Perhaps you have determined, or have been told by someone who knows modern German, that the meaning of Gottschalk, the origin of all the Gottshall spelling variations, is "God's Clown" or something of that sort. This may seem mysterious or vaguely insulting. "Gott" does of course mean "God," and "schalk" does mean "clown" or "trickster," etc. A literal interpretation like this, however, is misleading.

"Gottschalk" is essentially a pious, idiomatic expression that means "God's Servant." It is an idiom in that it's meaning goes beyond the sum of the two words, Gott and Schalk. Centuries ago the meaning was clearer, when "schalk" could more specifically mean "servant." Gottschalk has only been a surname, or family name, for perhaps 300 years or less. Before that, it was exclusively a first name, or perhaps a title.

It's use as a Germanic given name or title goes far back into the middle ages. There was a monk and theologian in the 9th century A.D., for example, known as "Gottschalk of Orbais." His family name was not "Gottschalk." In fact, this was long before most people even had hereditary surnames. It was common until recent centuries for Europeans to simply be known as "son of" or "daughter of."

Today there are some Jewish families named "Gottschalk" or some variation thereof. These family names arose in the 1800s, when Jews in many areas were required to adopt a surname. This situation, along with other useful things, are described in some messages I have received from people I know who are working with Jewish genealogy:

From: Stephen
To: David

This is a very brief reply to thank you and to tell you that I've just received a message from a Christian named Gottschall whose family and mine may be intertwined somehow. His big question is the meaning of the name Gottschalk and how it was transmogrified from a first to a family name.

From: David
To: Stephen

The Gott part is simple, God knows! And so do you and your friend! :-) The Schalk (Schall) part isn't difficult either: The anglicised words "Marshal" and "Seneschal" contain the same root, (Old Teutonic - skalkoz) meaning a servant. In one case it combined with (OTeut - marhoz), a horse. In the other with (Gothic - sins), related to (Latin - senex) meaning old.

So the origin is simply, "Servant of God". Jews adopted Gottschalk as a given name by translating one of the "-el" names from Hebrew: I'm not sure which one it was... maybe Rapha-el? A Hebraist will know.

Later, when family names became compulsory, some Isaac son of Gottschalk (as a patronymic) would have become Isaac GOTTSCHALK (as a family name).

Among Non-Jews, the same kind of thing must have happened; but as there were more of them, they would have had the need for family names at an earlier date.

Names such as this are common enough, and were "translated" into many languages. Consider the that famous composer, Wolfgang AMADEUS Mozart. His Greek and German namesakes are Theophilus and GOTTLIEB respectively.

Your friend GOTTSCHALL has modernised his name like English did, by dropping the terminal "k" sound. In German the word "Schalk" is used alone to mean a rogue, knave, wag and (obsolete) servant! It is used even as a term of endearment when a child unwittingly (or otherwise!) manages some roguish act. The medieval fools whom we also call Royal Jesters, were known in Germany as Scha"lke, the modern plural of Schalk. Finally, remember that master of practical jokes, Till Eulenspiegel. He was known in Germany as a SCHALK.

You now know as much about Gottschal(k) as I do, and much of my wisdom comes from the Oxford English Dictionary and Cassels English/German Dictionaries, where you may double check me. :-)

Re-reading this message, I find myself stringing together facts and factlets in a somewhat disjointed manner. Please forgive me.

From: Stephen
To: David

And so I'm back at knave, fool, jester, etc. while I'm also serving God. Thank you, David. I had intended to take some time off to go to the library today (Saturday) where I had planned to do basically what you, David, have done. So I thank you for the good work and for saving me a whale of a lot of time. I'm sure I speak for my "cousin" in Los Angeles, too, when I say thank you very much. One thing you have clarified, David, is why the Christian name change took place earlier. It never even occurred to me that it had anything to do with relative numbers. In my instance, I now learn, there were only three Jewish families in Orsoy. There really was no rush. But the Code Napoleon couldn't abide such anarchy, so everyone had to have a patrnym in 1808.

Webmaster's Note: Here's a message I got recently from a relative that discusses the idea further.


Thanks for the message. I wondered the same thing about the Gottshall/Gottschalk name; let me tell you what I know about it.

First, as I'm sure you've come to realize, spelling of names before about the late 19th century was not the precise business that it is today. I've run across documents from the early 19th century and late 18th century in which a person's name is spelled several different ways in the same document! So I would view the various permutations (Gottschall, Godshall, etc, etc) as relatively trivial. However, it does seem that So I would view the various permutations (Gottschall, Godshall, etc, etc) as relatively trivial. However, it does seem that the "k" at the end introduces a more seemingly major difference.

Bob Godshall ( says he has heard a story to the effect that the original name back in Germany was Gottschall (or similar spelling, but without a k). This would translate as "God's echo." This story holds that the k got added when members of the family fled to Holland to avoid persecution. In German, Gottshalk with a k would seemingly mean "God's fool" or "God's joker." Now, some people say that the original sense of this was not a trickster type of joker, but rather a fool in the sense of a knave or servant. I can see the name "working" in various of these interpretations.

Whatever the meaning and original form of the name, it does appear that it first surfaced as a given name, not a surname. The Godshall Web page that I mentioned shows a line that goes back to a Gottshalk Comes born around 1510. His descendant who was the father of the Rev. Jacob Gottschalk is shown with a name of Gottschalk Thonis or Theunissen. In researching my other lines I've seen names flipflop between being a surname and a given name, even in relatively recent times (i.e. child is given first name of Tyler in homage to his mother's maiden name or another surname in the family). (Also, of course, the whole concept of a surname didn't apply much before the era of Gottshalk Comes.)

I didn't know that Gottschalk was used as a name in Jewish families, but it would seem to be a basically pious name that could work in either setting. (I think there are names in Arabic, for example, that similarly mean "Allah's servant" or the like.) It would be nice to run across a nice Mennonite history that might go into this in more detail. I'll keep my eyes peeled, and if you run across anything please be sure to let me know!

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