Surnames, introduced to England with the Norman Conquest of 1066, became commonly hereditary from parent to child around the fifteenth century. Yet during that time and beyond, women sometimes retained their birth names at marriage, men sometimes adopted the surnames of their wives, and children and grandchildren adopted the surnames of their mothers or grandmothers. Surnames became closely tied to the concept of property, such that the person with the property was the holder and creator of the family name. That person was more often the man, but not always. As women’s property ownership became more severely restricted over time, these diverse surname practices eventually disappeared. The connections between the operation of the surname as a socio-legal function and property law and practice will be analyzed in this paper. Important in this analysis is the legal recognition of personhood implicit in the concept of property ownership; “legal personhood” for women was minimal during the period in which surnames became most restrictive for women. Yet prior to that, both the property rights and the surname options for women were more expansive, suggesting that the legal identities of women were more developed in earlier centuries and experienced a significant retrenchment in more modern times. The causes and implications of these historical developments will be analyzed.
Surnames have existed in English culture for over a thousand years. But until about 1600 A.D., surname adoption was a highly variable and fluid cultural practice rather than a rigid, legally dictated one, and hereditary assumption of names was the exception rather than the rule during the early centuries. Women often held individualized surnames reflecting specific traits, occupations, status, or parentage (e.g., Cecilia Fairwife, Alice Silkwoman, Agnes Widow, Mary Robertdaughter, respectively). Matronymics—the hereditary passing of a female’s name to her descendants— was common. Surnames such as Margretson (son of Margret) and Madison (son of Maddy, nickname for Maud) are just a few of a great many examples of this type of naming. Women’s given names also frequently became surnames, without the “son” or “daughter” appellation. Marriott is a Middle English nickname for Mary; Agnes, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Helen are just a few additional examples of female given names that were converted to surnames of various forms. The strongly gendered status quo of contemporary times collectively believed to be “traditional,” whereby wives assume the names of their husbands and children the names of their fathers, is a relatively recent phenomenon rather than an ancient English tradition.
Hereditary acquisition of surnames had become the norm around the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries, though the practice was inconsistently applied from one region to the next. P.H. Reaney & R.M. Wilson, A D
P.H. Reaney & R.M. Wilson, A D
When it comes to women, the modern state is not the result of a steady linear progression of ever-increasing rights. Rather, evidence demonstrates some significant shifts backwards. Principles of coverture and female legal impotence appear to have become more unyielding and restrictive, rather than less, through many periods in English history, thus reflecting and reinforcing a gender hierarchy that was beginning to take on a more rigidly limiting form.
The legal recognition of personhood implicit in the concept of property ownership becomes critical to the analysis when women are considered specifically. Legal personhood for women was virtually nonexistent during the period in which surnames became most restrictive for them. Yet prior to that, both their property rights and their surname options were more expansive, supporting the view that their legal identities were at one time more developed. The significant simultaneous retrenchment in both areas was not a coincidence. Although it is difficult to determine causality in these events—indeed, other forces were also operating at the time that probably also had simultaneous effects on both women’s surnames and their property rights—what is apparent is that women’s rights and status were being increasingly restricted in both areas. However, once the new limitations on the inheritance and property rights of women were in place, they conclusively and definitively ended the enduring variation in surname convention and usage under which they had been operating. Thus, surname retrenchment was likely exacerbated by property restrictions. Surnames and property eventually became linked socially and legally, and the implications of this for women are numerous and complex. The modern uses of both conventions have supported the large-scale erasure of women from history: with both their names and their property gone, so went their historical existence.
Theorists for centuries have debated concepts surrounding property as a legal and social construct, such as whether individuals can ever truly own property, whether such ownership is natural or inevitable, how it is accomplished, and the role of the state in creating and enforcing the legal concept. Yet Western theories of property are almost universally based on the assumption that the owner of the property is a legal person and entail the right to pass on one’s property to heirs or designees. This is significant given that women’s right to own and inherit property was once relatively expansive, and then became increasingly restricted until it was removed entirely, in the case of married women. This suggests that the legal personhood of women similarly disappeared where it had once existed.
