What’s in a Name?

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis. Any images used are done so with permission and the copyright is noted accordingly.

If a woman with a doctorate gets married, is she still a doctor?

While surname patterns amongst women in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries came up during my doctoral project, I have been reflecting recently on surnames and marriage for a personal reason. My partner and I eloped on 10 April 2021. Since we married, the amount of post and well-wishes I have received as ‘Mrs Macleod’ has been staggering, even though I haven’t changed my name on any of my social media platforms, and most of my family know I’m doctored. I know this is well-meaning and good intentioned. Addressing me as ‘Mrs Macleod’ is a celebratory nod to the commitment my partner and I have made to each other. But, it should also be said, there is no post coming through to ‘Mr Davis’, so the identity change is still one-sided and patriarchal. It certainly speaks to a continued difference between the male and female life courses, even in the twenty-first century. My marriage is somehow perceived as identity changing for me, where it isn’t for my partner. For a time, I thought I might change my surname when we married. As an American interloper, becoming a Macleod would be a strong re-branding as a Scottish historian. All this to say, I’m staying a Davis. Partly because I am lazy and the thought of changing my residence permit, my passport, my social security, and my driver’s license (etc., etc.) is very unappealing. I have no strong ties to my last name, it’s just a name; it’s very common. However, I have also built my academic career so far with my name, and I don’t want to have to add ‘(née Davis) to every future accomplishment for continuity.

Signing our marriage schedule behind Perspex (eloping in the time of Coronavirus)

Now, Reader, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with women in Scotland in the later Middle Ages. Didn’t women keep their natal surnames throughout their lives? The answer, for the most part, is, yes, they did. However, this pattern was just that, a pattern. Life is complicated now, and life was complicated then, so we might expect some deviation from this pattern. Today’s blog will look at historiographical interpretation of women’s surnames in late medieval Scotland and also look at women that changed their names and the motivations behind it.

Medieval women’s retention of the natal surname in historiography

The accepted pattern of surname use in late medieval Europe was that women most often continued to use their paternal family’s name, rather than change their name after marriage.[1] It is important to emphasise that medieval identity went beyond an individual’s name. An elite woman’s identity was explained through myriad ways, including further relational designations, titles, and the symbology of heraldry present in her seal, among other things, including her clothing. This is not to say that the surname was unimportant. It indicated membership of a kin group that afforded her authority through the collective power and importance of that group.[2] The same naming patterns that have been traced in northwest medieval Europe have also been found in scholarship on the Scottish nobility. However, the ‘exclusion’ of women from the marital families because of the retention of the paternal surname has perhaps been emphasised more. In 1983, Marshall argued that ‘a woman retained her maiden name throughout her life and never did sever connections with her own family’.[3] Similarly, Jenny Wormald argued in 1985 that

The use of the surname both for the particular family name and as the synonym for kindred demonstrates the nature of Scottish kinship in another way. When a woman married in Scotland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it is clear that she was regarded as providing a link with another kin group rather than becoming completely assimilated into her husband’s kin; for she did not take his name, which strongly suggests that she was considered as, for example, a Gordon who married a Hamilton, and not someone whose marriage made her a Hamilton.[4]

While a pattern of surname retention certainly holds up in the charter evidence, the implications as to why women retained their natal surnames, as posed by Wormald, perhaps does not. There is evidence of women who deviated from this pattern, taking their marital surnames, and the evidence suggests that they did so for a variety of reasons. Some created continuity between themselves and their children, others to reap the socio-political benefits of her husband’s name. The manipulation of identity via surname suggests a nuanced understanding of the ephemeral aspects of power and the ability of women to navigate the changing circumstances over the course of their lives to maintain their position, legally and politically, within Scottish elite society.


