The fetishisation of nobility in names

Daniel R. Smith

When setting up this blog, I posted the famous words of Max Weber from ‘Science as a Vocation’, ‘ideas come when they please, not when they please us’. I did this as a sort of encouragement to write when even the strangest ideas please themselves. This post is a case in point.

Walking home yesterday evening, I was listening to the Harry Potter audiobook of The Deathly Hallows. As ever Hermione was explaining something to Ron and Harry. She told them that the Perverell brother’s – those who became the legend for origin of the deathly hallows (elder wand, resurrection stone, cloak of invisibility) – lineage had been ‘dead in the male line for centuries’. “What does that mean?” asked Ron, to which she said obligingly if a little coldly, “It means the name died out years ago.”

Hermione knows something about names being different to lineages and descent groups. What Hermione is trying to explain is that one cannot trace a clear line of descent from the Peverell brothers through the name, and therefore, cannot claim that Voldermort is the heir to the Peverell’s – that being what Harry had been suggesting. Going by the logic of male inheritance – as aristocratic worlds do, so in our world as in Harry Potter’s – such a claim is wrong; claims of descent and ancestry through the male line, of which inheritance of the name is secured, is to sacralise a named figure – an ancestor to whom one claims authorship to one’s identity and who one ‘lives through’. But the name is nominal in relation to the descent line for those who inherit the name may or may not be descendants. A descendant is part of a lineage but inheritance of the name of an eponymous ancestor is different in terms of descendants. A transmission of names comes through exchange and alliances. What Hermione is trying to tell us is simple logic: names and who claims descent from them are two different things.

In truth, Hermione is giving us a glimpse into the ‘Anthropology of Kinship 101’: (1) tracing a line of descent from an eponymous ancestor, over time (long periods of time – i.e. since 1066, say), expands the numbers of persons related to said ancestor; (2) tracing the linage through the name requires the attention to social processes of alliance. Alliance is concerned with active social processes of which the transmissions of resources, material and ideal goods, and social connections become paramount. As Lévi-Strauss’ Elementary Structures of Kinship demonstrated, alliance is concerned with the exchange of persons (women) between descent groups that put positive value, or proscription, on who one ought to marry (i.e. cultural preference) over who one can  marry (i.e. incest taboo).

Regarding names, therefore, they are very much different to those who descend from a previous name-sake. Surely this should be something we take into account when conducting social scientific research, is it not? Maybe not. Clark & Cummins’ recent paper ‘Surnames and Social Mobility’ seems to suggest something quite strange: “There seems to be a simple law of social mobility, x ijt +1 = bx itj + e itj, that operates largely independently of the social institutions of the society” (Clark & Cummins, p.9) Whatever the formula in the middle means (I don’t pretend to know), the crux of their argument is that surnames can measure social mobility:

Since the medieval period, surnames in England in any generation were mainly derived from inheritance. Thus if family statuses quickly regress to the mean, so should surname statuses. But they do not. Surnames reveal the intergenerational correlation of educational status in England to be in the range 0.73-0.83, even for the most recent generations. Measured in this way educational status is even more strongly inherited than height.  Initial status differences in surnames can persist for as many as 20-30 generations. (Clark & Cummins, p.2)

Surnames provide the best measure, they argue, of social mobility because they are obtained through inheritance. All other factors, they suggest, are unreliable; to gain a stable variable they focus upon the name.

There are many things wrong with Clark & Cummins’ paper – notably its social-Darwinist claims that there is a ‘law of inheritance’ that links linages in noble names to a genetic pre-disposition as to the family’s elite stature – but most alarmingly they mistake what is a fetishized device of vast cultural, indeed ideological, significance for a for a ‘variable’ that may be neutrally measured. Names are never just names when it comes to humans, especially those deemed elite.

In Britain noble names, what Clark & Cummins call ‘elite surnames’, derive from the institutional regime practiced by monarch’s to employ heralds and establish what we know as ‘heraldry’, a means who secure the list of the monarch’s peers. Clark & Cummins make note of this as it is to becomes the basis of their use of names as ‘variables’: they take the names of landholders from the Domesday book, the Inquisitions Post Mortem  and also ‘place of origin names’ to state those surnames appearing at the top of the social pile in 1066 remain there today in 2013.

Yet they fail to ask exactly what the significance of this elite use of surnames really means, despite acknowledging that surname adoption was first practiced by the upper echelons. They readily point out that names prominent in the medieval period remain prominent in the present, names such as ‘Baskerville, Darcy, Manderville, Montgomery, Neville, Percy, Punchard and Talbot’, without acknowledging what these indicate. They are not, indeed, never when it comes to elites, neutral categories of which one can measure inheritance as if it one’s height or shoe size. Such a fallacy ignores the crucial role names have played in the history of elites in Britain, or indeed, I would argue, hierarchical societies in general.

