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ORIGIN OF FAMILY NAMES.
Family names were in use among the Romans and the great antiquity of the early Roman patrician gentes is indisputable, yet toward the close of the republic there were not more than fifty patrician families. (Dionys. i. 85.) Even in these, owing to the trequency of the practice of adoption, while the historical identity of the family was certain, yet it was no guarantee of the personal genealogy of the individual. The plebeians also began to preserve the busts and names of those of their family who attained to curule office. The many and great social changes, however, which marked the closing centuries of the Western Empire militated with great strength against the maintenance of an aristocracy by birth and as a consequence family names fell into disuse.
In modern Europe prior to the middle of the eleventh century surnames were entirely unknown and the documents speak merely of Fredericus, Ernestus and the like, with at most only the addition of the title. This absence of family names presents an insuperable barrier to genealogizing back beyond that time.
About the year 1050 the custom of using family or surnames (that is a descriptive name added to the christian name) began; but it made way so very slowly that even at the close of the twelfth century it had not diffused itself very much beyond the ranks of the higher nobility and throughout the thirteenth century the old habit of self-designation by the christian name merely was still exemplified in a vast number of instances. (Encyc. Brit. "Genealogy.")
Even William, the Conqueror, had no family name, but assumed a surname as is shown by his proclamation as follows: "I, William, surnamed the Bastard."
Gatterer in his "Abriss der Genealogie" (sec. 41, A. D., 1788) says that there is only one class of cases in which it is possible to trace a pedigree beyond the eleventh century—those cases, namely, where a family happens to have established a fund for the deliverance of the souls of certain ancestors (christian names specified) from purgatory.
Mr. Edward A. Freeman, the distinguished English historian, has proved most conclusively that very few families in England could trace a descent from scions of the fourteenth century and he mentions only some five or six families whose history could be proved as belonging to the time of William, the Conqueror. The Domesday book alone (1080-1086) proves the absence of surnames.
Camden says ("Britannia" A. D. 1586) that the first use of surnames in England was in the Great Domesday book and that this was the beginning of family names in Great Britain.
The Great Domesday book of England was a survey of the counties of England begun by order of William, the Conqueror, and completed about the year 1086. It was an enumeration not only of the lands in the Kingdom but also of the names of the landholders and tenants, the size and description of their holdings, the number of their villeins and slaves and the number and kinds of their live stock. The surnames found in it, if they can be called such, either merely indicate the owners place of residence, as Robertus de Albemarle (i. e. of or residing at Albemarle), or his relationship, as Robertus, Alius Geroldi (Robert, son of Gerald), Aldrit frater Odonis, (Aldrid, brother of Odo), or his office, profession or vocation, as Gulielmus Camerarius (William, the Chamberlain), Radulphus Venator (Rudolph, the hunter) Gislebertus Cocus (the cook). They were, of course, certainly surnames in the sense that they were descriptive of the persons whose christian names they followed, just as Tom, of San Francisco, Dick, the son of Richard and Harry, the cook, would represent the surnames of Tom, Dick and Harry. It is true that many of the descriptive names used in Domesday book did descend from father to son and thereby became true family names, but in a large number of other cases they did not become hereditary.
Even in the Domesday book descriptive names were for the most part only applied to the larger landholders. Each county or shire is treated separately. There is a numbered list of the landholders and tenants in each. The King (always Rex, possessive Regis, for the book is written in Latin) comes first in order. Following him come the great church and lay tenants and these in turn are followed by the smaller proprietors and sub-tenants. In most cases these small proprietors are described by their christian names alone and without any attempt at further descriptive or surnames.
About A. D. 1350, "to speak generally, the surnames of the middling and lower ranks began to descend from father to son but even at the beginning of the fifteenth century there was much confusion in names" (Lower's "English Surnames," p. 20). The middle class had become important politically in the latter half of the thirteenth century. Between 1258 and 1350 burgesses had been summoned to parliament, city representation in parliament was established, taxes could not be imposed without the consent of this middle class and wages for workmen had risen enormously on account of the Great Plague and scarcity of laborers. Surnames then became general during the fourteenth century among the middle and working classes, who were more prosperous and independent than they had ever been before. In the rising of the English peasantry in 1381 Wat Tyler was the leader; Wat being an abbreviation of the christian name Walter and Tyler being a surname meaning the trade or occupation of a tiler, one who tiles roofs of houses. This name was evidently inherited from his father since Wat Tyler himself was a blacksmith. But among the people of England generally it is undoubtedly true, as Mr. M. A. Lower observes ("English Surnames," p. 22), that "surnames can scarcely be said to have been permanently settled before the era of the Reformation (Archaeologia Vol. XVIII p. 108). The keeping of Parish Registers, begun A. D. 1538, was probably more instrumental than anything else in settling them, for it is not likely that a person baptized by one surname would be married under another and buried under a third."
Of course some few of the middle class families, perhaps those connected or intimate with the nobility or higher classes, followed the example of the latter and adopted surnames even before the thirteenth century. From an examination of ancient documents, while pursuing some investigations as to the origin of the name "King" I discovered abundant evidence that the family or surname "King" was well established as early as the twelfth century and probably long before that. The following are some of these records: "Grant by Peter, the Prior and the Convent of the Holy Trinity to Alan King" in the time of Richard I, A. D. 1190, "Descriptive Catalogue of Ancient Deeds," published by the Government of Great Britain, p. 198, A. D. 1695. Mention is also made of Roger Kynge in Middlesex A. D. 1199. See also Domesday Book of St. Pauls for the year 1222 in which is mentioned "Hugh King" as a tenant at Thorp (p. 40), "Robert King," tenant at Ardleigh (p. 26), "William King" tenant at Novestoke (p. 85), "William King" son of Roger de Tia (p. 84). So also in "Calendarium Genealogicum, Inquisitions Post Mortem" (Records of Chancery Proceedings—De Morte Rodulphi de la Greve) p. 7 we find an order made in the 28th year of Henry III (A. D. 1244) relating to "Willielmus Kyng, alias King;" and another order relating to "Robertus, dictus (called) King" (in the year 1247). In the "Calendar of the Close Rolls" (pp. 12-13) we find that on March 4, 1308 an order is made to the sheriff of the County Devon for the release of Richard le Kyng" and "Harlewyn King" (without the "le"). A great many deeds made during the 12th and 13th centuries wherein persons having the surname King are mentioned either as grantors or grantees can be found in the "Catalogue of Ancient Deeds" mentioned above.
All names, without exception, were originally significant, although in the course of ages the meanings of many of them have lapsed from the memory of mankind. If the names of common objects were not dictated by mere caprice, and philology has shown clearly that they were not, certainly the names of persons had no such vague beginning. A glance at the Bible-names shows that they all had a meaning, as for instance Abraham, which meant "the father of many nations" (Gen. CXVII, v. 5), his wife Sarah meaning "princess," Israel, meaning " a prince of God" (Gen. CXXXII v. 28), Melchizedek, "King of Righteousness." Nearly all Hindoo names are epithets and the same is true as to Anglo-Saxon, old French and English names of the middle ages. We see the same thing exemplified in Indian names.
English surnames originally designated place of residence, estate, occupation or some particular thing or event that related to the person. Many names of today at once show their relation to or connection with familiar objects, such for instance as Wood, Church and Hall; other names again are evidently epithets, such as Wise, Good, Long and Little; others are descriptive of personal appearance, as Brown, Black and White. The son of William, the Conqueror, was surnamed Rufus (red) from the color of his hair. Some names clearly indicate the occupation followed by an ancestor, as Smith, Carpenter, and Miller; while others again indicate localities as Forest, Heath and Hill.
The use of surnames began, as we have seen, among those of highest rank. The heir of the estate or office naturally adopted the same name on the death of his ancestor and so a true family name arose. The younger sons would take the names of the several manors that might be given to them as their share of the estate. Pride of birth and a desire to show their connection with some powerful or distinguished person made the name common to all the children of the same father. Charters in the eleventh and twelfth centuries often describe the same individual under different surnames; sometimes because he had lost his original manor or because he had come into possession of a more valuable one, but as a rule there was handed down to the children the name of the oldest or richest estate they possessed. The Crusades gave rise to many surnames taken from the devices on the shields of the Knights, such for instance as Griffin, Rose and the like. But I have said enough to emphasize the fact that each name had originally a meaning and was descriptive of the identity of the individual or family.