I’m teaching James Scott’s Seeing Like a State today (the only academic work I’ve ever read that made me want to dash off a fan-letter to the author), and on re-reading it spotted a passage that seemed possibly relevant to something I’ve sometimes wondered about. Scott is talking about how European states imposed universal last names on their populations, the better to tax and monitor them.
The legislative imposition of permanent surnames is particularly clear in the case of Western European Jews who had no tradition of last names. A Napoleonic decree “concernant les Juifs qui n’ont pas de nom de famille et de prenoms fixes,” in 1808, required Jews to choose last names or, if they refused, to have fixed last names chosen for them. In Prussia the emancipation of the Jews was contingent on the adoption of surnames.
Which may go some way to explaining the puzzle that I’m interested in – why so many Jewish last names of German (or perhaps Yiddish?) origin refer to natural phenomena, with endings such as berg (mountain), stein (stone), wald (forest), baum (tree), blum (flower) and so on. The Italian Jewish name Montefiore (mountain of flowers) is possibly an example of the same thing, but I don’t know whether it’s typical of a broader phenomenon or a singular aberration. If this is part of the story, I’d be interested to know whether these are names that 18th and 19th century European Jews chose for themselves, or were pressured to take by various German state authorities. Any historians of Jewish culture out there who know the answer?