Archiver > ADVANCED-RESEARCH > 2010-08 > 1281559323

From: "Ralph Taylor" <>
Subject: [ADVANRES] Beginning of Surnames
Date: Wed, 11 Aug 2010 14:42:03 -0600

There may be no questions more significant to genealogy than how and when
surnames for common people came into general use. For most of us, it defines
the beginning of the genealogical time frame - that period for which it's
possible to specifically identify ancestors.

Yet, there seems to be hardly any authoritative information on the subject
in general (Most is pure, unfounded speculation.) and almost none for
specific surnames. It is greatly under-investigated and has attracted very
little academic interest. (Strange, since surnames are such a important
feature of modern life, but were once unknown in Europe.) I am putting
forward a theory for which I would like to invite comment; this list seems
the best place to do it.

The theory is that the practice of surnames for European commoners came out
of the social, political & economic turmoil following the Black Death, most
specifically the bubonic plague pandemic of 1348/1349.

By "surnames", I mean hereditary family names -- names passed down from
fathers (or perhaps mothers) to their children and again to the children's
children, the children's children's children and so on.

o I do not mean "sobriquets", names which may have applied to an individual
but not to descendants. Examples: Ethelred the Unready (Saxon king who
gained the throne unexpected), Malcolm Canmore (Scots king with a big head),
Harald Bluetooth (Danish king with a bad tooth)

o Nor, do I mean strict patronymics, as in Leif Ericson who was the son of
Eric "the Red" Thorvaldsson, and whose son was Thorkell Leifsson.

o Nor, do I mean titles which may have been inherited by one child but not
another. Example: Eleanor of Aquitane (Duchess of Aquitane)

o Nor, do I mean designations which did not go to children for whom the
designation didn't fit. Examples: Marie of Wissenburg (non-distinguishing
while in Wissenburg) or the 1172 recording of "Roger le Tayleur" (tailor to
the king, but not applied to his children)

A competing theory is population growth (for which I've found no
substantiation). Arguing against the growth theory is that commoners'
surnames appear almost immediately after the greatest population reduction
in European history and not during prior growth periods.

Population movement following depopulation of some areas by wars and natural
disasters has also been propounded as an explanation. Yet, there seems to be
little correlation between these events and general surname use.

The first people, it appears, to adopt the practice of inherited family
names were the Chinese, from at least 2,500 years ago. They had rigid rules
about names, including given and middle names. However, the Chinese put the
family name first in the string of names, so "surname" isn't quite accurate.

The Romans sometimes used two, three, or even four names and one of those
sometimes indicated a clan. However, the practice seems to have come and
gone and not been well institutionalized. We do not see surnames appearing
generally in the conquered areas during the Roman period, a time of
population growth.

The next people with hereditary surnames seem to have been aristocratic
Venetian families as early as (or earlier than) the 1190s. Other nobles
passing through Venice on their return from the Crusades seem to have liked
the idea, picked it up for their own use and spread it throughout Europe.

But still, surnames were only for aristocrats; most people didn't have them.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, serfs were still bound to the land and even
the proto middle class (e.g., English yeomen) lived and died mostly where
they were born. Where given names proved inadequate, sobriquets and other
designations sufficed.

The Black Death, striking first in 1348*, changed Europe forever and left it
less stable than before. (Even more, I'd argue, than the ideas brought back
from the Crusades.) Some areas lost 40% of their population; the average is
put at about 33%. This was an epic cataclysm, rivaling the asteroid strike
that eliminated the dinosaurs. That it would result in dramatic social
changes can hardly be surprising.

People fled the cities to escape (e.g., Chaucer's tales). Many serfs died
and left their masters short of laborers. Many masters died and were unable
to prevent serfs from leaving the land. Wages spiked dramatically due to the
labor shortages; attempts to control them, e.g., "Statute of Labourers of
1351", proved only partly successful.

Envision a vast churning of the population, with unknowns arriving in places
which hadn't seen strangers before. And, envision the authorities struggling
with controlling and collecting taxes from these folks. For the ruling
class, it was a mess; a better way was needed to keep track.

Somewhere, I came across a mention of a 1353 decree by or statute under
Edward III (1312-1377, his surname is given as Plantagenet) requiring all
his subjects without surnames to take one. Unfortunately, I didn't record
the citation and now can't find it; it seems to get lost among the many
changes Edward initiated . According to this source, Edward gave four
categories his subjects could choose a name from:
o Occupation: Taylor, Smith, Wright, Clark, Cooper, Carpenter, Plumber.
o Location: Gates, Hill, Towne, Leigh (wood), Woods, Banks (e.g., of a
river) Note that these are not necessarily the names of towns, but locations
known to the residents of a small area such as a parish.
o Color: White, Brown, Greene, Black
o Physical Characteristics: Short, Little, Bigg, Stout

By 1400, according to,
most English and Scottish families had surnames. (Timing is the obvious
argument for the theory.) But, that didn't mean new surnames weren't created
or brought into the realm from other places.

Not included in the above categories are patronymic-derived names: Anderson,
Stevenson, Harris, etc. In Germanic areas, there also would have been "farm
names"; a man might have acquired the name of a farm when he married into
the family that owned it.

The Plague's upheaval also seems to have interfered with the practice of
handing down trades, father to son. By 1480, my ancestor Thomas Taylor is
born and he was an animal husbandman, not a cutter of cloth.

After one of the many Irish rebellions against England's rule, the English
forced the surname practice onto the Irish.

The Dutch came very late to the surname game. They were still (mostly?)
without surnames when conquered by Napoleon in 1811 and forced to take them
in a lottery. Scandinavians stuck to their patronymic system late too, into
the 19th century.


* Note: Some will recall "Justinian's Plague" of the 6th to 8th centuries,
which killed up to 25% of eastern Mediterranean people; it may not have been
the same infectious agent. We should also note that 1348 represented only
the first of several successive waves of Plague epidemics into the 1700s; it
was, however, the most severe.

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