05/01/07 - surnames

In today's excerpt - last names:

"In administration too Francis [I of  France 1494-1547] was a modernizer. ... Aware of the increased number and mobility of the population, he decreed that every person take or be given a surname. About the same time Henry VIII [1491-1547] did likewise for his English subjects. This expansion of self by a double name has interesting social implications. It raised the common man nearer to the noble lord, fully tagged and distinguished by a coat of arms. ...

"In the sixteenth century the surname was a consequence of cutting loose from one's native soil. Many late medieval and  Renaissance poets and artists were and are still known by their first names:  Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo; Dante is even a nickname, the short form of Durante. When confusion with another had to be avoided, the place name supplied it: Raphael da Urbino, Leonardo da Vinci. The peasant or artisan, the monk or midwife were content with a baptismal name as long as they kept to their usual narrow orbit. But with travel (and exile) more frequent, with the needs of stricter tax collecting and religious conformity, rulers at every level wanted to register their subjects unmistakably. In Spain no edict was needed. The long conflict (and intermarriage) with the Moors and Jews had made descent a matter of uncommon pride and at times a claim to privilege. From this came the practice of double and sometimes multiple surnames, showing father, mother, title and  place of origin—Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra—and the longer the better: Maria Teresa Velez del Hoyo y Sotomayor.

"In other countries, after the call for verbal ID, the question was, where to look for a good tag. Four main kinds were hit upon: the nickname given by the neighbors—Bright, Stout; the dwelling place: Hill, Woods; the trade or office: Smith, Marshall; and paternity: John(son) or MacShane, which also means John's son. That this last leads to the contradiction of Mary Johnson only shows how words can defy their derivation."


Jacques Barzun


From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2000 by Jacques Barzun


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