Young girls on tour at the Ozark Medieval Fortress, when we talk about marriage and family life, often ask if they had family names (surnames) in the Middle Ages. The answer is yes, by the time of our castle. In the Dark Ages (early Medieval) people were generally illiterate and travel was limited, so first names were enough. As the Middle Ages progressed and travel increased, added names came to be used. They generally came from one of five possibilities. The oldest tradition is your family place (Jesus of Nazareth). Very old is a name from your father (Peterson, Johnson). Sometimes the second name, especially for girls, was taken from the mother (Hilliard, Marriott). Also from early times, a name was added that was descriptive (Fox for a clever person). As the Middle Ages progressed through the high Middle Ages, many surnames were taken from the family trade (Miller, Smith, Carpenter, Potter). During the 1200’s, surnames became predominant in all classes. However, they were not necessarily passed on to the next generation. My surname would have been Olafson, while my son’s name would have been Jameson. If a person changed trade, he could change his last name to reflect the change.
In our day, with certified birth certificates, photo i.d.’s and Social Security numbers, this seems strange. We were not always this organized. For America, many immigrants names were changed, intentionally or by error upon arrival. Slaves had not been given surnames and took them when they became free. In our Western expansion, many people changed their names to avoid their past. We have grown from 1 billion to nearly 7 billion people in the world. Maybe we will need to add more names (or numbers?).