History familyname

General background of family names in germanic Europe

Before there were towns, one simple name was sufficient for persons. Two identical names on farms or in villages were seldom used or never caused a problem.

However, as civilisation in towns developped in the 11th century, many persons with the same name lived together, which could cause confusions. The growth of population, trade and prefering certain names made the situation worse. The following brought clarification:

  • The name was used followed by the father's name and grandfather's name.
  • Persons were called more precisely: James the miller, Olaf the red, Peter the short.
  • Using family names for generations had already been a traditon in northern Italy. Between the 8th and 11th centruy, this tradition slowly wandered through Italy and France towards the southern germanic areas of Europe, from where it started to spread widely; first in towns along the river Rhine and later all over central Europe.

All these elements came together in the process of using family names. They were first used of people of noble birth and among the population of towns, later also in rural and remote areas. Only by the 17th and 18th century family names were used all over Europe.

Additional reasons for the use of family names were:

  • Administration and taxation of the population, which necessitated precise identification.
  • Inheritance of rights and property required a clear assignment and thus naming of the family line.

Many family names directly show their background. Refer to German versioin of this site for more examples.

Please contact the site author if you have additional, different or new information about this subject.