What’s in a Name?

When William the Conqueror, a.k.a. William the Bastard, came to England, he brought many things in his train. For one thing, he brought the Norman version of the French language and laws. Relics of both of them are still to be found in our own language and laws. Then, too, he was followed by a whole load of relatives and lieges who quickly displaced the old English aristocracy and created that separation between the general population and their overlords that survives today in the English class system. He also brought a strict system of taxation which led (among other things) to our tradition of censuses.

One could go on. The Conqueror brought lots of other things, but one of them is practically the embodiment of the Law of Unintended Consequences: The Conquest brought names.

Now this might seem a lot like the proverbial “Coals to Newcastle” kind of import. Because if there was anything the inhabitants of Britain had, it was names. Not only did they have previous imports from the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, etc., but they liked to invent new ones. This stemmed from an apparent tradition of giving children names shared by no one else in the area. That way there was never any confusion about which Aeðelbeorht, Earconberct, or Wuscfrea you meant when you were talking about them. And, after all, how many Thryduulfs does any village need?

But William changed all that. And he changed it in two ways.

First, he brought over a limited number of new, fashionable names like William, Robert, John, Roger, etc. Human beings being the sychophantic lot they are, villages soon found themselves with half a dozen Williams, a few Roberts, and a smattering of Johns. Now when they found themselves talking about citizen William, it was not at all clear which William they were talking about.

This was a minor irritation, no doubt, but another consequence of the Norman takeover made it a matter of real importance.

Because the Normans were very serious about taxes. One of the first things they did was to start compiling lists of pretty much everyone so no one could escape the tax collector. From the Norman clerks point of view, it was simply unacceptable that their tax rolls could be ambiguous about exactly which Robert owned the village mill and which one was the poor farm laborer.

So a couple of things happened. First, for their own use the villagers started to add distinguishing terms to names, like William atte Bridge, William who lived by the bridge, or Robert the Butcher. Second, those worthy clerks put their own expansions on the rolls, like Roger filius Aeðelbeorht, Roger, son of Aeðelbeorht (parenthetically, the scribe’s efforts to put names like that into good Latin adds a fair amount of humor and not a little confusion to the rolls).

The invading Norman nobles and the old Anglo-Saxon nobility had been adding descriptors to their names for some time. Usually it was based on their estates or home regions like Hugo de Beaumont or Godcild of Lamburnan. But now the merchant classes, the artisans, and even the peasants had to acquire some way to separate themselves and satisfy the tax man.

In other words, William the Bastard brought us a new invention, the surname (from the French, ‘additional name’).

So how do you make a surname? The ways are many and strange, but let’s just look at a few.

Contrary to popular belief, the Scandinavian addition of “son” as in Johnson or Ericson, is not the preferred method. If you think about it, giving someone a byname based on their father’s name is most likely good for one generation only. Robert Johnson’s son would be a Robertson, not a Johnson, and so on. It does work with clan leaders. The clan founded by Eric could be Ericsons for generations.

On the other hand, names of location (toponyms) work pretty well. Families often lived on the same farm or near the same place for generations. So the family that lived by the gate could become the Gates or the Atgates and the name would become traditional. And anybody who moved to a city, say London, would be sure to be known (as would his descendants) by the place he came from. Dick the Yorkshireman would be likely to become Dick York. Angus the Scotsman could become Angus Scott, and so on. Our talent for continuing to regard our neighbors as foreigners since they’ve been here for a mere four or five generations is captured in surnames.

Another way to make a surname, and one that gives descendants no end of fun, is by occupation. Anyone named “Smith” has a pretty good bet that some ancestor probably pounded metal, whether it was iron (blacksmith), gold (goldsmith), silver (silversmith) tin (whitesmith), copper (coppersmith), and on and on. Fletchers made arrows, Chaucers made shoes & leggings, and Slaymakers made shuttles. Gustav Fransson, the author of Middle English Surnames of Occupation, found 165 occupations relating to the cloth industry, 108 for the metal trades, and 107 having to do with provisions. So there’s a fertile field for those who want to guess where their name came from.

But beware, there are lots of traps hiding in family names. Take our friend Bridge (Or Bridges or Bridger or Bridgeman). Did he make bridges, repair bridges, take tolls at a bridge, live near a bridge, or perhaps was just bound to someone who did all those things? Hard to tell.

Then, too, as the years passed, the tax rolls became redolent with anomalies. Entries like “Jacob Tailor, farrier (horse shoer)” or John Smith, mercer (dealer in textiles) suggest that the separation between name and occupation began fairly early.

We might imagine that someone who had a surname that was a complete misfit to their occupation or location would want to change what they were called. So why didn’t they just change it? Here I have a suspicion of my own.

I imagine a scene where the lord’s clerk came to the village to update the tax rolls. He examines the old tax roll and calls out “John Lister.” You explain that your father, John, who was indeed a dyer (lister) was sadly dead, but that you, William now live in the same house with your mother. You are a mason.

The clerk frowns. Your story disagrees with his rolls. You are John Lister’s son, own his house and owe his taxes. Clearly you are William Lister. He calmly enters that name on his updated roll and there you are. It may be wrong, but it’s down in black and white. I suspect this happened a lot. The power of the pen.

Sort of a medieval version of Ellis Island.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *