Medieval names were about identifying you in Medieval England. What we now take for granted – our surnames – had a specific purpose in Medieval England. Before 1066, people in England only had a single Christian name. After 1066 and William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings, the Norman’s introduced a more precise system that included a surname and by the Twelfth Century, English society had what we might recognise as Christian names and surnames. Surnames fell into six main categories:

Paternal names A large number of people were known by the name of their father, such as John son of Richard. Over the years this was to adapt to Johnson.
Place names Some people adopted the name of a place where they originally came from, such as John of Lewes.
Topographical names This was a name that referred to a geographical feature where you lived, such as John atte Ford which over the years would have evolved into Attford.
Occupation names Some people became known by their occupations such as Gilbert the Baker.
Office names Some people got names from an official duty they carried out in a village, such as Richard the Reeve
Nicknames These were usually a name that referred to a person’s appearance or character such as Henry the Bold

Clearly as Medieval towns grew, some of the above proved to be of little value as people simply did not know anybody that well within that town. The system worked well amongst those who lived in villages and farming areas where the population was a lot smaller and everybody knew one another.

Confusion in towns could be made worse as someone might change their occupation so that Gilbert the Baker might become Gilbert the Butcher. Also nicknames that came from someone’s physical appearance might also prove to be useless as time moved on. William the Red might have got such a name from his red hair but if he went bald in later years, he could find that his name changed to William Ball as ‘ball’ meant a bare patch of hair then!

Eventually, as Medieval England progressed, it became a tradition that you took your name from your father thus making the system of surnames just that bit easier.