For some reason, the subject of maison dite or house names kept coming up while I was researching the MERTES-DONNEN family. Not only in my research but in several Facebook groups and pages I follow. Maybe the ancestors were trying to tell me something. Or maybe it’s time to discuss what I learned while researching this family – something I left out in my last post.
Before I share my discovery, let me give you an overview of the history of house names and surnames in Luxembourg.
This past June I attended a conference by Paul ZIMMER, Latein in den Kirchenbüchern korrekt lesen (Reading Latin Correctly in Church Records). His presentation included an explanation of the peculiarities of names found in church records. After the presentation, he kindly sent digital copies to all participants of a dozen articles published under his pseudonym, Victor Racine. I used his introduction to genealogy research adapted to the Luxembourg situation: Petite introduction à la recherche généalogique avec des conseils pratiques adaptés à la situation luxembourgeoise (Victor Racine) as a guide.
House Names and Surnames
Until around 1500 the first name of a person was sufficient enough to identify ordinary people. When pleading someone’s case, it was done orally and normally in the presence of the person eliminating the confusion of identities.
The appearance of the first written documents however required additional distinction. Nicolas, therefore, became known as Nicolas de Steinfort (by his residence), Nicolas le Meunier (by his occupation, i.e. miller), or Nicolas le Petit (by a trait, i.e. small person).
When these extensions to the first names finally became family names transmitted from one generation to the next, they were not, for a long time, patronymic. In about half the cases, the children’s names came from the mother, as the rules of family succession in Luxembourg were based on primogeniture – the right of the oldest child inheriting the parental home without any distinction between males and females.
Luxembourg researchers are confronted with the phenomenon of “house names” shared by all people living under one roof, regardless of their initial name received at birth. At the time of the marriage, the spouse always acquired, whatever his sex, the name of the house into which he entered. Thus, each couple had only one and the same surname which was transmitted to all their children.
In the course of the eighteenth century when Luxembourg was under Austrian rule, the civil authorities imposed a contrary law, that each individual should keep his birth name – it could no longer be changed during the course of his life, notably at the time of marriage. Each legitimate child inherited his father’s surname.
During the long transition, the coexistence of the two rules and practices, totally opposite, constituted a complication which was the source of errors. The children of one and the same couple sometimes obtained different surnames. The second spouse of a widow or widower may have been known by the surname his spouse had previously taken from his first conjugal partner.
Priests were aware of the problem of the double and triple surnames of their parishioners. Some were careful to note more than one name. The different surnames of one and the same person were juxtaposed and linked together by Latin words: alias (otherwise called), vulgo (commonly called), modo (otherwise), sive and aut (or), dicta (said). Sometimes the correct connection with previous generations can be determined by useful references such as ex domo … (from the house) or in domo … (in the house). House names were also mentioned in the parish records using the term in aedibus (Latin for in house) followed by the name.
Our genealogical research may suffer from the rivalry of these two incompatible rules but in the following case, I profited from them.
Researching the MERTES-DONNEN Family
It took me longer than usual to research the MERTES-DONNEN family before I wrote about them in my last post. I couldn’t seem to get to the point I wanted to be before beginning to write. I wanted to know as much as possible about both Nicolas MERTES’ family and Maria Catharina DONNEN’s family so their timelines would be as complete as possible.
This led me down a rabbit hole as I also looked into their grandparents. When I finally thought I had the timeline ready, I began writing using information from the documents for each of the events.
As I was composing the post I went off on a tangent taking a new look at the death record of Margaretha BIVER, the mother of Nicolas MERTES. I ended up cutting out a large portion of what I wrote about the death record and my findings as I realized I had gotten sidetracked from the subject of the piece.
However, I saw an opportunity to use the information I had found to help other Luxembourg researchers.
The MERTES Family’s House Name
Marguerite BIVER died on 20 December 1820 at nine in the evening in house number 69 in the Opperter road in Bertrange. The informant for the death was her son-in-law Jean KETTENMEYER. The record (below, top entry) did not indicate the address was also that of the informant.
The next entry in the register (above, bottom entry) was for a baby with the surname CHRISTOPHORY who died in house number 73 of the same street.
The importance of the deaths taking place in the same street, likely only two houses away from each other, can be seen in the pedigree of Franz MERTES, the son of the MERTES-DONNEN couple and grandson of Marguerite BIVER.
I haven’t followed through to see how the baby’s family was related to Barbe CHRISTOPHORY, Maria Catharina’s mother. But it had me wondering if the DONNEN-CHRISTOPHORY and the MERTES-BIVER couples had been neighbors when their daughter and son married. I tried to locate the address in present-day Bertrange but the list of street names on the Luxembourg post office’s site did not turn up any matches.
