Beyond History Blog

The history of German family names - part 1

Avatar of Andrea Bentschneider Andrea Bentschneider - 07. September 2016 - Family, Onomastics, Traditions

The Chinese were first, introducing family names already about 2.850 B.C. The ancient Romans were then followed on the European continent; they usually had three names. For the German speaking regions, the history of family names starts in the 12th century. Here, for many centuries a single forename was sufficient to identify a person. However, even back then there were fashionable names so that the variety of names was reduced and led to a decline of Germanic forenames.

In addition, the population grew drastically between the 12th and 14th century. At some point there were, for example, three persons by the name of "Josef" in one village. Thus one name was not enough anymore to clearly identify a specific person.

For this reason, a descriptive word (occupation or physical appearance, character, birth place or residence of the person) was added to the forename for each of the "Josefs". From now on there was "Josef the smith", "Josef with the curly hair", "Josef the wild", or "Josef from Bremen" who had moved from the said place to the village. These descriptive words were called surnames. From now on, each person had a forename and a surname. The surname was just used for this one person only. If the son of "Josef the smith" was also named Josef, but he became a baker then he was "Josef the baker".

It became problematic in cases when the son of the smith became a smith, too, because now there were two persons called "Josef the smith" in the same village. For this reason, name additions like "the younger" developed over time. A new problem arose when "Josef the smith" became the sheriff of the village; then he suddenly was "Josef the sheriff". In small places where all residents knew each other this method may have worked but in larger cities it became more and more difficult to determine a certain person. Cities grew quickly and the governments needed to register more and more details of their subjects in their files. Taxation and especially the military service made it necessary to identify a person exactly. In rural areas the governing monarchs had books about land ownership and the families residing there.

For administrative reasons a new way of naming people had to be found which would live up to these defaults: the name had to be officially obligatory, it had to be valid for the entire lifetime of the person, and it had to be handed down to the next generation. As a consequence the surname vanished and the firm last name (family name) was established. "Josef the smith" became henceforth "Josef Smith" and this remained unchanged even if Josef took up another occupation or moved to another place. His son also received the last name Smith.

This development of forename + surname towards first name + last name did not take place overnight. It began in southwest Europe about the 12th century and spread to the northeast in the 13th and 14th century. The new way of naming pertained to the cities sooner than to small villages. In remote areas the old way of naming was partly kept up until the 17th or even 18th century.

Possibilities of finding last names:

Surnames often became the last name of a person. Generally there are five categories of last names:

occupations as last name

place of residence as last name

place of origin as last name

nickname as last name (physical features, character traits)

surname or surname of the father as last name

We will refer to these categories in the blog. Stay tuned!

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