Names, Medieval

views updated


The last traces of the Roman system of personal nomenclature scarcely outlasted the 6th century in the West. Under the empire the "three names" (praenomen, nomen, and cognomen ) that had earlier sufficed to designate the citizen were often swelled by the multiplication of cognomina to an unconscionable number. Reaction to this extravagance created a welcome for the principle observed by the barbarian invaders, that the individual had but one name. Even in thoroughly Romanized areas this name itself was, from the 5th century onward, increasingly likely to be of Germanic origin: in Gaul the proportion of Germanic to other names1 to 3 in the 5th century had become 3 to 1 by the 7th century, and four centuries later the few Greek and Roman names in use were almost all those of scriptural saints. Though vernacular forms naturally differed from language to language and though local popularity, such as that of Alan in Brittany, Baldwin in Flanders, and Edward in England, might affect distribution, the dominant names were then common to most of the countries of Christian Europe. Their universality was further emphasized by the fact that in written documents the same standard Latin forms translated them everywhere.

Various circumstances combined to restrict the number of names in general use during the Middle Ages. The sources of Germanic name formation had dried up by c. 850, and resistance to other innovating influences was protracted; e.g., the Church generally favored only names with religious associations. Of the names actually current at any given time, fashion concentrated popularity on relatively few: more than half the Englishmen named in 13th-century records are called John, William, Robert, Richard, or Henry. Once a name had gained favor, its success was prolonged by the custom, copiously attested for the English landowning classes but almost certainly not peculiar to them, whereby the name given to a child at Baptism was that of one of the godparents, unless longstanding family tradition or devotion to a particular saint dictated another choice. The continued vogue of the five names mentioned above actually raised to nearly twothirds the proportion of 14th-century Englishmen bearing one or another of them.

In everyday life people who had received the same name at Baptism might be known by differing hypocoristic or diminutive forms of it, and this must generally have been the case when, as often happened in the later Middle Ages, the same baptismal name was borne by two or more living children of the same parents. However, in documents in which the same Latin form rendered both the baptismal name itself and all the variant hypocoristics, confusion between namesakes could be avoided only by the addition of identifying particulars, or surnames.

Surnames, as thus defined, appear in French documents toward the close of the 10th century. At first they were used only occasionally and as a means of separating persons of the same name mentioned in the same instrument; later they occurred in contexts in which no such need for differentiation is apparent. They fall into four main classes. The first, which identify the bearer by reference to his parentage, are often collectively described as patronymics (a term that does not exclude metronymics); the second class indicate the individual's occupation, status, or nationality; the third are toponymics, or locality names, taken from his place of abode or origin; and the fourth are sobriquets alluding to his personal characteristics, physical or moral.

Early surnames are essentially personal and are by no means constant. The same person might be known at different times and in different places by different surnames, and scribes seem sometimes to have deliberately selected the one that was most apt in the circumstances of the transaction they were recording. The name par excellence of the individual was that he had received at Baptism; it remained fixed throughout his life except in the very rare cases in which it was changed by the bishop at Confirmation.

The processes by which surnames became hereditary are obscure, and generalization is not easy. It seems to be agreed that in all countries a tendency in this direction is observed among the nobility before the humbler classes; in the southern parts of individual countries before the northern; in town before country; and in France (early in the 11th century) and England (among the Norman invaders) before Germany. But one must wait until 1267 for a London jury to declare of a convicted felon, variously known as Cantebrigge and Derby, that he "ought, as they understand, to have his father's surname and thus to be called Roger de Cantebrigge."

It was certainly very slowly that surnames came to be conventionally regarded as hereditary; and in all countries there were long periods of transition during which some members of society had hereditary surnames, some had personal surnames, and some had no surnames at all. The stages in the transition are very roughly marked by changes in scribal practice. At their first appearance surnames are subjected in Latin documents to such Latinization as they will admit; but later there is a growing tendency to leave them in the vernacular. The significant of this, so far as patronymic surnames are concerned, may be deduced from 13th-century decisions of the English court of Common Pleas that Gilbertus filius Stephani and Johannes filius Walteri were inadmissible ways of naming Gilbert Fitz Estevene and John Fitz Wauter, whose respective fathers were not named Stephen and Walter.

Bibliography: e. w. fÖrstemann, Altdeutsches Namenbuch, 2 v. in 3 (v.1, 2d ed., v.2, 3d ed. 190016), v.1, Personennamen. g. e. cokayne, The Complete Peerage , ed. v. gibbs et al., v.3 (London 1913), app. c. e. g. withycombe, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names (2d ed. Oxford 1950). a. dauzat, Dictionnaire étymologique des noms de famille et prénoms de France (Paris 1951). p. h. reaney, Dictionary of British Surnames (London 1958).

[l. c. hector]