The situation for women under diverse historical kingdoms and empires was quite variable, and in some cases they enjoyed considerable status and rights. Celtic Britain pre-dates the Anglo-Saxon period, with the first known Celtic settlements dating to the first century A.D. Although Celtic traditions may have influenced Anglo-Saxon England, very little is known about them, and the status of women cannot be determined. Sheila Dietrich, Frances Gies & Joseph Gies, W David Herlihy, Land, Family, and Women in Continental Europe, 701-1200, in W G Herlihy, G
Frances Gies & Joseph Gies, W
David Herlihy, Land, Family, and Women in Continental Europe, 701-1200, in W
The Anglo-Saxon period began in the early fifth century A.D. in England. The status of women during this period was considerable. Dietrich, A Lovacott comes from Lufu, and Fladbury comes from “Flæde’s burh” (burg/settlement), for example, where Lufu and Flæde were female given names. F.M. Stenton, Reaney & Wilson, Barbara Kanner,
Lovacott comes from Lufu, and Fladbury comes from “Flæde’s burh” (burg/settlement), for example, where Lufu and Flæde were female given names.
Reaney & Wilson,
The position of women under Anglo-Saxon law was likewise relatively expansive. King Æthelbert of Kent recorded a legal code in order to codify existing law and practice B Betty Bandel, The English Chroniclers’ Attitude toward Women, 16 J. h Kanner, Dietrich,
Betty Bandel, The English Chroniclers’ Attitude toward Women, 16 J. h
Other provisions of Æthelbert’s Code relating to women lead to similar conclusions. The fine for killing a woman was the same as for a man. Marc Meyer, Dietrich, Stenton,
Beyond any general provisions dictated by legal codes, much can be inferred from the particularized legal documents of individuals of the period. Women received grants of land just as men did. Dietrich, Meyer,
Wills are some of the most common Anglo-Saxon documents to be found, and they suggest much about the status of women. The Anglo-Saxon wife enjoyed autonomy with most of her property, C Dietrich, The Will of Ketel,
The Will of Ketel,
Not only were Anglo-Saxon women able to inherit, but they also possessed the power to bequeath land in wills themselves. A good portion of the wills to be found not only leave property to women, but are actually written by women who chose how to dispose of their property. This power to bequeath land was not limited to their heirs or even their kin, but to all manner of individuals. Stenton, E
There are several examples of husbands and wives holding property jointly, sometimes with their daughters inheriting. Bishop Wærferth of Worcester said in a land lease, “And Æthelred and Æthelflæd [husband and wife] shall hold it for all time, … uncontested by anyone as long as they live. And if Ælfwyn [their daughter] survives them, it shall similarly remain uncontested as long she lives…” Meyer,
Anglo-Saxon women also bought, sold, and exchanged property, and were often litigants in land disputes. Meyer, Meyer,
It is clear that many Anglo-Saxon women held land that they had acquired by all of the ordinary means, including gift, purchase, or inheritance, and they were permitted t42o dispose of their land as they chose. Stenton, Dietrich,
It must be acknowledged that the legal codes considered as a whole are not entirely consistent, and there is evidence to suggest legal and social inferiority of women in the period. Furthermore, women’s status compared to men may have been quite variable by social class; Meyer, Stenton, Dietrich,
Everything changed with the Norman invasion. As a whole the Norman influence brought to the region in the eleventh century was extremely damaging to women’s rights—especially their right to hold property. In fact, the principle of coverture itself originates in the Norman influence and the subsequent rise of feudalism; thus began a protracted period of decline for women.
