Names in the Low Countries before 1150

Early-medieval personal names in The Netherlands and Flanders

Analysis 4: Bynames

They both bore the same name, as they were the same in devotion, Hewald being the name of both, with this distinction, that, on account of the difference of their hair, the one was called Hewald the Black and the other Hewald the White.
Bede (673-735), Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.


In the earliest centuries there was a wide variation in given names. With such diversity, bynames were not required: each member of a community had a unique given name that identified him or her. However, towards the end of the first millennium this variation diminished. The number of elements that were in use decreased, and each protothema was combined with only a limited number of deutherothema. More and more often, two people in the same village had the same name. Thus, the need for additions, or bynames, emerged. In the early Middle Ages these bynames were not hereditary, like our modern family names.


In the present study, a byname is defined as an addition to a given name, which offers extra information to identify the bearer. This extra information can refer to family relationships, profession, descent, etc. The term 'nickname' will be used here for a specific type of byname (see below).
A byname was usually written after the given name, but it could also precede it (abbas Gregorius).

An addition was not scored as a byname when:
- the extra information only consisted of 'his son’ or 'his wife' etc., s in 'Arnulfi filii eius' (referring to an Isaac, mentioned earlier) or in 'Eilbodonis et Imme coniugis ipsius',
- the extra information related to more than one person (Francho, Gebehardus, Folmarus, canonici).
If one person was mentioned several times in the sources, one time with a byname and the other time without, he or she was scored as a person WITH a byname.

The use of bynames

Before any results are presented, it must be stressed that the present analysis is based on names that were written down in chronicles and charters. The pattern emerging from these written records do not necessarily reflect the use of bynames in everyday life.
The fact that someone had a byname in some scripture, does not always imply that this byname was also used in all social contacts. There was, for instance, a 'Philippi Daventriensis prepositi' (Philip, provost from Deventer) who signed a charter in Utrecht in 1129. It is unlikely that in his hometown he was also known as 'Philip from Deventer'. In 1120 a charter from Egmond mentioned 'Arnold et Ostina filii sororis Walfride' (Arnold and Ostina, children of Walfrid's sister). They probably were not addressed in this way by their family and friends.
Sometimes it is certain that a byname was not assigned until after the death of the person in question. The Flemish count Arnulf III, who perished in 1071 at an early age, was called ‘the Unfortunate’ by later historians, and count Charles, killed in 1127, was later called 'the Good'. In the contemporary sources these nicknames cannot be found, and thus they do not appear in the present compilation.
On the other hand, it is conceivable that many bynames were actually employed in social contacts, or behind someone’s back. The sources contain many such examples in Latin (Erenbold Niger, Balduin Calvus) and also some in Middle Dutch (Wilhelm Kinnebacken).

Bynames and social class

Thirty percent of all persons in the present compilation had a byname. Figure 1 shows major differences between the social classes. More than half the clerics and nobles had a byname, versus one in five among the commoners and only one in ten in serfs and witnesses. This is not surprising, since bynames were one of the elements upon which individuals were classified as cleric or nobleman, and precisely the lack of a byname made somebody end up in the residual class of witnesses.

Figure 1. Bynames per social class for men (blue) and women (red).
The number of female witnesses was too low to calculate a percentage.

Bynames over time

As in the analysis of non-Germanic names, the influence of social classes on the total pattern was excluded by considering only the common people. Both among male and female commoners, the frequencies of bynames showed an increase over time (see Figure 2). No such trend was apparent in clerics or nobles: their percentages were high from the earliest centuries onwards; among the serfs, the scores were continually low. (1)

Figure 2. Bynames per century among common folk for men (blue) and women (red).

The rise in bynames continued after the study period, and increased to 86% of the men and 59% of the women in the 13th century. (2)

Bynames per region

Among the commoners, significant differences regarding bynames existed between the regions, with low scores in the regions North and East and high scores in the other regions. (3) In the 13th century, the percentage of persons with a byname in the northern regions was still low compared to elsewhere. (4) This difference can be due to the fact that in the North a wide array of Germanic names was in use, and this continued to be so in the 13th century. Therefore, there was less need for bynames.

