How medieval dynasties got their names

If you go through the pages of medieval history books, you soon find yourself reading the names of ruling dynasties – the Carolingians, the Hohenstaufen, and the Plantagenets. Did they call themselves that? If not, how did they get those names?

There are some cases where the dynasty was actually using the name that we call them now. For example, the Yuan Dynasty in China comes from their official name of Yuán Cháo, which means ‘Great Yuan’. There is also the odd example of the Plantagenets – a dynasty that ruled England from 1154 to 1485. They were not called that until the mid-fifteenth century, when Richard, Duke of York adopted ‘Plante Genest’ as his family name. It comes from a nickname that was given to his Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. The nickname was apparently from the Latin words for the broom plant, and now all of Geoffrey’s descendants are referred to by that family name.


However, most medieval dynasties got their name long after the Middle Ages ended, created by historians to help readers understand various political changes and eras. French historians coined the terms Merovingians, Carolingians and Capetians for three of their most important dynasties. The Merovingians were named for Merovech, who was said to be the father of the fifth-century Frankish leader Childeric I – whether or not he was real person is a matter of debate.

The Carolingians come from the name Charles, which in Latin was spelled Carolus. However, there is some disagreement over which Charles they are referring to: either Charles Martel, the Frankish official who was the de facto ruler of the Merovingian dynasty, or his grandson Charlemagne (Charles the Great). Then there were the Capetians, who ruled France from 987 to 1328. Historians picked this name for its founder Hugh Capet – his last name was actually just a nickname meaning ‘cape’. Interestingly, during their own time this family was called the “third race” of French kings, coming after the Merovingians and Carolingians.


Here are how some other dynasties got their names:

Piasts – the first rulers of Poland were named after the descendants of Piast the Wheelwright, who may have lived in the ninth century.

Hohenstaufen – this family of German rulers was named after one of the fortresses, Hohenstaufen Castle.

Habsburgs – one of the most important dynasties of the late medieval and early modern periods, they also got their name from a fortress – Habsburg Castle – which their family built in the early eleventh century. A couple of generations later the family took on the title of Count of Habsburg.

Macedonian dynasty – this extended family ruled the Byzantine Empire from 867 to 1056. They got their name from the family’s founder Basil I, who was called Basil the Macedonian. However, historians now believe it was more likely that he came from Armenian origins.


Top Image: 12th-century family tree of the Carolingians. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Ms. lat. fol. 295 80v.