My next step was to check if perhaps the KETTENMEYER family’s street name may have been mentioned on the census or in a vital record. Jean KETTENMEYER died before the first available census. The two listings I found for his widow Anne MERTES did not include the street name.
Jean’s death record revealed an interesting fact. He died in la maison dite Karpen, an Oppert or a house named Karpen in Oppert.
This was an amazing discovery. When I read maison dite Karpen on the record I knew right away the KETTENMEYER family was living in the home of the MERTES family.
The significance of “la maison dite Karpen”
Peter, the father of Nicolas MERTES and Jean KETTENMEYER’s wife Anne MERTES, was the son of Mathias MERTES and Maria HOLTZEMER of Steinsel. At this time I do not have a baptismal record for Peter. His death record indicates he was born about 1733. I suspect his age was over-estimated at the time of death.
The parents of the groom were married in 1726 at which time their names were given as Mathias MERTENS and Maria HOLTZEMER. The family name had evolved from MERTENS to MERTES by the time Peter married.
Mathias and Maria had six children born in Müllendorf and baptized in Steinsel from 1729 to 1741. The baptismal records have been found. The priest gave the following names for the parents on the children’s records:
- Theodore b. 1729: Mathias MARTINI and Maria HOLTZEMER
- Magdalena b. 1731: Mathias MARTINI and Maria CARPEN dicta HOLTZEMER
- Johann b. 1733: Mathias MARTINI alias CARPEN and Maria HOLTZEMER
- Mathias b. 1736: Mathias MARTINI alias CARPEN and Maria HOLTZEMER
- Anna Maria b. 1737: Mathias MERTENS alias CARPEN and Maria HOLTZEMER
- Johann Peter b. 1741: Mathias MERTENS alias CARPEN and Maria HOLTZEMER
As mentioned in the explanation of surnames in Luxembourg, the priest gave a Latin twist to the surname and added an alias to Mathias’ surname as well as dicta (said) to Maria’s.
Although I know that Peter MERTES was the son of Mathias MERTES (MERTENS) and Maria HOLZTEMER as these were the names given at the time of his marriage, I still do not know for sure when he was born and baptized. I believe he may have been the youngest son, Johann Peter born in 1741. Further research will have to be done to prove or disprove this assumption.
The alias CARPEN was found to go back further through Maria HOLTZEMER’s line. She was born in 1704 when her parents were listed as Nicolas HOLZEM and Angela PEIFFERS. When Maria’s her sister Angela was born in 1707 the parents’ names were given as Nicolas HOLZEM dicti KARP and his wife Angela.
Digging a bit deeper I learned Angela’s family did not use a surname until their fourth child was born. It would have been very unlikely that I would figure this out on my own. Claude Bettendroffer, vice-president of Luxracines, made the connection and shared it in his database on our society’s website. When the first two children were born the parents were seen Godefridus (also seen as Godfroid and Godart), a sutor or cobbler, and Dorothée. When Angela was born her father was seen with the same occupation, only written in German, Schuhmacher. The father’s occupation was used to distinguish him from other men with the same first name in Steinsel. By the time their fourth child was born the family was using the surname or house name PEIFFERS. The oldest child, a daughter, inherited the home and passed the name on to the children of both of her marriages as her husbands took on her house name PEIFFERS.
It was astonishing to have followed a family line back using surnames, to using a house name, to only being identified by the father’s occupation during a documented period from 1666 back to 1659.
The house name KARPEN was not used by the PEIFFERS family as far as I can tell at this time. It was used by the HOLTZEM family in Müllendorf as early as 1707, by the MERTENS-HOLTZEMER family in 1731-1741 in Müllendorf, and finally by the MERTES family in Bertrange as late as 1837 when the son-in-law died. It appears the house name followed the son when he married and made his home in Bertrange.
Karpen house in Oppert. Where was Oppert?
When I searched for Oppert as seen in the 1837 death record instead of Opperter as seen in the 1820 death record, I found it is now a street in Bertrange called rue des Champs. I know this street. We’ve ridden our bikes on this road which runs from the center of town out of Bertrange into the fields to the west of town where bike paths link it to Mamer in the northwest and Dippach in the southwest.
Zooming in on Google maps street view I found the street sign, a bit above and to the left of the shutter on the left side of the house, for rue des Champs includes the Luxembourgish name Oppert.
What’s the secret?
I don’t believe there is a secret to the maison dite or house names in Luxembourg records. As long as we know how surnames evolved and how house names were used to identify people, we can use the rules to benefit our research.
Even today the older generations can be heard referring to a person by their house name instead of their surname in Luxembourg. But it is a custom which is quickly disappearing.
© 2017, copyright Cathy Meder-Dempsey. All rights reserved.