Open Access

To Have, to Hold, and to Vanquish: Property and Inheritance in the History of Marriage and Surnames


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.

Publication timeframe:
2 times per year
Journal Subjects:
Law, Public Law, other, History, Philosophy and Sociology of Law, International Law, Foreign Law, Comparative Law