Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Houses, House Names and House Signs

Material Culture and Identity in the Later Middle Ages

Kathrin Stutz

Part of the research project “Sex, choice of names, and marriage. On the construction of social identity in late medieval urban society”


Not only in later medieval Italy, the stone house was a prime medium of representation and conferrer of social identity; similar patterns can be found north of the Alps as well. While the representative function of houses has been frequently studied, the symbolic dimensions have largely been neglected. The starting point for any enquiry of the house as symbol are house names and house signs.

In Germany, abstract line drawings known as Hausmarken were used from the thirteenth century to designate houses and to express house property. They seem to have been a specifically German phenomenon; at least there is not indicator in the French or English literature for any parallel. As abstract signs, they were employed e.g. to mark church stalls. The Hausmarke served as a link between the real estate it referred to and the family inhabiting the respective house. It could serve legal purposes when used as a heraldic charge or as a sign in lieu of a signature; Hausmarken instead of coat of arms can be found on houses, church stalls, seals, documents, altarpieces and stained glass windows.
Concerning house names, Grohe in his classic 1913 study distinguished those conferred by the general public and ‘artifical’ ones, i.e. house names given by the respective owner. The ‘artifical’ house names present an opportunity to pose manifold questions. When and on which occasions were house names established or changed? How were they employed as a medium of both integration and separation? Who used them to assume a new identity for himself? Frequently, recent settlers employed the house name of their newly acquired estate as personal names; others, however, conferred their own toponymic names of origin to the house they moved in. For more established families, house names could serve to shape identities, too. Among the patrician families it was common to distinguish single branches of the extended family by house names; in other cases, reference was made to castles to designate a certain family branch. Different as they are, all these examples indicate, how intimate the relationship between the house as a bearer of tradition and identity and its changing owners was.

My PhD project will address the questions outlined above for Stralsund which thanks to the rich sources available for this city, in particular late medieval wills and objects of material culture, promises to be a exceptionally suitable for this approach.