Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

The Name Game

Women, Family and Society in Late-Medieval Konstanz

Dr. Christof Rolker

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


Personal names play an important role both in the formation of identity and in group integration. In the late medieval city, names were far from stable; rather, they were acquired, changed or dropped frequently. The study of multiple names offers a unique possibility for the understanding of female identities in particular, as women acquired and used more names than men did. What uses did women make of the different names they acquired by birth and marriage(s)? It is a common misconception to interpret female names as “maiden name” and “married name”, respectively. Social context and individual choice, not legal status, were decisive in using one’s name. This insight is fundamental to any study of the variety of female naming practices often overlooked by medievalists. By marriage, women commonly acquired new names – yet without necessarily dropping names acquired earlier in life. Which name was used (by the bearer or a third party) could depend on various factors, often situational ones; its use offers valuable evidence for the changing (self-)inclusion into various social groups, in particular the role of married women between their families of origin and their husbands’ families.

Onomastic studies, often concentrating on single sources, have largely failed even to notice that married women in the late medieval city could be referred to by several names, not only their husbands’ names. This has partly to do with the fact that specific source groups represent female names in different ways. According to my preliminary source studies, there is a marked gap between women’s names as found in administrative sources and those found in female ego-documents. However, this is not simply a question of different genres these sources belong to. There is also a fundamental contrast between different media; seals and coat of arms have to be taken into account to understand what uses women made of their multiple names.

Further, a comparison of the source material from different late medieval cities shows that there are considerable local variations. While the designation of women in any given source genre was very stable over the time (often over centuries), it varied greatly from one city to another and apparently from one region to another. There is evidence for the idea that these naming practices are indicative for female agency. The way women called themselves and were designated by others in cities like Konstanz, Basle, Cologne, Lübeck or Vienna seems to confirm to a pattern of different degrees of female agency. Partly, naming practices have to do with the degree to which women could dispose of their own property within marriage. However, names are not just an epiphenomenon of economic power. They were gendered means of self-expression and self-inclusion.

This also link the study of names to the larger question of family identity in the late medieval city. Recent scholarship has almost exclusively employed the source material available for southern France and northern Italy. The studies of Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, working mostly on Florentine material, are fundamental for our project. As she demonstrated, naming can be part of the conscious formation of  familiy identities, and name changes (and changes of coat of arms) are a way to manipulate these identities. Many of these findings can also be applied to cities north of the Alps despite the fundementally different source material available. It is the aim of my research to apply this approach to Konstanz, while at the same time comparing Konstanz to other German cities, in particular Basle, Nuremberg and Stralsund. An international congress organised by Professor Signori and me, to be held in late 2008, will also offer the opportunity to compare research on different cities and to discuss different approaches to the study of (female) names, family and identity in the late medieval city.



Gabriela Signori,Karin Czaja (ed.): Häuser, Namen, Identitäten. Beiträge zur spätmittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Stadtgeschichte, Konstanz: UVK, 2009. (Spätmittelalterstudien 1)


Christof Rolker und Gabriela Signori (ed.): Konkurrierende Zugehörigkeit(en). Praktiken der Namengebung im europäischen Vergleich, Konstanz: UVK, 2011. (Spätmittelalterstudien 2)

Konkurrierende Zugehörigkeiten. Mittelalterliche Praktiken der Namengebung im europäischen Vergleich
Vortrag im Rahmen der Clustertagung, Juli 2010, Ittingen
Gabriela Signori, Christof Rolker, Karin Czaja, Lilach Assaf
lectures, presentation (both in German)