The Norman Conquest of 1066 set in motion a very long and slow process of retraction of women’s rights. Where the Anglo-Saxon wife enjoyed autonomy with most of her property, K Priscilla Ruth MacDougall, c Dietrich, Stenton,
Priscilla Ruth MacDougall,
William Blackstone, the 18th century jurist, legal commentator, and professor of law at Oxford, published his four-volume treatise on the common law, By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law – French a feme-covert;…and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. William B
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law – French a feme-covert;…and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. William B
The implication that coverture was traditional and therefore incontrovertible English practice was misguided, however. evidence suggests that a number of elements of coverture – including those related to property ownership – did not become fully implemented or entirely rigid until well into the Middle Ages and even into the early modern period. Blackstone appears to have relied on a mistranslation of a key document by an Anglo-Saxon history scholar to draw some of his conclusions about women’s property rights in ancient England that he utilized in his justification of contemporary coverture. He asserted that Saxon women had been entitled to only one third of the husband’s personal property on his death, but no share of the land, and that later laws which gave her rights to land were only for her lifetime. However, evidence suggests that the wife actually had rights to a share of both personal and real property, and the right was absolute rather than for her life only; this indicates that her property rights within marriage were considerably more expansive than Blackstone presumed. Blackstone had borrowed much of this work from Sir Martin Wright, who had borrowed it from Nathaniel Bacon, who had himself relied on a mistranslation; he then used this mistranslation as support for his own assertions about the supposed time-honored system of coverture and the justice and foundation of the contemporary treatment of women. Although the original mistranslation was later corrected by its author, this appears to have gone unnoticed by Blackstone, who continued to make the same assertions about the history of English law regarding women even while referring readers to the corrected translation of the work in question.
Although the original mistranslation was later corrected by its author, this appears to have gone unnoticed by Blackstone, who continued to make the same assertions about the history of English law regarding women even while referring readers to the corrected translation of the work in question.
Courtney Kenny, writing in 1879 about marital property rights in English history, discussed the deterioration of rights for women through the centuries, and similarly attributed it to the Norman influence. That influence resulted in the wife sinking to the state of being a “puppet of her husband’s will;” Kenny called this a “revolution in the law of marriage.” k
Even by the time of the Middle Ages, however, women’s lives still exhibited considerable variability; “tradition had yet to solidify into the unyielding patterns which characterize later centuries.” Susan Mosher Stuard, G
Susan Mosher Stuard,
The practice of feudalism likely had a significant influence on the restrictions to women’s property rights. The practice began in ninth century France, subsequently spread through Europe, and came to England via the Norman Conquest. G Sue Sheridan Walker, Widow and Ward: The Feudal Law of Child Custody in Medieval England, in W “[H]e died without issue male, whereupon his property came to be divided between two daughters…” Id. at xi. g
Sue Sheridan Walker, Widow and Ward: The Feudal Law of Child Custody in Medieval England, in W
“[H]e died without issue male, whereupon his property came to be divided between two daughters…” Id. at xi.
Yet even under the much more restrictive rules of feudalism, women’s rights were still not restricted to the extent they would later become. Not yet relegated exclusively to the private sphere, women engaged in public life quite extensively, with significant effects on the economy. Stuard, g Eileen Power, G Id.
