Clerical Incelibacy

And some speculations about surnames

 Please be indulgent, for the Gadhaelig sitteth not sweetly on my English tongue. I would not have written this article at all, if it were not for the fact that compilers of lists of surnames bend over backwards to avoid two obvious facts. The first, which I shall not deal with, is that a lot of Scottish surnames derive from the Welsh language, generally through place names in the South. The second is that out of a fair number of English surnames deriving from Mediaeval French, which, after all, was the official recording medium for three centuries after the Conquest, some relate to religious institutions. But first, let us look at a few well-known surnames of Gaelic origin.


bootstrap slideshow




mac an Aba
mac an Maolain
mac an Phearson
mac an tSagairt


Son of the Abbot
Son of the Monk (tonsured one)
Son of the Parson
Son of the Priest  

These names must tell us something about the celibacy of the clergy. At least the Pope's children were respectfully referred to as nieces and nephews. I wonder whether MacIntyre is not mac an tSaoir (Son of the Carpenter) but mac an tSiùr (Son of the Nun). 

 Corresponding English surnames are Abbott, Monk, Parsons, and Priest. We may also cite Bishop, Nunn, Vickers. Perhaps these also suggest parentage. A text dated 1305 reads:

 “Þe monks þat wol be stalun gode, he schal hab wiþute danger xii wiues euche Ʒere”. 

That is, “Any monk who wants to be a good stallion, shall have without danger twelve wives each year”. 

 As for nuns, let us consider the report of the Bishop of Lincoln's representative relating to a formal visitation of Littlemore Minchery (Nunnery), on the outskirts of Oxford, in the 1470's. (Oxford Diocese was set up by Henry VIII. Previously Oxford had come under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Lincoln.) He reported that there were seven nuns, including the Mother Superior. All were drunk and six were pregnant.

 If we go back to the Gaelic, we can see that some people took their surnames from the religious establishments that they worked for. Here are a few examples.




Giolla Pheadair
Giolla Phàil
Giolla Eoghain
Giolla Màire


Servant of Peter
Servant of Paul
Servant of John
Servant of Mary  

From this, we can start to compile a list of corresponding English surnames. Remember that churches, priories, monasteries, used to employ considerable numbers of laymen in all sorts of capacities. Furthermore, quite often posts were inherited, which was all the more reason for the employee's place of work to be used as a surname.


Snuggs, Snooks
Steggles, Stiggers

Mediaeval French

Sainte Catherine
Sainte Croix
Saint Marc
Saint Paul
Saint Denis
Saint Hugues
Saint Piers
Sainte Agnes
Saint Antoine
Saint Edmond
Sainte Eglise
Saint Yves


St. Catherine
Holy Cross (1)
St. Mark
St. Paul
St. Denis
St. Hugh (2)
St. Peter
St. Anne
St. Anthony (3)
St. Edmund
Holy Church
St. Ives (4) 

(1) St Cross is an old parish in the City of Oxford. Scroggs is a local surname. Milk floats belonging to Scroggs' Dairy were once a familiar sight in Oxford. My first employment opportunity arose because one Gaynor Scroggs had got the sack. I inherited her stationery, which included a ruler with serrated edges that bore the inscription, incised and inked-in, “Gay Slasher”. 

(2) Little St. Hugh had been murdered by the Jews in Lincoln and his blood mixed with the matzo meal to celebrate Passover. This bizarre and incredible story, known as the “Blood Libel”, has been told and retold ever since as a justification for persecuting Jews, and, alas, we are not yet done with it. It was quite cynically rehashed by Abimael Guzmán, a professor of the University of Ayacucha in Peru, to encourage the native peoples to join his Marxist Sendero Luminoso guerrillas and make war against the descendants of the Spanish. But the original anti-Jewish version is still being circulated in the Middle East.

(3) This surname could easily derive from places called Stanton or Stainton. However, the French nasal sound was often represented as “aun”. We have to regard this example as ambiguous.

(4) This is another surname local to Oxford. One Ivor Stiff was forced to renounce those activities that required his name to be read out loud in the Magistrates' Court.

 Some similar surnames derive from towns and villages in Normandy themselves named after saints. So my list may not be entirely accurate. I think it proves my point, however, that some people were given the names of the religious establishments that they worked for.

 [I have left the accents off the Mediaeval French renderings because those accents so typical of modern written French were invented by Amsterdam printers in the sixteenth century. They used the acute, grave and circumflex accents plus the diaeresis (two dots) because they already had those in their toolbox because of the need to typeset Greek texts. The cedilla (little z) presumably came from Spanish.]

 At least mediaeval clerical scandals were heterosexual. Um, to a point. But it was the heterosexual scandals that we are descended from, no doubt all of us. So let us leave it at that.


Email (admin):
Email (wisdom of the aged):