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Saturday, August 21. 2010
I was curious about when English surnames became fixed in time by inheritance rather than being individual descriptors of convenience which were only used for one's lifetime.
First, we have to go back to the pre-surname era. In pre-medieval England, the population was so small, and most villages so tiny, that, if your name was Merthin, everybody around knew who you were. Then the Norman Conquest Frenchified England. Many or most of the colorful old Anglo-Saxon given names (like Aldwyn and Odelia and Theomund) disappeared and were replaced with names of French origin like these four:
As with traditional Scandinavian names, patronymic surnames are not fixed but are labels of convenience: they change with each generation. "Which John do you mean?" "Oh, John Robert's son.") Robert Richardson's son John becomes John Robertson. (Shifting surnames, of course, persists with women still generally taking on their husband's surname.)
The Medieval Warm Period saw a rapid growth in the English population, with the growth of market towns and cathedral towns, often with thousands in population. Descriptors became necessary: John (who lives on the) Hill, William (the) Carpenter, Jack (who came here from) Aisnley, Roger (the) Knight. By late Medieval times, descriptive (but not fixed) surnames were fairly universal except in small farming villages. These were, generally speaking,
Thus we had Christian (given) names, and descriptive, non-hereditary surnames. As best I can tell, literacy and record-keeping led the way towards fixed surnames around or slightly before 1500 (although they were probably implied before that among the land-owning aristocracy: eg William, Lord of Westmoreland's sons were probably forever Westmoreland in some way unless the King punished you by taking your land away, or cutting your head off.) As Wiki says:
Ah yes, there's the answer: government edict, no doubt for control and taxation purposes.
Because of this, it is difficult or impossible to trace non-aristocratic English geneologies much further back than 1500, when John Miller's son Jack the carpenter was named Jack Miller instead of Jack the Carpenter. Before that, there were minimal church records and either no surnames, or no consistency in them if there were any. Furthermore, it did not take long for every town to be filled with unrelated Smiths, Carpenters, Millers, Weavers, Masons, Brewers, Bakers, Hills, Fields, and Rivers. And Bankers (lived near a riverbank - there were no "banks") and Farmers (farm tax-collectors, not tillers of the soil). It's funny, but although they made up the bulk of the population at one time, Serf never became popular as a surname while Freeman did...
Perhaps serfdom isn't all it's cracked up to be, despite its European and maybe North American comeback these days.
More tomorrow, including why, if you are of English or French ancestry, you are almost certainly related to Charlemagne -
Surnames, Part 2: Why your surname really means nothing
(Surnames Part 1 here) Your surname means next to nothing genetically or geneologically. Furthermore, if you are of English or French descent, you are almost certainly some sort of relative of Charlemagne. Taking our surname t
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Interesting post, Barrister. A couple of things: 1) in regard to the 50% of male babies having four common first names, I am surprised to learn that my first and middle names are two of them. 2) On my paternal side, the family can be traced back to Germany to the late 1500s, which is where the church records begin. I wonder if there was a trend across Europe to record surnames beginning in the1500s?
oops, i put this on the Archimedes limerick thread (which had tripped my limerick circuit) but meant it here on the surname thread: (ahem)...
You Angles & Saxons
can trace through your back sons
and see who you were long ago;
while with no ancient borders
nor surname recorders
and geneology practically Runed,
us Norse by contrast
seem to not have a past,
and feel free of time yet marooned.
well, thanks, mr. bird, son of...mmm...let me rephrase that....
Buddy ... that's Angels and Saxons, please ...
ok, MM, but the Angles are not gonna like it. The Jutes are already so mad, having been left out, as it were, of the "Anglo-Saxon" label altogether, that they are said to have turned blue.
Aristos here take pride in boasting of their descent from those who came over with William....my family where waiting for them and we havn't accepted them yet!
Name like Thud, you gotta be a Celt, Saxon, or more likely a cave-dweller.
Pretty much Celt...but maybe the odd Saxon sneaked a bit of dna in here and there.
McLeod... Son of Ugly.
I'm told from the old Norse 'leoid'.
So it wasn't good looks that started Clan McLeod. I'm proud to carry on that fine tradition to this day.
If you are ugly. I want the shepard's staff back.
Plus I don't want a pony. I want a baby elephant to help me with the sheep.
Son of Dago.
But ah son of Dago and brave knight... the ugly is why I need the staff. It is the only method I have of 'attracting' the fairer sex.
