Origin of Middle Names

In Western culture, middle names and Middle-Namers date back at least to ancient Rome, when men such as Gaius Julius Caesar commonly had several forenames and were known by other than the first. But multiple names died out under Greek influence, which preferred one name only (e.g., Socrates, Plato), and by the time the Roman Empire fell during the fifth century, people all over Europe were known by one name.

The purpose and function of a personal name is generally agreed to be to identify a person and distinguish him or her from others in the community. But in many European cultures, that was not its only, nor even its primary, function. As late as 1545, an Englishman named John Parnell named two sons John. While it has been customary in many cultures to reuse a name after the death of the first child bearing it, in this case–and many like it–the same name was given to siblings living at the same time. In his will, Parnell distinguished between his sons by referring to them as “Olde John” (who was not married and still living at home) and “Young John.”(1) Some Europeans developed naming customs which, though not always strictly followed, dictated what children should be named. For example, the first son and daughter might be named after the father’s parents, the second son and daughter after the mother’s parents, and subsequent children after aunts and uncles in specified succession. Such a custom may explain the naming of the Parnell brothers. It may also explain why, in 1559, Xtopher and Anne Sicke gave the name John to twin sons.(2) But surely naming customs cannot explain why Edward Seymore, Duke of Somerset, named three sons Edward, all of whom lived at the same time.

It would seem logical that middle names grew out of the need to distinguish between individuals bearing the same given name, especially in cultures with a limited pool of given names that had not yet developed surnames or other forms of “last names.” But this does not appear to be the case.

Perhaps the earliest extant example of a double forename is that of Philippe Auguste, the last King of the Franks, born near Paris in 1165. While there may have been other isolated examples that do not survive, the first widespread use of double names developed in Italy, after the Christian Church began baptizing newly-born infants and name-giving became part of the rite.(3) Name-giving had not been associated with baptism when the rite was conducted only during the Lenten season and infants born over the past year were baptized then along with adult converts. An exception to this timing was made if an infant was not expected to live until the next baptismal period. But at some point–which occurred at different times in different places–the Church decided to baptize infants within days after their births, whether death seemed imminent or not. It was then that the formal bestowal of names became connected with the rite. In Italy, this occurred during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.(4)

Now in a position to influence the choice of names, parish priests encouraged parents to give their child a saint’s name, for it was believed that the saint for whom a person was named would serve as a special patron–protecting, guiding, and interceding for that person. With baptism no longer restricted to the Lenten season, the custom arose of bestowing the name of the saint commemorated on the day nearest the child’s birth or baptism, or a name derived from a holy day or season near those days. But some parents still wanted to name their child after a parent or grandparent or give some name traditional to their culture. For example, Gian Galeazzo Visconti (b. 1351), first Duke of Milan, received both a saint’s name, Gian (John), as well as his father’s name Galeazzo. But he gave two saints’ names to his sons–Gian Maria (b. 1388) and Filippo (Philip) Maria (b. 1392). Maria was a favorite saint’s name for both boys and girls.

By the end of the fourteenth century, double baptismal names were commonplace in the Florentine Republic. A study of naming practices in Florence found that of nine hundred children born to bourgeois families between 1360 and 1530 that could be studied through familial documentation, approximately 60 percent received at least two given names. Of those born after 1470, nearly all received three names, and this subsequently became the norm in all parts of Tuscany under Florentine jurisdiction.(5)

While that study notes the increasing incidence of multiple baptismal names among Florence’s bourgeoisie, examples of multiple names among the upper classes of the Florentine Republic are rare before the sixteenth century. It seems then that, in Florence at least, the practice of giving multiple forenames arose not among the nobility, as seems the case elsewhere, but among middle-class tradesmen, craftsmen, and officials. Although no similar naming studies are available for other regions, examples of multiple baptismal names beyond Tuscany abound, and these include the names of children born to the middle class. In 1452, the son of a struggling businessman of Ferrara, who became known to history as the founder of a movement for republican freedom and religious reform, was given four baptismal names–Girolano Maria Francesco Matteo Savonas. In 1485, the son of a Venetian city magistrate, who would become a famous geographer, was named Giovanni Battista Ramusio. A study of instructor pay at Rome’s civic university between 1473 and 1484 shows that seven of some 180 faculty members (about 4%) bore double given names.(6)

Middle-Namers

It is not possible to learn from records which name a citizen of Florence was called in everyday life (if not both), and history does not often indicate which name other bearers of multiple names used. Nevertheless, there is evidence that some fifteenth-century individuals were what we call Middle-Namers. The study of Roman instructor pay cited above shows that four of the seven men with two given names went by the second: Antonio Bernardino da San Gemignano, Antonio Coronato de Plachetis, Antonio Troyolo de Marchia, and Marcho Antonio di Santo Ambrogio.(7) And Maria Maddalena Romola de Medici (b. 1473), one of the few members of Florence’s ruling family to bear a multiple baptismal name before the sixteenth century, was known as Maddalena.

From scant extant records, then, it is clear that there was no prohibition against multiple baptismal names, and it seems that the Church itself may have originated them as a way to ensure that children received a saint’s name. It is also apparent that there was no proscription against using only one of such given names–whether first, second, or third–as the primary, identifying name of everyday life.

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1. Charles W. Bardsley, Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature [London: 1880], p. 4.

2. Charles Dickens, All Year Round, 42:129.

3. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy [University of Chicago Press: 1987], p….

4. J.D.C. Fisher, “Baptism and the Giving of the Name,” Appendix II to Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West [Hillenbrand Books: 2004], p. 170).

5. Klapisch-Zuber, p. ….

6. Kathleen O’Brien, “Italian Men’s Names in Rome, 1473-1484,” Version 1.1, 13 June 2003; Version 1.1, 25 March 2003; Version 1.2, 20 March 2007.

7. O’Brien, Version 1.1, 25 March 2003.

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