Metronyms in Sweden

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A metronym is a name based on a female given name, indicating the mother whose son or daughter a person is. Like patronyms metronyms are not inheritable (or at least they were not in the olden days).


Medieval metronyms

In medieval times metronyms were sometimes used for political reasons, the example usually given is the one of Sven Estridsson.

Metronyms for children out of wedlock

Metronyms have also been used for children born out of wedlock, presumably when the father was unknown. In some parts of Sweden it seems that metronyms were never used. On the other hand, in Norrbotten (and to some extent Västerbotten) they were quite frequent - indeded, there are so many cases that they must have been used even when the father was known. Also, in Norrbotten it seems to have been quite common that people were known by their metronym all their life. In Bohuslän we can also find quite a number of young people with metronymic last names. Here, however, it rather seems as if the carrier of a metronym replaced it with a patronym or a surname as soon as they could.

One thing that Norrbotten/Västerbotten and Bohuslän have in common is the very strict version of Lutheranism prevalent in those parts: Laestadianism in Norrbotten and Schartauanism in Bohuslän. The intention seems clearly to have been to emphasize the illegitimate birth.

Please do not use metronyms as default Last Name at Birth - only use them when they are found in the primary sources.

The distribution of metronyms in Sweden

An improvised study of the distribution of metronyms in Sweden 1880 confirms the above impression of where metronyms were frequently used.

The study was done by means of searches for metronyms based on a number of female given names in the census Folkräkningar at Riksarkivet. The results were entered into a Google spreadsheet.

Out of 254 cases of metronymic names 164 were found in Norrbotten, 25 in Västerbotten, 16 in Bohuslän (with Göteborg), 12 in Älvsborg (the neighbour county of Bohuslän), 13 in Kronoberg - and a tail of one or a few occurrences in 9 other counties. As a comparison, there were 139 010 persons with the last name Andersson and 125 866 persons named Andersdotter in the 1880 census.

Also, note that in eleven counties we did not find any metronym in the 1880 census.

What we did

We opted to study only one census, in order not to get the same person counted more than once, and settled for 1880 because that is the first census in Folkräkningar to cover all of Sweden.

In order to get statistics we selected to group statistics by birth county (this is available under more options/Fler sökalternativ).

We searched for names beginning with a female name and ending in -dotter or -son. The names were common names: Anna, Brita, Greta, Kristina/Kerstin/Stina, Maria, Eva, Helena, Sara and Katarina/Karin/Kajsa - using suitable wildcards for catching spelling variants like Brita/Britta, Kristina/Christina and the like. The choice of names is the main reason why we consider this an improvised study.

Since children living with a parent are typically in the census without a last name, the search will only catch individuals who have flewn the nest. This may account for some of the difference between Norrbotten and Bohuslän, since people in Bohuslän seem to have been more inclined to drop their metronym.

A remark on stray metronyms

Scratching a little bit at the single person born with a metronym in Uppsala county, a Carinsdotter, she turned out to be Anna Carin Andersdotter - a mistranscription. Likewise, the single metronymic in Örebro county, an Evasdotter, turned out to be the daughter of an Ernst, moreover born in Stora Kil in Värmland county, not in Kil, Örebro county. We had to go back to her birth record to be sure, she moved a lot and was probably mistranscribed before she got into Folkräkningar 1880.

A remark on Norrbotten

Searching only for people born in Norrbotten and breaking it down by birth parish reveals another pattern (or seems to reveal, since this is just a spot-check). The parishes where we find people by name Mariasson in 1880 are: Karl Gustav (7), Hietaniemi (4), Korpilombolo (4), Pajala (4), Övertorneå (3) and Gällivare (2). Of these six parishes four are among the parishes divided between Finland and Sweden in 1809 - all but Korpilombolo and Gällivare are in that list. When you look at the individuals, almost all of them have a note that they are Finns (Meänkieli speakers).

Among the Finns in Norrbotten the metronym usually appears together with a distinguishing surname, and seems to be kept from birth to death.

Case studies

We have spent some time looking for people with metronyms in Bohuslän, and collected a number of cases, following them in the sources from birth to death (or at least into adulthood):

We have also found a few profiles from up north:

- we should clearly explore Norrbotten and Västerbotten some more.

A remark on methods

We spent almost a full workday looking for young people with metronymic names in Bokenäs parish in Bohuslän by going through the birth book from 1861 and about a decade on, checking children born out of wedlock in the household records until they appeared with a last name. This resulted in only three clearcut cases - some babies were impossible to follow (due to the low status of unwed mothers treated as vagrants), some died before getting a last name and many turned out to have a patronym the first time they were entered with a last name. It would probably have been a smarter strategy to look them up from Folkräkningar.

We have attempted another method for finding case study material in Stensele parish, Västerbotten, where we browsed the household record AI:5 (1855-1863) for metronyms. We picked Stensele because of results form Folkräkningar - and found a small number of cases to be explored.

There were three Ulricasdotter - born to three different mothers by name Ulrica. One more Annasdotter, a Britasdotter, a Mariasdotter and a Sarasdotter. So at this time only one boy, but a small bunch of girls.

Images: 1
Mother and child
Mother and child

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Very interesting read! Thank you!