The wife could defend her title to land in court if the husband defaulted. Ruth Kittel, G Kathleen Casey,
In the mid to late middle Ages, women experienced ever-increasing restrictions on their legal rights and status, including those related to property. Ann J. Kettle, Kittel, Kettle, Kittel, Kettle, Kittel,
Ann J. Kettle,
It is worthy of note that the development of the common law, harsh as it was for women, did not necessarily reflect the full realities for women of the Middle Ages. For one thing, other types of law operating concurrently with the common law functioned differently for women. During this period canon law treated women equally with men, in some cases resisting the developments of the common law which was moving to oppress them. Kittel,
For another thing, theoretical statements of law do not tell the whole story. It would be a mistake to conclude that the legal treatises of the time fully and accurately reflect women’s lived experience. There appears to have been much resistance—intentional or otherwise—to the changes wrought by the common law, and many of the older traditions held fast for centuries. Multiple scholars have remarked upon the dissonance between the prominence of medieval women and their common law subordinate status. Power, Meyer, Kettle, Power, supra note 85, at 408; see also Casey,
Power, supra note 85, at 408; see also Casey,
The Early Modern period, running from about 1500-1800 A.D., brought about a firming up of the developments begun in the mid to late Middle Ages rather than any substantial changes to them. Married women’s property rights were essentially nonexistent, Pearl Hogrefe, Legal Rights of Tudor Women and the Circumvention by Men and Women, 3 t P Hogrefe, Rosemary Masek,
Pearl Hogrefe, Legal Rights of Tudor Women and the Circumvention by Men and Women, 3 t
They were executors for estates and ran their own businesses. Hogrefe,
Despite the concomitant emergence of English surnames with feudalism and the common law after the Conquest in 1066, women’s surname usage continued to demonstrate their remarkable visibility and respect for a significant period. Their surnames often reflected individual characteristics rather than the names of their fathers or husbands. When surnames did begin to become more consistently hereditary nearing the end of the thirteenth century, Reaney & Wilson, Such as Madison (son of Maddy) and Marriott (diminutive of Mary).
Reaney & Wilson,
Such as Madison (son of Maddy) and Marriott (diminutive of Mary).
The fact that medieval women were so commonly represented and acknowledged in the surnames of not only themselves, but also their descendants, means that their status was probably much more complex than is often presumed. They were not systematically and thoroughly denied any legacy or condemned to the total eradication of their identities, as would become the case later; they had names specific to them as women; they were able to retain those names after marriage; they independently inherited and owned property; and they passed both their property and their names down to their daughters, sons, and other descendants. The frequency at which these practices occurred varied depending on the period, the location, the social class, and other circumstances of the individuals involved. But it was the subsequent strict reining in of those rights and that status, and the eventual elimination of any matronymic naming and female property ownership, which created the “traditions” under which modern culture currently operates and makes the earlier system so hard to imagine. Surnames work in tandem with property rights to provide a vantage point from which to evaluate the status of women, and that status saw a very long period of decline beginning around the eleventh century and not reversing again until the women’s property acts of the 19th century in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 was the first to allow married women in the United Kingdom to inherit and retain property and money (at a capped amount), as well as to retain her own wage earnings. In the United States, similar laws were passed by individual states, the first being Mississippi in 1839.
The Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 was the first to allow married women in the United Kingdom to inherit and retain property and money (at a capped amount), as well as to retain her own wage earnings. In the United States, similar laws were passed by individual states, the first being Mississippi in 1839.
When the wife as a legal individual no longer exists independently from the husband, it might seem natural, even necessary, for her to adopt the husband’s surname, and for children of the marriage to take his name. Yet that development happened some time after the institution of coverture entered into English law; there exist numerous examples of women retaining their birth names at marriage, passing their names to their children, and even to their husbands, as late as the eighteenth century. Although not the case early on, surnames in particular, and gender more broadly, became closely tied to the concepts of property and inheritance. The surname was both a symbol of and a necessity for the full and proper operation of ownership, but that operation did not always exclude women.
Matronymic naming was common through the Middle Ages, and it took several forms. The mother’s birth surname could be passed to her descendants as their surname, or the mother’s given name could be incorporated into a surname for her children, either with or without a “son” or “daughter” attached (e.g. Ibbotdaughter or Isabel). Many other surnames existed which were either specific to or related to women but were not necessarily matronymic, such as Rogerdaughter, Fairewif (fair wife), Silk-woman (female silk dealer), Prestsyster (priest’s sister), or Mariman (male servant of Mary), but these are beyond the scope of this article.
