Names, Names, and More Names

Did you know…

…that surnames (family names) did not exist in Russia for most of the middle ages? The highest nobility (the Rurikid princes) began using them sometime in the XIV century, the boyars’ surnames became established between the XIV and the XVI century, the middle-class Russians did not use them at all until the XVI century, but  middle-class surnames were not established until the XVII century (out of the SCA period!).birch_bark_document_210

So someone considered gentry in Western Europe (something like middle-class in Russia) would not have used a family name before the 1700s.

Now by family name I mean a name inherited by male descendants. Something that might look like a family name did appear in period documents, but that’s because Russian names, for most of the middle ages, were of the type NAME+PATRONYMIC. Some scholars suggest that even patronymics were rare before the IX century, and that only first names were used before then.

A PATRONYMIC is a form of the father’s name which means “son of…” Thus “Petr Ivanov,” fully translated into English would mean “Peter, son of John” (not the modern “Peter Johnson,” even thought the origin is probably the same, a patronymic). That’s why sometimes it seems that Russians used two first names together, but it never was “Peter John” (Petr Ivan) but “Peter, son of John” (Petr Ivanov). Of course, it could also be “Ivan Soroka” (John Magpie), but that’s because in addition to baptismal names (Ivan, Anastasia, Gregorii, etc.), Russians used nickname-like first names. They could be descriptive (Tretiak, “third,” was probably the third-born child — or son — in his family), but not necessarily. Among the neater (or weirder) names I have come across, there is Zub (“tooth”), Shuba (“fur coat”), Kriv (“cockeyed”).

Now that’s not all there is to know about medieval Russian names, but I’ll stop here for now. You can find out more by following this link to the Dictionary of Russian Period Names compiled by Paul Wickenden of Thanet (aka Paul Goldschmidt).


You can also see some examples of how (modern) patronymics are derived from first names, and how nicknames are formed in the table I have compiled by following this link.