Figure 3. Bynames per region among common folk for men (blue) and women (red).

Bynames and gender

Among men, bynames occurred much more frequently than among women (32% versus 22%). This difference was for a major part due to the clerics, who often bore a byname; since there were many male clerics (as compared to female), they pulled up the total score for the men. Without clerics, the difference was less outspoken (26% versus 21%). (5)

Types of bynames

The following types of bynames were discerned: (6)
profession and status
Noble titles (Theodericus comes), clerical function (Lambertus prepositus), crafts and occupations (Reynerus grutarius, Ellenhardus scultetus, Engelbertus cancellarius) and indications of the social class (homo liber Eremfrid, Tetilo servum).
Within the locative bynames, three subtypes have been discerned:
A toponymic byname refers to a specific town, region or country (Isbrandus de Harlem, Everardus Gandensis, Gerwic de Fresia).
A topographic byname describes the place where a person comes from: a feature of the landscape or a building.
A clerical byname refers to the church or monastery where a person belonged, without mentioning the town (Ansfridum sancti Petri).
Patronymes, matronymes and other family relationships (Gerolfi Reginberto, Theodricus Bave filius, Bava uxor Tettolfi, Badeloga vidua Oulrici, Godefridi avunculi Balderici).
A characteristic feature of the bearer (Arnulfus Magnus, Florentius Crassus, Ansfrid Knif, Fastradus cognomento Scerebart). References to a person’s country of origin, if this was outside the study area, were also considered nicknames. In one case 'the Frisian' has been counted as a nickname: the Flemish count Robert was called ‘Frisio’ after he married the widow of the West-Frisian count Floris I.
second given name
A second given name, sometimes an abbreviation of the actual given name (Sifridus cognomento Sicco), sometimes something completely different (Brunihilt cognomento Tetda).
Table 1 shows how many times the various types occurred in the various social classes and among men and women. The total number of bynames is higher than the total number of persons, because some persons had more than one byname, such as Petronilla comitisse Holtlandie and Oulricus de Thezamunda filia Amelgeri apud Pulzabruch. For the analyses, such combinations were classified under each type within the combination. Two different bynames for the same person also occurred, for instance Alberic, who was registered in one charter as Alberic de pago Mosao, and in another as Alberic filius Elisonis. This was also scored as two types.
Some noblemen, especially Flemish counts, were blessed with not less than three different bynames. A fine example is count Boudewijn I, who is recorded in the charters an chronicles as Balduin Ferreus, Balduin comes Flandrie and Balduin filius Audacri. His descendant Rotbert did even better, with Rotbert Frisio (or Fresonis), marchyso Flandriae, filius Balduini et Adele (or Baldwini potentissimi filius iunior), and comes Robertus, cognomento Hierosolimitanus.
It is not surprising that indications of profession and status were the most common type of byname among the nobility and the clergy. Among commoners, locative bynames were the most frequent type, followed by professions and kinships.

profession and status locative kinship nickname second given name total bynames total persons
men nobility 271 146 73 23 6 519 346
clergy 510 180 9 7 7 713 548
common folk 107 367 84 58 4 620 596
serfs 8 17 1 2 0 28 28
witnesses 1 93 18 22 0 134 134
women nobility 32 6 28 1 1 68 54
clergy 14 3 2 1 0 20 16
common folk 52 41 31 4 1 129 121
serfs 5 9 0 0 0 14 14
witnesses 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Table 1. Types of bynames.

