The Earliest Names
William and His Book
What's in a Name
The majority of European surnames or family names come from geographical locations or terms, occupations, relationships, or an individual's unique characteristics or physical appearance.
After the Normans had dominated England for several decades, William decided to document the population he had come to control. From this early census report came the Domesday Book, which is one of the earliest records we have of names and naming trends.
As could be expected, thanks to the Norman tradition, the names that were listed showed a reliance on a small group of names for each gender, as well as a strong preference for specific names within each group. Most of society at the time relied on a select list of 20 names for each gender, with Henry, John, Thomas, Richard, Robert, and William accounting for four fifths of the male population; Agnes, Alice, Cicely, Elizabeth, Helen, Isabel, Joan, Matilda, and Margaret accounting for the majority of the women.
In the generations following William's arrival, Norman names continued to replace the English, with Alice, Margery, Maud, Muriel, Olive, and Emma finding favor for girls; William, Richard, Robert, Henry, Hugh, and Ralph became popular for boys.
Onward Christian Names
A Christian name refers to the name given at baptism. In the early Christian Church, the Christian name was added to a person's original name. The terms “first name” or “given name” are often used when referring to Jewish or other non-Christian names.
The next major change in naming would be driven by the Christian Church nearly a century after William came to England. The church had long urged parents to select names of saints or martyrs for their children, believing that using such names would place the bearers under their namesake's protection. However, such advice was largely ignored until the thirteenth century, when the spread of Christianity lead to many converts taking new Christian names when they were baptized.
Saint names—Peter, John, James, Anthony, Paul, and others—began being used in greater frequency for boys. For girls, Mary, Anne, Elizabeth, and Catherine became popular.
More on: Choosing a Name
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baby Names © 1999 by Sonia Weiss. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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