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Author: Dr John S Plant (bio)
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The large Plant family and polygyny

The 'single ancestor' DNA finding for Plant is discussed more rigorously in, John S Plant (2009) Surname studies with genetics, where it is surmised that, even if the Plant surname had 'plural origins', a significant fraction of this surname's large population evidently descended from a single ancestor. Such a high population is difficult to explain by monogamous means alone. Polygyny (or, a man taking many women) is most helpful in explaining the high population of the single-family Plants.

If polygyny arises early in the history of a surname, it can apply a large multiplier to the whole of the subsequent population of a family. Currently (August 2009), there is a view that such an explanation may hold for populous Irish patronymics better than for common English surnames, since a little Y-DNA evidence has accumulated to support that view; and, it has been noted that early polygyny is better evidenced in medieval Irish than English Law. However, the Y-DNA evidence for the populous English surnames Sykes and Plant is at odds with the tentative generalisation; and, it is relevant to consider whether such an explantaion could hold also in England.

An explanation, based on early polygyny, holds for a single-surname family, however, only if all of the offspring inherit the same surname. It has been objected that bastard Plants in England would not have inherited their father's surname. However, I shall debunk that objection, for Plant in particular, here.

The main concentration of Plants is found near the Welsh Marches and the Welsh meaning of plant is 'children'. One might even conjecture that the name was coined for the 'many children' of a single family. Perhaps the main complication is that there is some early evidence for similar names elsewhere. For example, there is an earlier name form de la Planta in Anjou albeit that this has a rather similar meaning 'from the shoot' or 'offshoot', cf. 'offspring'. However, it is not clear that this early Angevin landholder led on to the siring of the main populous Plant family. In any event, similar beliefs may have persisted in other (erstwhile) Celtic regions besides Wales and Ireland. More rigourously, for Plant, there is no need to consider the inheritance of the same surname away from the Welsh Marches by a large number of polygynous children. More widely, surnames may have been inherited by the offspring of concubines even under English Law, as will be indicated below.

Most particularly, Welsh Law was often applied in the Welsh Marches and the implicit patronymic Plant, found mainly there, seems compatible with both English and Welsh medieval Law. Traditional Welsh Law seems to have been accepting of polygyny up to around the times when English surnames were forming, similarly as in Ireland; and, the Welsh meaning 'children' avoids specifying a father from whom sole inheritance might be due under English Law. The explanation is less clear for the populous English surname Sykes in Yorkshire though, more widely, there was some dispute over the situation for heritance passing to the offspring of concubines (or unwed female partners).

Concubines (ancient French) and polygyny (Ireland and Wales)

It is often suggested that the origins of hereditary surnames in England related to the inheritance of office or property, inspired by the customs of the French nobility, though the origins of some surnames (e.g. ones derived from some nicknames) seem far less formally based. For the purposes of considering the formal influence on whether polygynous children could inherit a surname, it is relevant to consider the hereditary rights of bastards.

The historian, Rodulfus Glaber, was a monk at Cluny in eastern France, who died c. 1046. He approved of the Norman dukes and seems to have accepted the transmission of their office through 'concubines' which he defends by Old Testament precedence and that of the illegitimate birth of Constantine the Great [Rodulfi Glabri Hustorium libri quinque, tr. John France, Oxford Medieval Texts, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989, pp. lvii, 164-5, 204-5]. This is in general disagreement, however, with the Cannon Law of the church.

In Ireland, Brehon Law allows polygyny (albeit while citing the authority of the Old Testament) and other actions which Canon Law expressly forbid [D.A.Binchy, Introduction in Corpus Iuris Hibernici, p. ix]. Brehon Law was effectively outlawed by the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367 and the policy of Surrender and Regrant.

Welsh Law usually applied in the Welsh Marches as well as areas ruled by Welsh princes. In a dispute, for example, between Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn and Roger Mortimer, Gruffydd wanted to apply English Law but, in 1281, the royal justices upheld Roger Mortimer's wish that Welsh Law should apply as the lands concerned lay in Wales. In Welsh property Law, illegitimate sons were entitled to an equal share with the legitimate sons, provided they had been acknowledged by the father. This was the provision which differed most from Canon law. The recognition of polygyny in Wales may have been drawing to a close in the 13th century; but there was still recognition of the rights of the male offspring of such relationships. As the Iorwerth 13th century text puts it:

The law of the church says that no-one is entitled to patrimony save the father's eldest son by his wedded wife. The law of Hywel adjudges it to the youngest son as to the eldest, and judges that the father's sin and his illegality should not be set against the son for his patrimony.
Also relevant in this regard is the list preserved in several law books of nine sexual unions, Naw Cynyweddi Deithiog. The Naw Cynyweddi lists nine unions which seem unlikely to have met with Ecclesiastical approval. This is because some of them may plainly coexist with other unions in which either or both parties are involved. In other words, the list (similar to Irish lists) seems to presuppose a society which permitted polygyny [Huw Pryce (1993) Native law and the church in medieval Wales, p. 109.].

English and Cannon Law favoured primogeniture whereby the eldest legitimate son had sole rights to inheritance. However, even under English Law, no-one questions that others, besides the eldest legitimate son, could inherit a surname. In Blackstone's 18th century Commentaries of the Laws of England [Vol. I, ed. W. Morrison (London, 2001) pp. 352-53], it states:

Yet he [a bastard] may gain a surname by reputation though he has none by inheritance. All other children have a settlement in their father's parish; but a bastard in the parish where born, for he has no father.
In short, there is substantial reason to doubt that there was a universal restriction on bastards inheriting a paternal surname, particularly when surnames were first forming, especially in the Welsh Marches, particularly for a name that simply meant 'children' in Welsh. Surviving customs of polygyny (or concubines) can help to explain the few single-surname, Y-DNA matching families with unexpectedly large populations.

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