The purpose of medieval names was for identification in medieval England. English people only had one Christian name before 1066, but after William’s Battle of Hastings victory a new system was introduced by the Normans which featured surnames. By the twelfth century, society in England had more recognisable forenames and surnames like modern society.
There were six main categories assigned to surnames:
|Paternal names||Many people were known by their father’s name, e.g. John son of Richard. Over time this adapted to Johnson.|
|Place Names||Several people took the name of a place where they used to live, such as John of Lewes.|
|Topographical Names||This referred to a geographical feature where you lived, such as John atte Ford which would eventually have developed into Attford.|
|Occupation Names||Some people took their occupation’s name, e.g. Gilbert the Baker.|
|Office names||Some people’s names came from an official village duty they carried out, such as Richard the Reeve.|
|Nicknames||Nicknames normally referred to a person’s appearance or character, for instance, Henry the Bold.|
Once medieval towns began to grow, some names did not mean much as people did not really know anyone within the area. However the system continued to work well for people in villages and farms which had smaller populations and where the locals knew each other.
Confusion could be caused within the towns if someone happened to change their job role - e.g. if Gilbert the Baker became Gilbert the Butcher. Nicknames that described the way someone looked would not be appropriate after a long period of time, such as William the Red earning his name due to having red hair could have his name changed to William Ball if he went bald later in life, since ‘ball’ meant a bare patch of hair.
Over time as medieval England kept progressing, the tradition was that you simply took your father’s name in order to make the surname system somewhat easier.
See also: Medieval Surnames
"Medieval Names". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.