As the mail-shot industry is well aware forenames can tell a good deal about gender, age, ethnicity, religion and social class. After all a Ken or a Margaret is far more likely to be a grumpy sixtysomething rather than a fresh-faced teen and you're unlikely to find many Liams on the Shankhill Road.
If this is true today then it must surely have been true in the past and the lay subsidy assessment of 1544 and the Hearth Tax of 1670, both published in the Radnorshire Society transactions, provide us with the great majority of names of heads of household in the county for those years. What else can they tell us?
The Act of Union divided Radnorshire into six hundreds which more or less coincided with the traditional Welsh administrative divisions in this part of East Central Wales - Rhayader was basically Gwerthrynion, Colwyn was Elfael Uwch Mynydd, Painscastle was Elfael Is Mynydd, the hundreds of Knighton and Cefnllys covered the old cantref of Maelienydd and Radnor hundred a handful of minor lordships in the east of the county. Luckily both the 1544 and the 1670 records are based on these hundreds and the parishes that they contained, they allow us to identify differences in naming practices in the various parts of the county..
Firstly it should be said that in 1544 the great majority of the newly designated Radnorians still used the traditional patronymical system, only in and around Presteigne were settled surnames after the English fashion at all common. Already some of the older Welsh forenames had fallen out of fashion, there were only a handful of Cadwgans, Madocs, Meurigs and Cadwaladrs. Still we find more than half of the county's men, some 55%, had forenames that were either Welsh in origin or, in the case of Dafydd and Ieuan, understood as Welsh by ancient usage.
Turning to the differences between the six hundreds. In the town of Presteigne just five names accounted for 61% of the male population. These were John, Thomas, William, Richard and Hugh and their distribution was perhaps typical of the less traditional areas of the county. In Radnor Hundred as a whole these five names accounted for 44% of the population, in Painscastle 33%, in Knighton 16%, in Colwyn 15%, in Cefnllys 10% and in Rhayader just 6%. Meanwhile the five most common Welsh forenames, Dafydd, Ieuan, Rhys, Hywel and Gruffudd, made up 56% of the population in Rhayader, 58% in Cefnllys, 54% in Knighton, 48% in Colwyn, 38% in Painscastle and just 23% in Radnor.
Move on to 1670 and we find that the five Welsh names, by then Ieuan had been usually modified to Evan, were far less popular: Rhayader 33%, Colwyn 28%, Cefnllys 25%, Knighton 20%, Painscastle 18% and Radnor 13%. The fashion for the five new names had seen them spread throughout the county: Rhayader 35%, Cefnllys 40%, Colwyn and Knighton both 43%, Radnor 55% and Painscastle 56%.
Now no doubt this is all fairly predictable and mirrors the decline of patronyms and the language shift that would occur in the 18th and 19th centuries. Something of a puzzle though are female names - female heads of households do appear quite frequently in both the 1544 and 1670 recods - In the earlier list a majority of Radnorian women had traditional Welsh names like Gwenllian, Dyddgu, Gwenhwyfar, Lleucu and Tangwystl but by 1670 there were just a handful called Gwenllian or Goleu. Why would male Welsh names survive in substantial numbers whereas their female equivalents largely disappeared?