SWAIN or SWANN

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 1st October 2001, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called SWAIN or SWANN?

Both these surnames are related and are derived from the Norse word Sveinn which means man-servant. It was also a personal name distributed all over the island and survives in many place names such as our own "Swainsley" (Belper). Until 1400 it was widely bestowed as in Scotland: "Swein, son of Ulfkils" (Swinton: 1100) and "Robertus filius Swain" (York: 1219). It is now written "Sven" and is making a slight come-back among German speaking people and also in the States.

By dint of straining the etymology somewhat, the "-ain" can be related to the old word "ain" meaning "own" (my ain countree) and hence to "a man who belongs to me" or "my man servant". Other meanings, such as a farm worker i.e. The labouring swain (Goldsmith) or a love-sick peasant (Shakespeare: Who is Sylvia) only emerged during the 14th century.

Since surnames were becoming established as early as the 12th century and "Swain" is recorded in York by 1166 (Robert Suein) and in Scotland by 1250 (Elyas Swein) it is obvious some other meanings are indicated. Of these meanings, the first dates from 1150 and in a context that implies a "swain" was the lowest servant who attended a knight. The hierarchy seems to have been: knight, squire, groom and swain. Since the lowliest duties tended to devolve upon lads, "swain" took on the additional meaning of "boy" in the sense of dogsbody! In his version of 1 Samuel, Ch. 2, v. 13, Coverdale speaks of the "prestes boye" where modern renderings say "the priest's servant". Note: this usage prevailed among pre 2nd World War colonials and in South Africa until it was banned in 1963. It can also be detected in "boatswain" i.e. the servant or man in charge of a vessel's tackle and kit.

So it will follow that people whose surname is "Swain" or any of its variations such as "Swayne" or "Swainson" can claim descent from an ancestor who was a personal servant to a knight or one who worked in some lowly capacity in a medieval establishment or was facetiously called "boy" although this usage tends to be regional as in Cornwall and also in Ireland (the boys of County Clare).

In fact the form "Swayne" is recorded in Ireland, especially in Leinster but is certainly an English import. There is evidence that it might be linked with the true Gaelic name "Suibhne" which is usually Anglicised as "Sweeny".

Running alongside "Swain" there was also the word "Swon". This is also taken to be derived from "sveinn" but was restricted to mean only "swine-herd". What is rather interesting that "swain" first appears only in 1150 whereas "swon" was around some 400 years previously. In a sort of Latin dictionary, the word is paired with "subulcus" which is the Latin for pig keeper. Of course it is very tempting to look for some connection between "Swine" and "Swon" but nothing can convincingly be established. The word had only a short circulation: by the 13th century it was disappearing from general use and soon became obsolete.

Meanwhile surnames based on "Swan" - the bird, were not uncommon. The creature was greatly favoured in the medieval world on account of its elegance and supposed ability to sing beautifully. Consequently it was frequently conferred as a name upon people whose neighbours discerned some qualities which likened them to a swan. At first it actually appeared as a given name: Swan the handyman (Suannus faber) is mentioned in 1177 somewhere in Cumberland but later it was the practice to tag on the unit as "le swan".

Hence: Simon le Swayne (Stafford: 1307). The problem now is that later entries of the name omit the "le" and it is absolutely impossible to determine whether the name is "Swan the pig keeper", or "Swan the elegant"! This shows up very graphically in the case of "Swein or Swan, filius Thor, son of Sweinn" in Stirling, for 1194. However, if the world "Atte" appears, then this indicated that the bearer was associated with a hostelry called "The Swan" - as in the case of Thomas atte Swan in Gloucester: 1364.

Unless families called "Swain" or "Swan" have access to old records of their ancestry, they will have to reconcile themselves that their predecessors occupied what was probably the lowliest status in medieval society - that of a swineherd.

The surname "Swain" is widely distributed throughout the country although there seems to be some evidence of concentration in Leicestershire, especially in the vicinity of Wigston. Locally it is quite well represented, with about 100 entries in the local directory. "Swan" or "Swann" also appear to much the same extent.

The only personality, out of the dozen or so headings in the standard biography, is Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1917). He is well known to us all by association with the electric light bulb, which his researches into electricity helped to bring into being.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 1st October 2001.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Swann.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library