A few specific examples from the records provide a sense of the larger picture. William Maryson (1298), R Reaney & Wilson, He was also called Richard son of Geoffrey Reynald of Edmascote, and Richard son of Joan, daughter of William Ryvell. A short gEnEAlogicAl viEW of thE fAmily of olivEr cromWEll. to Which is PrEfixED, A coPious PEDigrEE 1 (1785). P I
Reaney & Wilson,
He was also called Richard son of Geoffrey Reynald of Edmascote, and Richard son of Joan, daughter of William Ryvell.
A short gEnEAlogicAl viEW of thE fAmily of olivEr cromWEll. to Which is PrEfixED, A coPious PEDigrEE 1 (1785).
Furthermore, it was not uncommon for a couple to give their son a Isaac Newton, Reaney & Wilson,
Reaney & Wilson,
Children would sometimes be given the surnames of their grandmother, rather than either their mother or father, usually to associate themselves with an estate and eventually inherit it themselves, either voluntarily or as a condition of inheritance as indicated in the will, W. P. W. P D Isaac Newton,
W. P. W. P
Similarly, there are examples of women who did not assume their husband’s name after marriage, even in the late Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period. A widow named Cecilia de Sanford was the daughter of Henry de Sandford, indicating that she went by her father’s name rather than her late husband’s. Emma Godzer (1290) was the daughter of Walter Godzer and the wife of Robert Pacy. one woman had a seal that read S. Emme. de Litlecote, but her husband was Reginald de Lavynton. P.h. r H C T T
Janet Ogilvie as the wife of John Gordon of Pitlurg.
At times men who married heiresses even assumed the surnames of their wives at marriage—even well into the modern period—in order to attach themselves to the estate and keep the family name connected to the land. R
Thus, even after women’s property ownership had become quite restricted, their surnames had not yet been entirely eliminated. Such flexibility left women with some independent identity, until those options were eventually foreclosed to them as well via imposed legal impotence. This suggests that coverture did not take the full measure of its chokehold as early as we think. It is also likely that the common law and the theory supporting it were inconsistent with actual practice, and that the realities of medieval life were resistant to change. The evidence derived from women’s property ownership supports the conclusion that a more gradual implementation and development of coverture and its attendant principles, including a more prolonged reining in of women’s rights, took place. Change in general during the period was protracted, and older traditions died hard; in medieval life, “…ideas and information spread only slowly, and against great resistance, from one district to another; custom determined everything, and the type altered little from age to age.” Charles Homer Haskins,
Charles Homer Haskins,
Where formal law created new restrictions and disabilities for women in medieval England, those restrictions influenced the ways in which surnames were culturally adopted and used, even though no law directly addressed surname use. The common law had nothing directly to say about women’s names, as those had always been a cultural rather than a legal practice. But surnames as a social and legal convention became closely connected to property, and the increasingly restrictive rules of coverture which limited property ownership eventually ensured the elimination of any independent women’s names. As women’s property rights went, so went their names.
The law imbued the husband with a superior legal status as head of household and gave him legal dominion over his wife and children and all marital labor and property. That eventually included the convention of the wife and children adopting the surname of the husband, and it carried with it the right of control and ownership. The functions of property and surnames thus simultaneously operated upon one another in a symbiotic dance of reduced status and increased subordination of women. To be sure, the flexibility of women’s surname use and the independence they once enjoyed in their surnames was already diminishing concomitantly with the restriction of other rights they once held. But the eventual connection between naming and ownership changed the relationship of women to their names. Men were given the right to name women, and women’s names changed as they moved from the legal ownership of their father to that of their husband. This concept is reinforced by considering the fact that slaves in America were often given no last names at all because, as property themselves, they could not have an independent surname. When they did have last names, they were given the master’s surname, and renamed each time they exchanged owners. Lisa Kelly,
This concept is reinforced by considering the fact that slaves in America were often given no last names at all because, as property themselves, they could not have an independent surname. When they did have last names, they were given the master’s surname, and renamed each time they exchanged owners. Lisa Kelly,
Surnames and property are not intrinsic to human nature; both are social and legal constructs. As such, both have been appropriated and manipulated in ways that support patriarchy and confine women. This fact is not surprising; what is more interesting is that it was not always the case. The law’s systematic and complete antagonism to women is a relatively recent development. The common law inscribed a new ideology on the collective social consciousness, thereby altering the relationship of the culture with its women. Once complete, the status quo was then viewed as natural, traditional, common sense, and divinely ordained, with preconceived historical fact warped and altered, and then presented as truth. It is not difficult for a culture to look around at the system in which it finds itself and then conclude by its existence that it is the only reasonable course.