While I won’t try to prove such a broad social anthropological point (but see Weiner (1985) and Godelier (1999) for such arguments), what I think we need to pay attention to is how names are crucial status markers in hierarchical societies, especially Britain. As Clark & Cumming are referring to landowning persons, notably the landed gentry and aristocracy, we can first note the formal sociological features of such groups: they’re small. But why are they small and to end does this serve? Quantitative aspects of group membership are not a mere statistical outcome which ‘operates largely independently of the social institutions of the society’. As Simmel noted for small groups, their social status has bearing upon their numbers. For aristocracies, their elite stature requires a limit on members because

the aristocratic group must be ‘surveyable’ by every single member of it. Each element must still be personally acquainted with each other … the tendency of extreme numerical limitation…is not only due to the egoistic disinclination to share a ruling position but also to the instinct that the vital conditions of an aristocracy can be maintained only if the number of its members is small, relatively and absolutely. (Simmel, 1950:90-91 added emphasis)

The smallness of an aristocracy refers to its surveyable nature, the ability for each person to be known. Not only this, but survey-ability becomes a means to mark those ‘in the group’  from those outside the group and, as a consequence, limits group membership. Various devices exist in British society for this limiting and surveying: the debutant pages of Country Life that announce marriageable girls to society, or announce marriages themselves amongst upper-middle and upper class members; the Bystander section of Tatler that lists attendees at West London parties. They become names on people’s lips; names worthwhile knowing for elite connection and closure. In his novel Snobs (2005), Julian Fellowes calls this “name-exchange” – “the names rippled out …Had they seen the Esterhazys? The Polignacs? The Devonshires? …Names torn from history books…stripped of any real significance. They had simply become court cards, rich court cards, in the game of name exchange.” (Fellowes, 2005:110)

What this demonstrates is the prestigious value of surnames. Holding onto them is not a matter independent of those bearing them, for the name is a fetishized entity that requires elaborate cultural practices to secure its hallowed nature. In elite culture, surnames are prestigious. They are a species of inalienable wealth, that is, wealth which is so valuable that to give it away is to lose one’s identity and their social station. Take the words of Richard II in Shakespeare’s play, our epoynmous hero talks of his loss of the crown as the loss of a name:

I have no name, no title;

no, not that name that was given me at the font,

that i have worn so many winters out,

and know not now what name to call myself. (Richard II)

Notably the wealth of a name emerges because the name is not merely identifying a person named thus or a lineage but moreover an entire corporate group; a Kingdom for Richard II.

Aristocratic groups are economic enterprises through the medium of kinship. Elite surnames, as Clarke and Cumming do point out, are named after estates: they’re identifying an economic enterprise, landownership and household estate, behind the kinship practice of naming. What is being combined is economic property with kinship ties as titular estates are conflated with titled persons. These are what Claude Lévi-Strauss called ‘house based societies’ (1987). Countless examples attest to this but Shakespeare is the best. Take this from Bolingbroke from the same play;

‘dispark’d my parks, and fell’d my forest woods;

From mine own windows torn my household coat,

Razed out my impress, leaving my no sign,

Save in men’s opinions, and my living blood,

To shew the world I am a gentleman. (Richard II)

Spoken as the death speech to those who are condemned to beheading, Bolingbroke is suggesting that the destruction of his property bearing his name, that is, his estate – the park, woods, windows with his coat of arms, the symbols that manifest outwardly his noble blood – make him a gentleman and their destruction warrants death. As Peter Stallybrass (2002:276) puts it: “Name is constituted by things. Take away the things and the name disappears, or is emptied out.”

So much so with property and naming that its institutionalisation in heraldry becomes what Maurice Keen (1984:128) a ‘branch of erudition’ in medieval culture and down the centuries: to have one’s name turned into precious property through the heraldic art of emblazoning became a general practice for those seeking nobility and social distinction. Those who were learned and invested in such a culture were forming a means of social distinction that conflated name and property, and with it, inheritances. “The instinct to make of arms more than a mere mark of recognition, to make them convey messages of pride of loyal service, martial achievement and family connection, and to exemplify special virtues, was at work from the beginning.” (Keen, 1984:131)

Furthermore such learned involvement or erudition in heraldic insignia is bound up with ancestor worship itself, not merely inheritance of property. Eponymous ancestors, i.e. those named and recalled in the present through the surname, are fetishized through material property itself. Surnames have a history – or, more appropriately, a mythology – behind them as they recall the origin of present social practice and identity through the past. Ancestor’s triumphs in battle; in establishing the house and estate; in establishing marriages and making fruitful decisions, all this, is manifest through symbols inherited by descendants not to mark descent but to mark elite station in name and property:  “for one sufficiently versed”, argues Keen (1984:132), heraldry recalls much more than “the identity of an individual and his descent in blood, but a whole associated history of ancestral chivalrous achievement.”

So much for names as that neutral variable that identifies a genetic inheritance. In this respect the surname is not merely an indicator or variable but a central cultural value, indeed, aristocratic culture is manifest through it. As such it becomes extremely powerful in the history of elite association and their preservation. Active measures of social closure are required. Stallybrass (2002) suggests that in modern culture we often forget that the pre-capitalist ideology conflates people with property, names and things, economics and kinship and as such remains today. In line with this, the problem Clark and Cumming have is that they, too, forget the active social processes and ideologies at work with surnames. For most of us, i.e. non-elites, this is what a name is: neutral or nominal. Seldom are we reminded of their significance and even more so we are not aware of their history. Strangely, Clark and Cumming fetishize names – the elite and non-elite names – but don’t probe behind them. They ignore how culturally significant they are and, as such, misrepresent social mobility. Names are never neutral property; they are fought over and preserved by active processes of social closure.


Clark, Gregory & Cumming, Neil (2013), ‘Surnames and social mobility’: published online at

Fellowes, Julian (2005), Snobs: A novel (London: Phoenix)

Godelier, Maurice (1999), The Enigma of the Gift, (Cambridge: Polity)

Keen, Maurice (1984), Chivalry, (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Simmel, Georg (1950), The Sociology of Georg Simmel, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Kurt H. Wolff., (New York: The Free Press)

Stallybrass, Peter (2002), ‘The value of culture and the disavowal of things’, in Turner, Henry S. (ed), The Culture of Capital, (London: Routledge)

Weiner, Annette, (1985), ‘Inalienable wealth’, American Ethnologist, Vol. 12, No.2, pp.210-277.


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