(Source: Ethiopian Law of Persons: Notes and Materials
Elias N. Stebek)
M. Planiol, Treatises on Civil law, Volume I, Part I (2nd Part), Louisiana State Law Institute, 1959, pp. 252 – 266
Name, among primitive peoples, is something single and individual. Each person has but one name and does not transmit it to his descendants. This usage survived for a long time among some peoples, principally among the Greeks and Hebrews. The Romans, on the contrary, had a well organized system of names. … Its elements were the nomen or gentilitium, borne by all the members of the family (gens) and the praenomenon or ‘first name,” personal to each individual. As there were not many masculine “first names,” the need was felt to add a third element, the cognomen, where the choice was much wider. This practice had a double advantage. It avoided all confusion, and brought out, by the simple announcement of the name, the filiation of the individual. Feminine “first names” not being limited in number, the names of women were composed of but two elements. The cognomen was missing.
Personal at the outset, the cognomen in time became hereditary and served to identify the different branches of the same gens. The triple name of men was, moreover, borne only in the nobility and by the first families of towns possessing the right of Roman citizenship. Persons of humble condition had a single name or, at most, a name made up of two elements.
Single name during the middle ages
The Roman system was introduced into Gaul during the imperial domination. The usage of one name only, however, reappeared there after the Frankish conquest and survived for a long time. The first change discernible in France during the first half of the Middle Ages is the slow disappearance of barbarian names which gave way to names of saints of the Christian calendar.
Reappearance of double names
It was, nevertheless, necessary to avoid confusion between persons bearing the same name. Two different systems were followed. The older appears to have been that of surnames as Pepin the old, Robert the Strong, Hugh Capet, William the Two-headed. At other times, to the name of the person was added that of his father, the later being put into the genitive. Names of this kind, such as
Joannes Rolandi, Petrus Jacobi, are found until well into the fourteenth century.
Reintroduction of the Family Name
Names having thus become double, it required but a step to make one of them hereditary, to re-establish the old Roman distinction between the nomen (name of the family) and the praenomen (the individual name). The hereditary character of names began again in the twelfth century. Most of these new names are sobriquets taken: (a) from occupations (Lefévre, Charron, Cordier, Molinier, Tisserand); (b) from physical or moral attributes (Lefort, Gros, Lenain, Camus, Leborgne, Leroux, Legris); (c) from countries of origin (Lenormand, Picard, Dumaine, Breton, Langlois, Lallemand); (d) from places of habitation (Dumont, Dupuy, Dupont, Lacaze, Grandmasion); (e) from functions (Labbé, Sergent, Prévot, Le Sénéchal, Bailly, Chapelain) or from a thousand other circumstances. Many were purely fantastic (Lelièvre, Leboeuf, Mouton, Papillon, Persil, Olivier, Rameau). Almost all nobles bore the name of their seignory: Jacques de Bourbon, Simon de Monfort, Jean D’Armagnac. Finally, the familiar habit of calling a person by his “first name” resulted in many “first names” becoming the names of families.
Names remained for a long time outside the domain of the law. Their status was that of a mere non-regulated usage. Changes of name were frequent, principally among persons of humble birth who had grown wealthy and desired to wipe out all trace of their origin. As fiefs were generally in the hands of the nobles and as they bore the names of those estates, the procedure was an obvious one. It was to buy landed property and to substitute its name for theirs. An ordinance handed down by Henry II at Amboise, March 26, 1555, prohibited all persons from changing their name without having obtained letters from the King. It enacted a penalty or a fine of a thousand pounds and punishment for forgery. The same prohibition was repeated by Art. 211 of the Ordinance of 1628, called the Code Michaud. But it was no more possible under the Old Regime than it is today to safeguard the fixity of a name against the machinations of the vain.
Present day elements of the name
The constituent elements of the legal designation of persons are at present but two in number. They are the name, properly so called, or the patronymic name, and the given names. But it is also necessary to say a few words about sobriquets, pseudonyms, titles of nobility and the use of the preposition “de” meaning “of,” before the patronymic name.