian province of Hainaut and part of the French département of Nord, and included the cities of Charleroi to the east of Mons and, to the southwest, Valenciennes and the diocesan seat of Cambrai, both in latter-day France. In 1420 the county was ruled by Jacqueline, daughter of duke Wilhelm II of Bavaria-Straubing, but in 1432 it was ceded to the Duchy of Burgundy under Philip the Good. In 1477, upon the death of Charles the Bold, it passed to the Habsburgs along with the rest of the Burgundian Netherlands.
The composer’s given name was Jehan or Jean, normally given as Johannes in Latin or other non-French contexts. The surname suggests that his family originated in the town of Okegem on the Dendre, less than 35 miles to the north in East Flanders. But during the later Middle Ages, Hainaut was culturally and linguistically French, and Jehan most likely grew up speaking French as his first tongue. By the mid-1440s he was living and working in France, and from about 1450 until his death in 1497 he was a member of the chapel of the the king of France and lived in Tours, in the Loire Valley.
Ockeghem’s Flemish family name was a source of endless confusion to speakers of French, Italian, German, and other languages, and it may be found spelled in a bewildering variety of ways in contemporary sources: Ockeghem, Okeghem, Okegheem, Ockegheem, Okeghen, Okeghan, Okenghem, Ockenheim, Okekam, Obekhan, Obergan, Hockeghen, Hoquegan, Hocquergan, Hoiquergan, Holreghan, Okegus. E. Giraudet, in Les artistes tourangeaux (Tours, 1885), reproduces a presumed autograph signature on p. 312, but fails to indicate the source, which is otherwise unknown and is now apparently lost. Nevertheless, modern scholarship has generally accepted the authenticity of the signature, in part due to the unusual formation of the c, which could be taken for an e; such an oddity, as Jaap van Benthem has written, “might plead against any suggestion of a nineteenth-century attempt [at] forgery.” The signature, assuming it is indeed genuine, establishes that, at least on this one occasion, the composer spelled his last name OCKEGHEM.