Why are seventeenth century names so difficult?

TDADD-ebook-webMy historical novel “To Die a Dry Death” was recently reviewed by Kimberly Maloney on her blog Historical Fiction Obsession. While Kimberly rated the novel a five star read and had lots of nice things to say, she said she struggled a little with the unusual names, like Jacobsz and Bastiaenz, so herewith an explanation.

In the seventeenth century people didn’t have surnames. ‘John the baker’ or ‘James the smith’ was quite enough to differentiate. If you had a bunch of sailors, though, you might need something else. So we had ‘John, Peter’s son’ or John, James’s son’. This is the derivation of surnames like ‘Peterson’ and ‘Jameson’. Or you might use where someone came from to identify an individual, for example ‘Peter from London’.

In Holland, it was the same. The letters ‘sz’ at the end of the names denoted ‘szoon’ (the Dutch for son). The letters ‘van’ or ‘van der’ in front of a name mean ‘from’ and ‘from the’ and according to Mike Dash in his book ‘Batavia’s Graveyard’, this indicated someone with property.

I must agree that without surnames, it’s difficult to follow ancestry. Take the predikant (preacher) in this story, Gijsbert Bastiaensz. He had seven children, all of whom would have had ‘Gijsbertsz’ as a ‘surname’. Yes, even the daughters, although the word for daughter is ‘dochter’. One of the predikant’s sons was also called Gijsbert. He would have been referred to as Gijsbert Gijsbertsz.

One problem I had with names in my story was that, unlike in our times, where people’s first names are thought up willy-nilly, in the past there was a relatively restricted list of names that parents could use. ‘Jacob’ was a very common name. Kimberly had a short struggle differentiating between Adriaen Jacobsz, the captain of the Batavia and Jacopsz, the captain of the Sardam. In fact, the name of the captain of the Sardam was Jacob Jacobsz. My beta readers complained about that so I changed the spelling to a pretty common derivation of Jacobsz – Jacopsz. Maybe I should have changed the name completely but although this is fiction, I’m writing about people who lived and died. Somewhere out there in the Indian Ocean, Jacob Jacobsz assuredly lost his life. I felt I owed him that much.