Surnames – most were created by the 1400s


Surnames – most were created by the 1400s


Surnames in Ireland (and most of what We think today of as “Western Europe” ) is not often thought about nor studied by those researching their  Ancestry. BUT it is something We should give some thought to – as if You happen to be lucky enough to have a list of Surnames in your Ancestry – knowing how these happened — is an important clue and where it gets really deep !!

First most Humans had what We today call a “personal name” – a good example many can right now  look at is in the Bible, as Biblical Personal Names (such as Matthew Mark, Luke, John) were in common Use then – roughly the Gospel’s were put down to paper from (roughly) about 10-100 AD. The Personal Name slowly evolved from time immemorial when most were known simply by it (again, as in: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John” ). So, it becomes clear that back then, what We call a Surname today  simply did not exist. Anywhere !

What We today call the Roman Catholic Church had its beginning on the Day of Pentecost in 30 A.D. From Oral Tradition to the Written Text.

As people created groups, just like the Disciples, for roughly another 1000 years+ people used Personal Names with “nick names” and/or “addons” names  such as their hair color, their job,  where they lived or were born (and many others) for another 1400 years without a Surname.

Another proof is Jesus of Nazareth  – using the place of Birth or Living as an intermediate name. As it was surely confusing back then with this personal name and a “nick name” (especially when communities got larger and larger) and what We now call “Surnames” then based on the place a person was from or Born was common but surely the same name and place for many persons was common (with the exception of Jesus).

Can you imagine Jerusalem at the time of Christ? It must have been not only hard living back then – but confusing as We, Human Beings – had not invented Surnames then and We went along another 1200+ years before Surnames were “invented”  and came into common Use — Of course, things varied, depending on the area (Country and the local Traditions) and the communities. One thing is for sure, however, is oral tradition was passed from Father to Son/Daughter for a very long time before it was ever put down in Writing.

The usually Academically acknowledged “first written text” that came down to us in writings is Gilgamesh – written c. 2150-1400 BCE. the great Sumerian/Babylonian poetic work which pre-dates Homer’s writing by 1500 years and, therefore, stands as the oldest piece of epic western literature.

Homer , of course, was Greek . So, it was not until the 12th, If Gilgamesh existed, He was probably a king who reigned sometime between 2800 and 2500 BC. The Sumerian King List claims that Gilgamesh ruled the city of Uruk for 126 years.

So from 3rd Century BC to the and 14th Century AD (1700+ yrs, give or take) Surnamas, or something We today call “Surnames” were missing (obviously different nicknames were used) but Surnames only came into existence roughly from 1200 AD -1400 AD. It it generally accepted that when “Royalty” stated using surnames, they were adopted by the rest of the populations – and this covered what We call the Modern World (the “West”) by `400AD. We do not have room (nor do you probably want to read) an essay on this, but the main problem had been festering for well over 1000 years, a VERY long time. So, along with this long known problem of identifying one “John” from a multitude of others, the Kings and Nobles, Knights and the like — in roughly Western Europe – started using a Surname, and it was adopted by others as it spead from community to community. It was probably just organic, as their was not an Order from on high to create Surnames. It was needed for a long, long, time.

So, the evolution of Surnames that most doing Ancestry do not even think about (e.g. why I am a “smith” or a “Jones” or a ??) is that it was adopted from what other’s called some, from someone’s looks, from where they lived ! In fact, the entire evolution of Surnames has no critical mass — it happened happenstance, here and there, to and fro, and the taking of Surnames, roughly happened from the 10th to the 15th Century (for some many various reasons).

As We trace Our Ancestors (back through time) We are also tracing the evolution of Surnames if one is able to go far enough. Most need not try as records, unless your Ancestors were in the “Royal Family” such as the current Queen of England (as they are all related and have one of the oldest Ancestry in existance simply because of their positions of power, it was recorded then, and quite accurately).

Surnames is OUR evolution of Ancestry. Indeed, Human’s went  from being “hunter/gathers’ (hunting/ gathering food, mainly),  to a more in “stay in one place” (Farmers) as We domesticated Animals and learned to sow and grow crops. This required that We ended our Nomadic ways, to stay in one place for the most part and tend to the crops and Animals that were then penned in or otherwise confided to an area.

This was of course took  many eons as noted, but well before the above 1000s of years, as  it happened when more and more of our Ancestors set down “roots” (literally and figuratively) at places. In fact one of the intermediate “surnames” were the place someone was from — and in a local community, additions such as the Hair color were added as a way to tell the difference between John “down the Street” and John “around the corner”.


Then other intermediate Surnames were used.  In Ireland, a Son was often  “Mac” and “O”s (the original way of indicating the “Son of…”,) appended to the then Surname. But it  could be attached to the initial Surnames such as  Grace O’Malley , the Chieftain of the Ó Máille clan in the West of Ireland in the 1500s, following in the footsteps of her father Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille. But, as you will note, their is only one “O” – so how do We go from there?

