During the First Rzeczpospolita (Republic of Both Nations), from the mid-1500 to 1795, (Poland’s borders included then the majority of territories of today’s Poland, a large part of the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and parts of Latvia and Russia ) surnames already existed, but not for everybody.
They appeared only in the second half of the 18th century in Polish legal notation as an element of identification and were introduced and made obligatory by the invaders Prussia, Russia and Austria.
There are about 300 names in the Bull of Gniezno (1136), e.g., Witosza, Pozdziech, Dobek, Będziech. They were not very sophisticated but sufficient for a beginning. There were not many people then and they lived in distant settlements, towns or castles. But there were more and more of us as the years went by, so our forefathers needed to distinguish one from another and that is why they started to add nicknames.
Nicknames were created from the names of trades, places of birth, animals, plants, personal characteristics, or months. They were given to both nobility and peasants. With time the nicknames began to function as surnames, so they were recorded in documents and certificates and passed from generation to generation.
Surnames with the endings –ski or -cki were formed from place names. Somebody living in Wola was named Wolski, another living in Łęczyca was called Łęczycki. The owner of several villages could use several surnames. It was also possible for each of two brothers who owned two different villages to have different surnames. A woman could be named after her father or husband and also from their estate name, all at the same time. When a man married, he could take the surname of his wife or just create a new one from the name of estate where they would live after marriage. Sons had also a choice. They could use the surname of their father or mother or just create a new one to which they took a fancy.
In the second half of the 15th century nicknames formed from the names of places began to disappear. Surnames ending with –ski were reserved for the nobility and from that time on, they became the most desirable. The part of the nobility that had surnames formed from nicknames changed them to those that had the proper ending -ski. This was the time when many beautiful archaic surnames, like Wierzbięta or Bochnar, disappeared. Many ambitious townspeople and peasants also wanted to have a “noble” surname ending with –ski, so they just add this ending to their surname or created new and often strange clusters e.g., Gwiazdomorski (combination of “star” and “sea”), Ruzamski (reversed surname Mazur with “essential” –ski, ending).
In the 15th century a big group of very characteristic surnames based on coats of arms was formed: Akszak herbu Akszak (the surname Akszak derives from coat of arms Akszak), Mikulicz herbu Mikulicz or Korczak herbu Korczak came into being. Nobles added this new part to their surnames to differentiate themselves from others who had the same surname but were not of the nobility. For example, one noble added Lis to Olszewscy (resulting in Lis-Olszewscy) and another added Nowina to Konopkowie (resulting in Nowina-Konopkowie) to set themselves apart from townspeople or peasants called Olszewscy or Konopkowie.
Near the end of the 16th century churches began to keep parish documents in accordance with the decisions of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). This practice contributed to the stabilization of the surnames of the nobility, townspeople and peasants.
The first documents that established and confirmed surnames were indygenats (from Latin indigenatio – citizen right, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth this document provided recognition of noble status for a foreigner) and ennoblements (conferring of nobility). It was on the occasion of writing out those documents or confirming nobility (a procedure required by legal acts from 1603 and 1613) that surnames were sometimes changed by their owners to those that they thought sounded better.
The obligation of keeping parish registers was started by the Council of Trent on November 11, 1563. At the beginning only marriage registers were kept. This reform was introduced slowly in Poland, first in the church province of Lwów, next in the province of Poznań. In Poland it was during the Synod in Piotrków (1607) when the requirement for the clergy to keep registers of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, those taking communion on Easter and the Status Animarum (list of the faithful) was introduced. Sometime after 1631 the custom of keeping registers of baptisms, marriages and deaths became widespread. However, in some parishes, registers of confirmations, confessions during Easter and lists of the faithful continue to be kept even today. In the second half of the 18th century the procedure of making copies of the registers and delivering them to the District Courts was introduced. It is worthy to add that in some Polish parishes registers were introduced even before the Council of Trent: e.g., marriage registers have been kept in the Mariacki Church in Cracow since 1548, in Stanin in the Siedlce region since1550, and in Bochnia (near Cracow) since 1559.
Peasants still did not have surnames until the partitions; until the turn of the 19th century they had only first names and sometimes nicknames.
The 19th century was the time of stabilization of surnames. Censuses took place and parish registers were reformed. Usually existing surnames or nicknames were legalized or new surnames were created for those who did not have one.
The process of the legitimization of the nobility was carried out during the partition according to rules set by the invaders. Some Polish nobility lost their rights, because of the lack of proper documents or money, or just their inability to follow the complicated formalities required by law.
Some families took advantage of changes in the law and „adopted” to old coats of arms and surnames. Shrewd lawyers called witnesses who created false lineages. That was the case of Mikołaj Mickiewicz, a lawyer from Nowogródek and the father of the Polish national bard, Adam Mickiewicz. Taking an opportunity he created false lineages for his family and for the family of his wife Barbara née Majewska. Thanks to him, many generations of researchers have tried to solve the problem of whether the Mickiewicz family was really noble and if Majewski family members were really neophytes (converted into Christianity).
In the 20th century surnames were – in principle – permanent. However, they were sometimes changed because of an undesirable tone – vulgar or folk – and sometimes just because of snobbery.
An interesting group of newly created surnames, which you will not encounter anywhere else in the world, are the so-called “war surnames”. Many underground soldiers had nicknames. After independence had been regained, the Polish parliament (in 1921) consented to add the sobriquet from the war times to the soldier’s existing surname. That is how such surnames as Orlicz-Dreszer, Rydz-Śmigły, Scaevola-Wieczorkiewicz, Norwid-Neugebauer and many others came into being. It was also an opportunity to exchange plain names for fancier ones, e.g., Maślanka (literally meaning “buttermilk”) became Grudziński (from gruda – “clod of earth, frozen ground”, but with the -ski ending) and Leń, (an idler) became Ziemiański (a land owner).
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