Medieval Monday: What’s in a Name?

medieval blacksmith

Medieval blacksmith

The surname has its origins in the Middle Ages, coming into use as the population grew and people needed a way to differentiate between those with the same first names. People didn’t necessarily inherit their surnames–they were specific to each person as a form of identity. Bynames might refer to a person’s appearance, size, or behavioral trait (i.e. John the Red, referring to John with the red hair). They might also describe someone’s occupation (Miller, Smith, etc.) or be a combination of these things. For the most part, noble or wealthy families avoided taking occupational surnames.  They would take their name from something significant relating to their land holdings.

Over time, these various surnames developed into many of the surnames people of European ancestry are still using today. Here are some less obvious examples that were used in Medieval England, and what they meant:

Bennett – Blessed
Bigge – Big and strong
Blunt – Blond hair
Bragg – Bold or daring
Chapman – Sold goods at markets
Clarke – Scholar or cleric
Cooper – Maker of wooden buckets
Crippen – Curly haired
Cruikshank – Crooked legs
Dempster – A judge
Foreman – Pig keeper
Payne – Pagan
Pollard – A bald man
Rolfe – Peasant
Sawyer – Man who saws logs
Tait – Cheerful
Turner – Turned wood on a lathe and made wooden bowls
Ward – Watchman or guardian

An “s” at the end of a name indicated “son of,” so Andrews would have meant “Son of Andrew”.  The name King or Prince was likely given to a very arrogant person–not necessarily someone with royal blood.  Someone who walked very fast might be called “Swift” or “Steptoe,” and a very large person might be called “Bull”.

There are so many interesting names from this era, I can’t possibly list them all.  Do you have a last name that can be traced back to the Middle Ages?  Mine does–it means Red Hair.  I also have a Yeager (hunter) and a Smith (blacksmith) among others.  It’s always interesting to speculate about who our distant ancestors were, how they got their names, and how those names got passed down through the generations.  At the very least, our unanswered questions could be the makings of some entertaining stories.  After all, inspiration often comes in the most unexpected places.

 

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