The elephant will be difficult. It may take someone of wit, charm and the delightful guile of the afore mentioned fairer sex to procure such a beast.
Is that staff really a club? I know it is.
Luther the Ugly: "Oh my. You are a lovely lass."
Son of Dago witnesses the Viking seduction and says to hell with herding sheep, I can save money this way and I won't even have to talk or sing beneath her balconey.
I think there was lots of inbreeding in my clan, cause I still can't spell Shepherd, plus I am so dysfunctional.
Surnames might also be taken by those who served an important local figure. Girl's names were similarly limited: 50% were Mary, Elizabeth, Ann, or Alice.
feeblemind, yes the practice does coincide with the increased value of the individual, now more than merely a group member.
DNA tests are now making these identifications more interesting. I recommend Sykes' Vikings, Saxons, & Celts. You can anticipate Barrister's argument if you can do your powers of two for each generation back to 800 AD. You actually don't have a trillion ancestors from that time, obviously. It's called "pedigree collapse," and you likely had no more than two million ancestors on the planet at any given date no matter how far you go back.
Goody. Because I was going to ask AVI about that 'pause'. I remember learning about it but can't remember the details. Looking forward to tomorrow's lesson.
If all the people on the planet disappeared, how many people would it take to repopulate the planet with no inbreeding?
somewhere there is a paper on a time when the human race came within a hair of falling below the sustainable minimum. it was the weather iirc, and ice age interstitial perhaps, or a cosmic event --but the number 60,000 sticks in my mind. it's probably on the net --i think three or four years ago the article came out. Uh oh, the close shave was maybe the 60,000 --years ago and not numbers of people --dangit --google here i come --
hell that was easy.
70,000 years ago. Drought. Africa. got down to maybe 2000 humans left on this planet.
So, 2000, looks like is the answer to your question, Meta.
Twas about 70,000 years ago and involved a mucking great volcanic eruption. H.s. sapiens was the one that recovered the fastest.
Now it should be noted that some name explanations are just wrong. In my research (forgot to take notes) I learned that my family name does not mean "kill-hog". In other words, we were never butchers. Another Kellogg (now a McKellogg for some dang reason) traced the name back to a Scottish lowland clan who moved enmass to England after Pooftah Eddie crushed a Scottish rebellion (we sided with King Edward and our neighbors didn't much care for that). One could further trace the clan back to the Irish clans who colonized southern Scotland back around the 6th and 7th centuries; back when things were a tad unsettled what with all the unenforced immigration laws and all that.
Add in the fact that some folk do tend to go walkabout even when travel is a pain, and you get a surname seen all over England even before the Scottish branch decamped for friendlier turf.
Now, add in the fact that according to some Kellogg means either rooster or oak grove, and you're dealing with a potent name here. We're talking about the original druids, and not them posers what the fae keep bitching about come a Friday night when there's dang all on tv, and the streets are crowded with witless mortals seeking alcoholic oblivion. (Never ask a real elf what goes into those cookies.)
There are other, more cthonic names I shan't go into.
Toba. The largest eruption on the planet. The next in size will be Yellowstone. Scary.
Don't know why I've never dug into my genealogy much. Yet. But being Anglo-Saxon and derived from the British Isles, I figgered it was pretty basic A-S and Brit, and haven't bothered about it yet. But my maiden name places us firmly in the humbler classes [Reeder] who probably cut the reeds that were used to thatch the houses of the local tiny village. I do have one family name that has always fascinated me ... Titus, which generates visions of invading Roman centurions having it off with one of the local Saxon girls in the hedgerows around the aforesaid tiny village. Do any of you other folks have a Roman name like that in your family? Be fun to know what your ancestors were up to, wouldn't it?
I remember reading in the last year or so about a body which had been unearthed from a peat bog in Britain, and then had its DNA tested. The researchers/anthropologists then tested the DNA of villagers who lived in a village close to the peat bog today. They found an ancestral match to the bog guy.
So much for moving around a lot.
haha... "...invading Roman centurions having if off ... in the hedgerows..." You crack me up. Thinking of that, have you ever read Anya Seton. Historical fiction about the British that is just too wonderful. Maybe those Roman names morphed into Octavia, Augusta, Brutey, Bob.
As for that bog guy, I bet he just fell in coming home drunk from the pub. I wonder if they tested him for mead content. BWI - Bogging While Intoxicated.
Meta ... yes, I've read and enjoyed Anya Seton for a long time. And speaking of first names, my own may be Marianne, but I have a cousin/grandmother/greatgrandmother or second/third once removed cousin whose first name is Philadelphia. The original Philadelphia is reputed to have been the first white girl child born in the city of Philadelphia. Can you imagine having to carry that unwieldy first name around? As usual, nicknames help. When there were three generations of them living at the same time, one was Delly, one was Delphy and one was Phila.
Still strange though. I'm glad I'm in the Marianne line, tracing back to some roving Frenchman, I guess, having it off with a local sweetie. I think he probabbly married her. Folks had a habit of doing that before the beginning of the 20th century. At least there are fewer silly nicknames for Marianne.
Another fact I found out when I married a fifth generation Texan; all Southerners are dippy about genealogy, and can trace direct family members and even kissing cousins a long way back. They take this stuff very seriously and they can't understand why I'm so willfully ignorant about genealogy. I try to explain that I'll get to it when I get the time. Sometime.
Oh, I love it when someone enjoys an author I like. She also wrote a great book about John Winthrop. Wow, talk about a stilted society. Whew! But that's great. I love diving into one of her three-inch-thick tomes.
I'm the fourth in a line of Amarinthias. The name was shortened in my mother's generation, and as we couldn't have two in the house, I was given a nickname only my family uses. (Thank heavens.) The first Amarinthia received upon graduation from college two gold filigree bracelets. The same was followed with each generation and I gave them to my daughter last month upon her graduation.
My grandmother's first question to the friends I brought by her house in Charleston was: "Hello and who are your people?" Everyone answered accordingly without thinking a thing about it. She was president of the DAR in Charleston and the genealogy thing was her thing. It is most definitely a southern affair and one I did not acquire until somewhat half-heartedly of late.
Gotta say, "Philadelphia" provides some sweet nicknames. Beats some of the stupid names young people are using these days. ugh. I've believed if it's not a family name, don't pick it.
I once spent a few hours tracking "Larsen" then at a point called a great aunt --the last and only repository of info on that gen, to ask a question about great gramps the scandahoovian sailor who had jumped ship in port of Houston and gone to rice farming in Eagle Lake, TX. She said, "Oh, he just picked 'Larsen' because it was easy for Americans."
with bated breath i whispered "Aunt Laura....who...are we...really?"
She said, "Oh, Tyrgidssen or Sigurdssen or Halverssen or something."
I croaked, "well, you have it written down somewhere, right?"
She said "well, i did, but your cousin Olaf used all those old papers to start some wet wood in the stove back in the 50s."
"The BASTeRD!" i said.
"She said "Shame on you --he had a fresh goose and wanted to eat it."
HaHaHa. You made that up, Budsen Turgidsen. I just know it!
I should dig out my file on the family's Civil War men for Habu, but I won't. Too lazy.
I must say :
This is without doubt the best back-&-forth banter ever posted on MF , but ...
The time has come for you ladies, Buddy & Luther to come clean about being employed by Mr B.Dog :) 'cause I know you ain't writing this stuff For free ...ya'll are professionals employed to keep the underclass entertained .
..and in the off season Buddy can raise Mudbugs in 'dem Eagle Lake rice paddies .
i keep sending him invoices, ron, but like the duck asked the druggist about the chapstick just purchased, he answers "Can't you put it on my bill?"
Jews have been using patronymics since way before this. There are some in the Bible - and the Talmud is full of Rabbi X ben Y (ben= son of, like the Arabic "ibn"). There are also a number of place names and professions - one of the more picturesque being Rabbi Eliezer ha'Kappar = the caper picker.
So maybe Europeans were using patronymics and stuff a lot earlier, but just not writing them down?
Woe was me when I discovered my earliest recorded patrilineal progenitor in Ireland was an axe murderer.
A renowned axe murderer (he got into a heated argument with his employer, the local Norman English lord, and whacked his head off, which made him a local hero), but an axe murderer nonetheless.
The English were not too happy about that, and took appropriate responsive action against members of that clan, which may help explain why my Irish family name is relatively rare today.
I was very encouraged to find this site. I wanted to thank you for this cracker piece of family history. I definitely savored every little bit of info on your site, including of course, the poetry, since I am a poet myself, and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.
I've been taught that fixed surnames were first registered (if not invented) during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte for tax and census purposes.
Whether this is true or just the wisdom of the time when the history book we used at school was written I don't know.
Whether it's true for the country I come from or more generally I don't know either.
If true, it puts the adoption of surnames here several centuries after it happened in the UK.