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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Names and Vocations

The tools of trade of a twelfth century cementarius (builder) and a twentieth century archaeologist at Vadum Iacob Castle, northern Israel

Some of my paternal ancestors were bankers in Holland, one of my great-great-grandfathers was a pencil manufacturer in London (in family legend the inventor of the lead pencil), my grandfather was a chemist, my father an engineer, I am an archaeologist and my sons have taken up other diverse professions. In the modern world we can freely choose our vocations, but in the more distant past there was often no choice in the matter. The son of a miller would be likely to become a miller, a carter's son, a carter.

The good thing about this was that it gave us surnames, and the good thing about surnames is, consequently, that they are a source of information about past professions. We have a reasonable idea what the ancestors of a former peanut farmer and president of the United States did to make a living in the Middle Ages, what profession was followed by the forebearers of the leader of a famous 1940s big-band whose first name was Glen, and what the ancestors of a former chancellor of Federal Republic of Germany named Helmut (and some of my ancestors on my mother's side) did to earn a living. We can learn about a whole range of trades that were found in the towns and countryside of the Latin East, by looking the surnames appearing on documents. These often contain lists of nobles or burgesses who were parties to transactions or served as witnesses to deeds of sale or grants. The Middle Ages was a formative period for surnames. People were often known according to their professions or the administrative posts they held, and these were sometimes retained by their descendants, even in cases where the post or profession was no longer held. They might include names reflecting royal or ecclesiastical administrative posts such as Balduinus Cancellarius, Goffridus Thesaurarius, Gaufridus Constabularius or Anselmus Cantor. Among the surnames that appear on a document drawn up by landowners for the residents of their villages are those which denote the occupations of some of the settlers, generally connected to animal husbandry such as Camelarius (camel raiser or camel driver), Caprellus (goatherd) and Porcarius (swineherd). Witnesses to Genoese notarial deeds from Cyprus included such professions as doctors, court officers, artisans, coopers, barbers, candle-makers, cutlers, furriers, caulkers, carpenters, painters, drapers, skinners, tailors and tavern keepers, and in Famagusta alone we have documents that record tavern-keepers, a fisherman, smiths, a crossbowman, dyers, a candlemaker, a barber, a tailor, a shearer (accimator), bankers (bancherii) and money-changers (cambiator, canssor or campsor).*

When we hear today of someone whose surname is, say, Schumacher, how often do we consider what that tells us about the history of his or her family. As Salman Rushdie noted in The Satanic Verses: "Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth's marvels, beneath the dust of habit."

*Nicholas Coureas, “The Structure and Content of the Notarial Deeds of Lamberto di Sambuceto and Giovanni da Rocha, 1296-1310”, in, A.D. Beihammer, M.G. Parani and C.D. Schabel (eds.), Diplomatics in the Eastern Mediterranean 100-1500, Aspects of Cross-Cultural Communication, Leiden and Boston, 2008, p. 227 and Nicholas Coureas, “Taverns in Medieval Famagusta”, in Michael J. K. Walsh, Peter W. Edbury, Nicholas S.H. Coureas (eds.), Medieval and Renaissance Famagusta. Studies in Architecture, Art and History, Abingdon and New York, 2012, p. 65, 67, 69; Edbury, 1999, XVII, pp. 91-92, 94.

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