Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Patronymic Primer

Once upon a time (in the 1700's) in a land far, far away (in rural Denmark), lived a farmer named Jens Olesen. Jens lived in a small commune of farms (by). One day, Jens married the neighbor's daughter, Kirsten Mikkelsdatter.


Now that they were married (gift), Jens and Kirsten had a family. Their first child (barn), a boy, was named Knud. It happened that the neighbors had a boy named Knud as well. How will they tell them apart? Our family called their son Knud Jensen (Knud, the son of Jens).

In a couple years, Jens and Kirsten had a daughter. They called her Maren. To distinguish her from the neighbors, her name became Maren Jensdatter (Maren, the daughter of Jens).

Here is our family, and let's say they are being enumerated on Denmark's 1801 census (folketaelling) as:
  • Jens Olesen, farmer (landmand)
  • Kirsten Mikkelsdatter, wife (kone)
  • Knud Jensen, child (barn)
  • Maren Jensdatter, child (barn)
In a few more years, son Knud Jensen marries another farmer's daughter, Karen Nielsdatter (daughter of Niels). Knud and Karen have one son, Lars. Lars will be known as Lars Knudsen. So even though these are three generations of direct family members, they do not share a common last name.

Here is the next generation, perhaps on the 1845 census:
  • Knud Jensen
  • Karen Nielsdatter
  • Lars Knudsen
In a few more years, Lars Knudsen doesn't want to farm like his ancestors, and he decides to move to the big city. He marries Kristine Ane Pedersdatter and they had a daughter named Sidsel Kristine Knudsen. Did I trick you? A little bit, because in the later 1800's families needed to select a family surname to use. Every child in this new family, boy or girl, will be known as Knudsen. Use of the -datter suffix ends.

Here is our last example generation, perhaps on the 1860 census:
  • Lars Knudsen
  • Kristine Ane Pedersdatter
  • Sidsel Kristine Knudsen
Some patronymic research hints:
  1. When the children were baptized, the records showed their given name and each of their parents' full names. By consistently linking the child to each parent, records are very easy to search, although not in the traditional English way of searching surnames. Danish records require us to search by parent matches, not surnames.
  2. During the 1800's, names became more complex, and middle names were more often used. As more outsiders, like Germans, moved to Denmark, foreign surnames were incorporated. As in other cultures, words for occupations or geographical references were used in names.
  3. Marriage and death records almost always reference one or both parents, and/or a widow/widower by name.

And they all lived happily ever after. Even if their last names don't match.


Common Danish Surnames
Common Danish First Names

*I am not an expert but have spent countless hours researching several generations of Danish family

© 2013 Sally Knudsen