As I’ve mentioned before, most Latvians didn’t have surnames prior to the early 19th century. They were peasants, and until serfdom was abolished, surnames were not a necessity since they were tied to the land. It was only afterwards that surnames became necessary.
But not all Latvians were peasants. Some were merchants, craftsmen and traders, and lived in the cities. They acquired surnames much earlier. While many who aspired to greater social status assimilated to Baltic German culture and took on German names, some Latvian-language surnames do survive from this earlier time period, dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries.
These names are known to us through guild records, as mentioned by Kristaps Upelnieks in his 1936 book Uzvārdu došana Vidzemes un Kurzemes zemniekiem (The giving of surnames to peasants in Vidzeme and Kurzeme).
Among these early Latvian surnames (German renderings in brackets) are: Kāpostgalviņa (Kapustgallyn, “cabbage head”), Platkājis (Platkays, “the one with the wide leg/foot”), Kažokpoga (Kasockepoge, “(fur) coat button”), Kunkuls (Kunkull, “lump”) and Podkāja (Podekaje, “pot leg/foot”).
None of these names appear particularly flattering, and could reflect the societal biases of the time. Some of them are still in use today, though if it is unknown if their bearers are descended from the early bearers of these names, or whether their names were acquired separately at the time of emancipation from serfdom.
There are, however, worse names to have than “cabbage head” – but that’s for another week! Stay tuned!