Professional names among the commoners were usually indications of a function in the service of a count or the church: servant (22 times), chancellor (28), chatelaine (27), bailiff (14) and toll collector (3). Job names that occurred only once or twice in the compilation were farmer, gold smith, grocer, craftsman, inn keeper, cook, leather worker, medic, miller, mint master, painter, stable boy, actor, wagon maker, and singer. Other real craft names (such as tailor or baker) did not appear in the compilation until 1150. In the later Middle Ages, such craft names did emerge, and some developed into family names that still exist today.

The locative bynames found were largely (94%) toponymic bynames and the remainder were clerical locative names. This latter category occurred, obviously, only among clerics. The third type of locative name, the topographic byname, did not occur at all. In the 13th-century compilation topographic bynames popped up regularly (van den Bosce, van den Damme, uten Hove, in English: Wood, Dam, Court) and also in the present day this is still a widespread type of family name.

Among the men, kinship bynames usually (72%) referred to the father of the bearer. Matronymes comprised only 8%, and a reference to the wife occurred only once (0.5% of the bynames among men). Among women the difference between patronymes and matronymes was less outspoken (39% and 28%), while there were also many references to the husband (20%). The remaining kinships were referrals to an uncle, brother, nephew, etc.

Nicknames made up only a small part of all bynames: only 2% of the individuals in the compilation had an actual nickname. Despite the low numbers this is an interesting category. Therefore, all 118 nicknames that were found have been assembled in a special list of nicknames. It is remarkable that half the nicknames came from Flanders, and that virtually no nicknames were found in the regions North and East.

A second given name occurred only 19 times. In 6 of those cases it was an abbreviation, and in the remaining 13 cases there was no link to the original name.

Comparisons with Scandinavia, Brittany, and England

From a compilation based on the Landnámabók it appears that in the 11th and 12th centuries about 21% of the Norwegian immigrants in Iceland had a nickname. (7) Patronymes were even more widespread: this was the most common type of byname among the Vikings. (8)

In Brittany in the 11th century, about 20% of the population had a byname, and after 1200 this increased to more than 90%. Originally, patronymes were the most common type here. Later, also locative bynames gained popularity, and combinations of various types. There were also nicknames, but they formed only a small portion of the Breton bynames. (9)

In England, bynames were rare before the Viking era (before 800 AD), at least, they were not recorded very often. In later centuries bynames became more popular, but never as widespread as in Scandinavia. (10)

In conclusion, it seems that the use of bynames was much more common among the Vikings than in the Low Countries. In Brittany and Engeland, on the other hand, the situation was comparable with the Low Countries. It is remarkable that in the northern region, which lies closest to the Viking area, bynames were rare.

1 - The score for serfs was suddenly quite high in the 12th century: 62% of the men and 46% of the women had a byname. This could be accounted completely to one single Flemish charter from the year 1123, in which 26 serfs, all serving a Sigerus from Munte, are registered with their town of origin. This was very unusual, because other serfs did not get more than the addition 'servus' or 'famulus'. Since not many other serfs were registered in the 12th century, the total scores ended up so high.
2 - Names in the Low Countries 1250-1300.
3 - Differences between the regions in bynames among commoners; men: X˛=164,89, df=5, p<0,001; women: X˛=30,67, df=5, p<0,001. Region Frisia excluded.
4 - Names in the Low Countries 1250-1300.
5 - X˛=8,69, df=1, p<0,01.
6 - See also Scott & Mittleman (1999).
7 - Uckelman (2011: Viking Bynames; 2012: Viking Names). The percentage is based on 767 nicknames in the first study among circa 3706 individuals in the second study. A small portion of these 767 nicknames would have been classified as toponymic or profession-and-status, according to my definitions, but even then the frequency of nicknames would be much higher than the 2% in the present study.
8 - Romson (2000). The study does not give percentages.
9 - Chedeville (1992). The study does not give percentages.
10 - Clark (1987).


Material & Methods

Male names
Male names extended
Female names
Female names extended
Table of roots
Non-Germanic names
Single rooted names
Composition rules Namesakes
© Dr. Kees C. Nieuwenhuijsen
Last update: September 2012