Convers or Converse?

As we have discovered, the Converse surname derives from “le convers”, the name for Jews who converted to Christianity in 13th century England. At that time, French was the main language, as it was the language of William I (William the Conqueror). If Jews had converted, they were deprived of their assets, but offered accommodation in the Domus Conversorum in London.

In the 14th century, the main language reverted to English, with its Anglo-Saxon roots and newly acquired French words. People called le convers were now known by the designation “Convers”, although surnames were not really fixed at that time, so they might also be known by their place of birth (Licoricia of Winchester*), their father’s name (Anderson) or their occupation (Cooper).

There is also the problem that not many people were literate, and records were often written by scribes who were unsure how to spell (“mumble, mumble”) so Convers was written as Confers, Conbers, Cumbers, and so forth, and some of these spellings have superseded the original spelling, as seems to have happened in Essex, England, which has a group of Cumbers today.

Potential confusion may also arise from different styles of handwriting. An interesting example of this can be seen on the original will (from Essex Archives) of John Convers (1566-1627) on which his brother Allen Convers (1556-1639) is co-signatory…

Essex Archives – Reference: D/AEW 18/172

When the first Convers/Converse people went to America, they still spelled their name without the terminal e, and I have found US gravestones from centuries later which still used the Convers spelling. Recently however, I received an email from a man in Texas who still does spell his name as Convers! This is not a recent reversion, his branch never changed their spelling. Interestingly, he is actually a distant cousin of mine, in my branch of the Convers(e) family from Upstate New York.

I then looked up “Convers” on Google and found several other people in the USA who spell their name this way, not just in Texas. I have not written to them or followed up their histories. Also, of course, there are French-derived Converses (I found one in California) whose ancestors seem to have arrived directly from France, not from England.

I should also point out that years ago a woman whose last name was Convis wrote to me to ask if I was the Carolyn Convis she had met at a Convis family reunion! I was not that person, of course, I have always spelled my surname Converse, as have most of us in the USA. This person claimed that Convis was derived from Converse, and indeed, I did find a graveyard on-line which contained a variety of stones for both Converses and Convises! Not proof positive, but it seems to me quite likely: if “Converse” could lead to Cumbers and other spellings in England, it might also lead to a variety of spellings in America?

I would be interested in any stories you may have about variants on “Convers(e)”.

Carolyn Converse-Cooper

*This is a very interesting historical book by Suzanne Bartlet, subtitled “Marriage, Motherhood and Murder in the Medieval Anglo-Jewish Community” edited for publication by Patricia Skinner and published by Valentine Mitchell in 2009.

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