Going back a bit, Another problem existed, and as with most things, it generally started with those in Power (Kings, Queens, Nobles, Knights,  ect..) and those with “Means” (back then “means”  was not money per se, but rather,  those who had  accumulated many Cows, Pigs, Chickens, Crops, Baskets, Swords, Shields,  ect.). Then it flowed down to (for the most part) to the “Peasants” (although We really dislike that term, We use it without  it’s derogatory meaning) — the regular folk — especially in Ireland, England, France, the Low Countries, ect.. –and then  flowed down from there to all aspects of these early small communities as the “regular folk” like Us, saw they usefulness of a Personal Name and a Surname.

In the then times of conflict (when was their not conflict?) Arms and Heraldry came into existence – Wars in Western Europe were a regular thing and gruesome – But Men who fought and bled together in Battles, those Soldier’s who survived needed a way to identify their fallen brethren after gruesome battles — Arms and Heraldry was useful, and it got attached to Surnames (which is where We get those nice “Arms” to hang on Our Walls of the Surname of our long ago Ancestors). Quite simply it was a way to identify a fallen Soul quickly. So Surnames were attached to Arms and Heraldry.

However, We digress off our main point — Surnames–  as it is so interconnected with Our Historical Evolution and Ancestry, We went from only having a Personal Name (“John” Son of  William”) to the taking of an additional Surname – roughly most Historical Text teach that (again, roughly) before the 14th Century Surnames were not common, but afterwards they were — so it evolved into everyone taking  Surnames not only because the Knights were doing it, but because it solved the long existing problem of identification — and the need to differentiate Children (and Generations) from each other.

It did not happen fast — indeed it was a very slow evolution over many Centuries — and some Countries (or Areas) progressed faster than others. But even before the widespread adoption of surnames, nick names played a vital role and many “nicknames” were eventually adopted as Surnames.

Our Ancestry is intimately intertwined with Our Surnames.


If We look back at our Ancestry, for most of the Western World , where Upon Marriage, it is often the case where the Wife/ Female took on on the Male’s Family Surname surname. However, it must be noted that in some Communities and Countries, they did not follow this, what has become a  “tradition” in the USA and Ireland. It is done differently in some Western Countries — but in the West — upon Marriage it is most common that the Surname of the Bride/Female is  to take the Groom/Male’s Surname (but some,  such as in Scandinavian Countries !

I also found knowing the General and Local History around the time your Ancestor lived in, or that your digging into, is advantageous. Otherwise you might miss something-Pros know this and learn when certain things were ordered by Law (and hence a record was generally created).


Patronymic naming — A patronym, or patronymic, is a component of a personal name based on the givenname of one’s father, grandfather (i.e., an avonymic), or an even earlier male ancestor. A component of a name based on the name of one’s mother or a female ancestor is a matronymic.

Matronymic- A matronymic is a personal name based on the given name of one’s mother, grandmother, or any female ancestor. It is the female equivalent of a patronymic. In most societies, matronymic surnames are far less common than patronymic surnames. In the past, matronymic last names were often given to children of unwed mothers. Other times when a woman was especially well known or powerful, her descendants would adopt a matronym based on her name.


The bulk of European surnames in countries such as England and France were roughly formed in the 13th and 14th centuries and upon Marriage, the Female usually takes the Surname of the Male’s Family (thus becoming part of the Male’s Surname). It has been this way in the West roughly since Surnames were in widespread use.


MORE ON ARMS” — OR “COAT OF ARMS” – and it’s relationship to Heraldry : The Crusades.


It has long been a matter of doubt when the bearing of coats of arms first became hereditary and it was not until the Crusades that Heraldry came into general use. Men went into battle heavily armed and were difficult to recognize. It became the custom for them to adorn their helmets with distinctive crests, and to paint their shields with animals and the like. Coats of arms accompanied the development of surnames, becoming hereditary in the same way.

Most of the European surnames were formed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The process had started somewhat earlier and had continued in some places even into the 19th century, but the consensus among Academics,  is that in the tenth and eleventh centuries people did not have surnames, whereas by the fifteenth century most of the population had acquired a second name.


So, by the 1400s-1500s, most people had a Surname–based on a variety of items.

Some Surnames were based on Occupation.

Some Surnames were based on Physical features.

Some Surnames were location based.

And, We could go on and on forever,  but We are sure you get the idea, most Surnames can be difficult to figure out, but most were generally simply that Someone liked it and adopted it – it is not like they had to go ask or get approval – there was no one to ask or give approval, it just happened and were adopted. The Surname was then passed on to their Children and Surnames were then used thereafter. But, the common consensus is around the 1400s most people in Europe had a Surname and passed it down to their Offspring, continuing it to today !