Population, mutation, linguistics and the number of surnames


I can find no critique of English surname variance on the web, and very little in print. Consequently, I have combined the little information I have found, with a few of my own thoughts. Beware - this is a complex area, and I am a blundering amateur.

The plethora of surnames in the early Middle Ages

Although the national population was far lower in the middle ages than it is today, England had a much wider range of surnames at the period of their formation than it had in subsequent centuries. (Source: Family Names and Family History by David Hey)

Many historians currently believe that the population of England reached 5 or 6 million by the year 1300. However, the effect of the Black Death of 1348-50 and later pestilences meant that it had fallen back to the region of 2.2 to 3 million by 1380. This downward trend continued for another 100 years until the population bottomed out at about 2 million. Recovery was slow, and appreciable increase did not show until the 1530s and 1540s. (David Hey: ibid)

The Black Death: maximum estimates of percentage mortality

Inadequate data 30-34 35-39 40-44 45-49 50+

How did the ravages of the Black Death affect the stock of surnames? The general population levels may have gradually recovered, but surnames were more vulnerable to erasure. How many were wiped out completely? Which category of surnames was affected the most? What was the effect on individual counties? Impossible questions to answer, though intriguing ones. I do wonder if a trace of the Black Death can be discerned in the current surname density levels of individual counties (comparing Derbyshire with Staffordshire, for instance), though one would need to know the surname compositions of each county prior to the Black Death. Again, highly unlikely to unearth. Just day-dreaming....

Population drop was not the only reason for the surname pool to decrease. Sturges and Hackett modelled the rate of surname extinction over 23 generations. They chose a start date of 1350 to enable them to neglect the effects of the plague. Even without accounting for pestilence, 30% of male lines would fail in the first generation according to their model.

The drop in the number of surnames due to these two reasons must have been phenomenal. The following might be a reflection of this. A recent study of the surnames of Nidderdale has shown that there were no outstanding common names among the taxpayers of 1379 . However, localised established surnames had certainly achieved dominance by the time of the Lay Subsidy of 1546, for they reached a peak after the Dissolution. This peak continued in Nidderdale for as long as conditions were favourable, but received a setback after the Restoration, when family size declined and the national population growth fell to zero. The dominance of certain names came to an end in the mid-eighteenth century. (Source: Distribution and Persistence of Surnames in a Yorkshire Dale, 1500-1750 by Maurice Turner in Local Population Studies, 54 (1995), 28-39. ISSN 0143-2974).

Earlier, Richard McKinley in The Surnames of Lancashire had drawn attention to the fact that, although some names had ramified considerably by the 16th and 17th centuries, no name was preponderant in the Lancashire Poll Tax returns of 1377-81. The evident stability of the class of leading names over the last 100 years should not be extrapolated back to the beginning of surname formation. Intriguingly, perhaps the surname Smith took an equal billing with currently rare surnames in 1300?

The number of recorded surnames (in England) did increase post 1540, but mainly due to surname corruption and mutation.

Reaney wrote,

The modern form of very many of our surnames is due to the spelling of some sixteenth or seventeenth century parson or clerk, or even to one of a later date. It is not a matter of illiteracy in our sense of the word. These parsons who kept the parish registers were men of some education. Their ability to read cannot be questioned, but they had no guide to the spelling of names. It was the printing-press which gradually established a recognised system of spelling. That of Tudor and Stuart England was very different from ours, and the spelling of many of our words is not earlier than Dr Johnson's Dictionary. But there was no recognised spelling for names. A great part of the population was illiterate. Their names were only written at birth or marriage or death, or if they happened to come within the clutches of the law. Then they gave their names orally and the clerk put them into writing as best he could. He wrote them down phonetically, using his own system of spelling, sometimes spelling the same name in different ways at different times.

For example, here is how the surname Partridge was recorded in two sources for Suffolk

1524 Subsidy Roll Partriche, Parterych, Patrick, Pattrik, Patryk
1674 Hearth Tax Pattridge, Pattrige, Pateridge, Pattarage, Pattrage, Putteridge

One name generating 11 mutations in just 2 sources. Dugdale is said to have found 130 mutations for the name Mainwaring. George Redmonds has commented "..the number of variant spellings of any given name throughout its history, is infinitely greater than the surviving variants. Moreover, this tendency towards uniformity now is probably greater than the move towards individuality."

There must have been numerous factors in the creation of new surname forms. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Pronunciation changes over time,
  • The cultural background of the clerk,
  • Misinterpretation of regional dialects,
  • Lack of standardised spelling and/or changes in spelling conventions,
  • Name change through peer pressure.