Although the concept of a surname as signifying ownership (of wife, children, and property) is no longer overt in English and American culture, it is still undoubtedly present in more subtle ways within our social schema and naming framework. The common conception is that only men have “real” names, and their permanency is one of the rights of being male; women’s names are more fleeting and relationship-dependent and they must therefore be less connected to them. That notion managed to insert itself into the American legal system, where the courts have upheld men’s naming “rights” with respect to their wives and children; one court held that “a natural father has a protectable right to have his child bear his name,” Burke v. Hammonds, 586 S.W.2d 307, 309 (Ky. Ct. App. 1979). Cynthia Blevins Doll,
Burke v. Hammonds, 586 S.W.2d 307, 309 (Ky. Ct. App. 1979).
Cynthia Blevins Doll,
The rigidity in naming we know today is one of the last vestiges of the old system of coverture, yet the issue still receives very little collective analysis or criticism. It is a product not of abiding and ancient tradition, but rather of new strictures instituted most firmly during the modern period, ironically during the “Age of Enlightenment” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When names stopped signifying individual attributes, they came to signify ownership instead, and women were the ones falling under its regime.
Future research on this topic would expand upon the history in several ways. First, an in-depth analysis of the relationship between culture, tradition, and law, as seen through the lens of surname usage, will shed light on the underlying ways in which patriarchy became more firmly enshrined into cultural and legal systems. Surname usage and adoption was strictly a traditional practice, yet it became so entrenched that it eventually garnered legal backing when it encountered resistance. This was accomplished by virtue of a deceptively appropriated “tradition” that was not, in fact, traditional at all. The mechanisms by which this took place warrant further analysis. Second, a theoretical investigation into the reasons for the constriction discussed herein will be important; if coverture in fact became more restrictive over time, what reasons underlie such a shift? In addition to the emergence (and disappearance) of feudalism and the gradual implementation of common law, these manifestations may be tied to economic and political developments in the early Modern period. Such factors include capitalism; the development of theoretical concepts of citizenship, rights, and exclusivity; the rise of imperialism and conquest; and the building of the modern nation-state. There is much to be developed on that front.
The status of women in England was at one time strikingly expansive given the era and the natural assumption of society’s perpetual forward progress with the passage of time. That assumption, as it turns out, is patently false. Women’s legal identities were never static in their limitations, but experienced significant transformation in the form of lengthy retrenchment and then, eventually, expansion. Anglo-Saxon women enjoyed a remarkable status and legal rights that placed them on par with their male counterparts in many ways that would not be seen again for nearly a millennium. Yet the early Middle Ages too exhibited much flexibility for women, as evidenced by their surname autonomy and property ownership and inheritance. Later restrictions in these areas had profoundly negative effects on women, and once in place were then circularly referenced to justify the essentialism of women’s gross inferiority. Although today’s women for the most part enjoy formal legal equality with men, contemporary surname practices have not only failed to shed the vestiges of the systems under which they were most oppressed, they have failed to even recognize those systems as such. These practices are a product of recent developments in a system of growing patriarchy, ownership, and power. Yet the status quo is justified—to the extent that it is even considered—simply by reference to a “tradition” that is not in fact traditional at all.