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Author's Note: This article was written over a decade ago and I might do some things differently today, however there has been enough recent interest in the material that I thought it was worth posting in its original form rather than waiting until I had time to revise it.
It is a natural consequence of human nature that people should associate themselves in groups. In mundane life, as well as in the SCA, these groups may be voluntary (a club) or involuntary (a family), fixed (a workplace) or fluid (the regular patrons of a coffee shop), purposeful (a softball team) or not (a neighborhood). Any one individual may belong to a number of groups for varying purposes and circumstances. I may be simultaneously a citizen of the USA, a member of the Jones family, an employee of a particular company, a member of the filk music community and one of the inhabitants of a particular house Fremont Street.
All of these have parallels of a sort within the SCA. Someone may simultaneously be associated with a particular kingdom, a local branch, an order, and a craft guild. He may be or have a squire or apprentice, be associated with some "great household", and be part of a smaller camping unit. With the exception of official SCA branches (and to some extent, the orders sponsored by them) the College of Arms makes no administrative difference between any of these groups with their widely varying purposes and origins, subsuming them all under the ill-fitting rubric of "households".
This lumping together of many different types of groups is one of the factors that has led to our current difficulty in assessing the authenticity (and therefore the registrability) of the names associated with them. [author's note: This article was originally written for an audience of heralds, thus the concern with registration.] Most educated people will agree on what we mean by a "personal name". But without agreeing on what we mean by a "household", how can we agree on what a "household name" should be? In the absence of a clear model for either the groups or their names, we have registered group names that range from the impeccably authentic to the thoroughly atrocious. (And this applies to official branch names as well as unofficial households.) To avoid some of the assumptions that may come with the word "household" I will instead use the more neutral word "group", including branches and orders as well as the more usual interpretation of "household".
It may be that the only way to implement standards of authenticity for group names is to require the same level of documentation for the structures of names as we do for the component parts. We are beginning to apply this standard to personal names. The major stumbling block to applying it to group names is the creation of a body of knowledge of what period "group names" were like. And to do that we need to analyze just what the period models for SCA organizations and associations were, and what they were called by their contemporaries and by history.
Beyond the question of the historical forms of group names is that of the appropriateness of particular types to particular SCA functions. It would make sense for branch names to follow the patterns for geographical entities. Guild and craft associations have clear medieval parallels with fairly well documented appellations. Groups modelled on the family and retainers of a nobleman can find many exemplars in period. But too often those who form an SCA household have not given any thought to the period models they might follow, and less to the relevant nomenclature. Creating their households in this historical vacuum, they borrow names from what they do know: fantasy literature, role-playing games, the neo-Victorian fashion for naming one's mundane house.
Knowledge is the key, not only to documenting the form of group names, but to giving people period examples to follow when setting up those groups in the first place. To that end, it makes sense to explore medieval social groupings and the nomenclature associated with them.
I see group names falling into four general categories: the names of geographic regions and entities; names deriving from kinship; names of non-kin socio-political relationships; and names deriving from professional or business associations. There can be considerable overlap between these categories. The name of a geographic entity may attach itself to, or be derived from, a kin-group. A kinship-based name may be the root for a broader social group, as in Scotland where a clan might include unrelated individuals as well as the descendants of a particular family. It is not my intention here to define all possible group names exhaustively, but to lay out a structure for studying and analyzing them.
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