My last blog post on the life and career of Isabella, countess of Fife, discussed the use of the Stewart surname in a 1365 charter. I argued that her identification as ‘Isabella Stewart, lady of Fife’ was an act of personal agency and political defiance in the adverse circumstances she found herself in during the 1360s with the Scottish crown.[5] The use of a marital surname, like Countess Isabella, for political reasons, can be traced elsewhere in the historical record. Eleanor Bruce (née Douglas) continued to use the Bruce surname in transactions after the death of her husband, Alexander Bruce, earl of Carrick (d.1333). A continued affiliation with the Bruce family, brought a certain social capital that Eleanor found useful in her own political career. She continued to designate herself as ‘Eleanor Bruce’ in her two subsequent marriages to James Sandilands and later to Duncan Wallace.[6] The continued use of the surname, and the prestige it carried, shows that elite women understood the authority imbued by direct connections to names associated with important lineages. Her social status was raised to countess with her first marriage to the earl, and the continued use of the title of countess and surname ‘Bruce’ emphasised the social status gained from this marriage.

The seal cast of Euphemia Leslie, countess of Ross (1394) NRS: Seal casts, matrices, and detached seals, RH17/1, no. 499 (drawer no. 20). Copyright of the National Records of Scotland.

Her continued use of the surname ‘Bruce’ may have also created continuity between herself and her husband’s lineage to protect their only child, Eleanor Bruce. We can trace the use of a marital surname by widows in a number of examples. The seal of Euphemia Leslie, countess of Ross, bears the surname of her first husband, Walter Leslie (d. 1382), in which the legend reads ‘SIGILLU EUFAMIE LESLEY DE ROS’. Her connection to the Leslie family by marriage was further corroborated by the heraldry in her seal, which features the arms of Leslie, on a bend three buckles. The charter, from which the seal impression was attached, was dated 1394, thus, she was still using it over a decade after the death of Leslie (the above cast was taken from the 1394 charter’s seal). Although she outranked her husband as countess, Walter Leslie was a favourite of David II, a crusader hero, and her marriage to Leslie had helped her gain control of Ross from her father in the 1360s. We might interpret her use of the Leslie surname and continued affinity with the Leslie family as a benefit to her son, Alexander Leslie, who would inherit the earldom and would be the first Leslie earl of Ross. Therefore, the use of the Leslie surname and the continued use of the Leslie arms might have allowed Countess Euphemia to continue to reap the benefits of a Leslie affinity and also created continuity between herself and her Leslie children who were going to inherit the earldom.

We might return to the question at the start of the blog, ‘what’s in a name?’ This blog post has offered up several answers to this question. In the later Middle Ages, the surname had the ability to carry with it prestige, authority, kinship, political cache, and chivalric reputation. While the pattern of natal surname retention amongst medieval women was more or less adhered to, there were deviations from this pattern. These deviations, of which we have only discussed a few, provide the historian with fascinating insight into elite identity construction and the myriad considerations women made when co-opting their husband, or more likely, deceased husband’s family name, in their own political careers.

[1] Geneviéve Ribordy, ‘Women’s names, women’s lives: the designation of women in late Medieval France’ Medieval Prosopography: History and Collective Biography 27 (2012), 120-2. For a general discussion of medieval naming practice, see Constance Brittain Bouchard, Strong of Body, Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 70.

[2] The historiography around medieval identity is extensive. For a discussion of group v. individual identity see, Caroline Walker Bynum, ‘Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?’ The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 31:1 (1980), 1-17; David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Miri Rubin, ‘Identities’ in A Social History of England, 1200-1500, Rosemary Horrow, et al. (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 383-412.

[3] Rosalind K. Marshall, Virgins and Viragos: A History of Women in Scotland from 1080 to 1980 (London: Collins, 1983), 21. It’s worth noting that these earlier arguments have been carried through in more recent scholarship. See, Jennifer C. Ward, ‘Noblewomen, Family, and Identity in Later Medieval Europe’ in Nobility in Medieval Europe: Concepts, Origins, Transformations, Anne J. Duggan (ed.) (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2000), 251;  Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent ‘Where is the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland?’ in Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland, Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent (eds.) (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 7.

[4] Jenny Wormald, Lords and Men in Scotland: Bonds of Manrent, 1442-1603 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, Ltd), 79.

[5] RRS, VI, 374-5 (no. 345); For a discussion of the wider context of this, see, Michael Penman, David II, 1327-71 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2004), 353.

[6] NRS: Papers of Lord Torphichen, GD119/149; GD119/150; GD119/158; GD119/160.