The role of luck in the history of surnames

While giving a talk on surnames last week at Madron, just outside Penzance, I was reminded of the role of chance in the history of family names.

One unpredictable aspect was the relative proportion of male children born. If several boys were born into a family and they all survived, then the family name was likely to multiply. If on the other hand the children were mainly girls or the boys didn’t survive infancy, a rare family name might be put in jeopardy even though the bloodline continued. In this way, some surnames prospered while others died out.

Another chance effect lay in the way that different families responded to the constraints and opportunities posed by economic change. Why did some family names disperse widely while others remained attached to particular locations? The answer has to be chance.

Take two names that both arose in the parish of Madron. Here are distribution maps for Maddern, from the parish name, and Truran, from a place in the early 1500s called Treuren and now Trewern, in the same parish.

Trurans had already in the 1500s and 1600s shown a greater propensity to move. By 1861 the distribution of the two surnames was very different.  Why had Trurans dispersed whereas Madderns hadn’t? Has the role of pure chance been underestimated?

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