In medieval England the way people got their last names was a rather fluid process – it would not be until about the mid-fourteenth century that it became the usual practice to have a family name carry on between generations. Prior to that, there could be some very unusual ways that a William or a Henry could find themselves with a new last name.
Dave Postles, one of the leading historians of medieval English society, has looked into how names developed during the High Middle Ages. His 2006 book Naming the People of England c.1100-1350 tracks some of these developments, and notes how nicknames were used as last names. Postles believes that in some cases these names were “imposed by local society on errant individuals as a disciplinary measure, as a kind of labelling of miscreants. It was the next best action to complete ostracism.”
By examining eyre and other criminal records from 13th and 14th centuries, Postles was able to come across many examples of people who received unflattering last names. They include:
Roger Laweles in Cumberland was accused of taking a man named Gilbert from his bed and beating him.
Agnes Daythef took sanctuary in a London church, where she confessed to stealing a surcoat and many other things. She abjurred the realm.
Henry Golichtly was known to be a robber in Coventry.
Walter Litlegod fled the village of Bretby after killing a man.
William Suerdsliper was ordered to be arrested in Wakefield after going night-walking while armed.
Nokekina Hoggenhore was one of six prostitutes found in a brothel.
Henry Brendcheke was outlawed for theft in Newcastle
Godwin Haluedeuel fled to a church in Oxford where he admitted to being a thief.
John le Fatte raised the suspicions of his neighbours over his wealth, because he ate well, drank well and dressed well. While no evidence was presented of any wrongdoing at the time, six years later he fled his home after being accused of stealing pigs.
Henry Euilchild was acquitted of breaking into a house and beating Avice de la Mora.
John Maufesour (‘wrong-doer’) was hung for theft and murder, including having stolen a horse and one-and-a-half bushels of oats in Wakefield.
Other names that Postles uncovered include Maurice Stangethef, William Cuttepurs, Geoffrey Wolvesheved and Robert Brokenheuedknaue.
Knowles adds that there were two major reasons for the local community to impose a name on such a person, first to make sure he or she was identified within the community, and second to ‘label and shame’. He writes that “the imposition of compound, insalubrious descriptors on others must have involved the dominant group intending humiliation of a perceived ‘deviant’ within their midst. Nickname [last names] of this form were thus discursively produced to regulate and control, to shame and humiliate, to reinstate and reinforce the norms of morality of the dominant group.”