Where surnames come from – a brief history

In former times, people possessed just one name. Now we have (at least) two, a given first name or names and a hereditary second name. In western Europe societies experienced this shift from one name, changing from generation to generation, to two, the second of them passed on to their children. This took place over a long transitional period, when second names, or bynames, began to be used but were not stable and could change from one generation to the next. Moreover, individuals might have been known by a number of different bynames, or aliases.

This practice of taking a second name began in southern France, possibly as early as the 10th century. In the following century the fashion for bynames had spread to northern France, although north of the Channel second names were still rare at the time of Domesday Book in 1086, and even fewer Norman landowning families possessed permanent surnames. However, over the course of the 12th century the elite started regularly to use bynames. By 1150 around three quarters of the wealthier class at Winchester in Hampshire had two names. Even 70% of poorer, peasant families in East Anglia were known by two names by 1200. Overall, in England it’s been estimated that a byname had become universal by 1300. Second names were also universal in Cornwall by the time a list of taxpayers was made in 1327, although this was confined to the better-off.

Bynames were one thing, but fixed hereditary surnames quite another. Second names only stabilised in England over a lengthy period of time from around 1250 to 1400. Major landowning families tended to be first to possess surnames and most of them had them by the middle of the 13th century. Wealthier townsfolk followed suit, first in London, where surnames were common by 1300 and later in provincial towns. From there the fashion spread into the rural south of England, where it was unusual for anyone not to have a stable surname by 1400. Meanwhile, surnames became the norm in the north somewhat later, in the 15th century, while stable, hereditary surnames were rare in Wales before the 1600s outside the English-speaking enclaves.

And what of Cornwall? In Cornwall at this time we would have found two cultures. In the east the Cornish language had ceased to be used as the vernacular language sometime before the Black Death in 1349. Here, there’s no reason to assume that the timing of the acquisition of surnames differed from that of neighbouring Devon, where surnames had been stabilised by the late 14th century. Indeed, at Werrington, now part of Cornwall but then regarded as Devonian, stable surnames had become usual by the 1360s. While east Cornwall followed the English pattern, it was very different in the west. In mid and west Cornwall, west of the Camel-Fowey line, Cornish remained the vernacular language into the 16th century and later. And in this area bynames also remained fluid well into the 1500s. It was no coincidence that the pattern in the western zone resembled that of Wales, with many families not adopting fixed surnames until the 1500s.

While the timing of the transition to hereditary surnames is now generally accepted the causes are a lot more debatable. It used to be thought that fixed surnames arose because of the demands of manorial record-keeping and the need to strengthen claims to land. This may well have been a factor among the landowning class. However, the presence of familiar, informal pet names as surnames and the use of nicknames, including many scurrilous and obscene examples that have since disappeared, suggests bynames, some of which became surnames, arose out of the community. People’s neighbours came up with the names rather than officials and clerks writing documents. Moreover, the combination of a keen knowledge of lineage in Welsh-speaking Wales (in a context of partible inheritance) but a lack of fixed surnames indicates that rights to land were not necessarily dependent on having stable surnames.

The geography of Cornwall's most common surname tells us a lot about the history of surnames in Cornwall.
The geography of Cornwall’s most common surname tells us a lot about the history of surnames in Cornwall.

And what about women? Women tended to be given second names later than men and until 1400 the naming of women after marriage remained fluid. Some women were known by their father’s name but others took their mother’s given name as a second name, or were given nicknames like the men. There were also female versions of some occupational names, for example Baxter for Baker or Webster for Weaver. For a time in the north of England women could be known by the addition of -daughter after a name, equivalent to -son for men (as in Johnsdaughter rather than Johnson). While still the case in Iceland, this custom had disappeared in the north of England by the 1500s. On marriage some women adopted their husband’s name; others retained their maiden name. The practice of simply taking the husband’s byname or surname only became general after 1400, a possible indication of greater dependency on men and a reminder that surnames can tell us about a lot more than simply the history of a particular family.

5 thoughts on “Where surnames come from – a brief history

  1. This is extremely fascinating, very interesting indeed. Very comprehensive, clear and thanks also for bringing in the differences with women’s names.


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