Before 1066, English people were only identified by a single Christian name. However, William the Conqueror’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings saw the introduction of a new Norman system, under which people were expected to have a surname.
By the 12th Century, this system had been fully adopted and the English had recognisable forenames and surnames like we do in 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. This slowly adapted to shortened versions, such as Richardson.|
|Place Names||Some medieval people took the name of a place where they used to live, such as Henry of Lewes.|
|Topographical Names||Topographical names referred to a geographical feature where you lived, such as John atte Ford which would eventually have developed into John Attford.|
|Occupation Names||Some people took their occupation’s name e.g. Gilbert the Baker.|
|Office names||Some names came from an official duty they carried out in their village or town, such as Richard the Reeve.|
|Nicknames||Nicknames normally referred to a person’s appearance or character, for instance Charles the Bold.|
As medieval towns began to expand, the system became less personal as people were unfamiliar with local families. However, it continued to be popular in villages where smaller populations meant parents were often well known.
There was scope for confusion when names were linked with occupations or roles as both were subject to change e.g. if Harold the Baker became Harold the Butcher. Changes were also possible when it came to traits and appearance, which could also cause confusion e.g. William the Red, named after his red hair, could become William the Ball if he became bald, with ‘ball’ referring to a bare patch.
Over time, Medieval England slowly developed a system whereby people simply took their father’s name for ease - a custom that is still incredibly common today.
See also: Medieval Surnames
"Medieval Names". HistoryLearning.com. 2023. Web.