Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Medieval Genealogy Once Again Becomes a Concern

Oriel College CharterPublic Domain

The period of time from about 500 A.D. until approximately 1500 A.D. in Europe is variously called the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages. Printing was introduced into Europe by Johannes Gutenberg beginning in 1439 and by 1500 it is estimated that by 1500 printers had produced approximately 20 million volumes. Before that printing revolution occurred all of the documents had to be laboriously copied by hand.

Every so often, I run into questions about extending family lines back before about 1600 and this reminds me to write about doing genealogical research back into the dim past. Because of this, I have to return to a statement made by Robert C. Gunderson, Senior Royalty Research Specialist of the Church Genealogical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made in an article in the Church's Ensign magazine back in February of 1984. The article is entitled, "I've heard that some people have extended their ancestral lines back to Adam. Is this possible" If so, is it necessary for all of us to extend our pedigrees back to Adam?" The key statement made in that short article is as follows:
The simplest answer to both questions is No. Let me explain. In thirty-five years of genealogical research, I have yet to see a pedigree back to Adam that can be documented. By assignment, I have reviewed hundreds of pedigrees over the years. I have not found one where each connection on the pedigree can be justified by evidence from contemporary documents. In my opinion it is not even possible to verify historically a connected European pedigree earlier than the time of the Merovingian Kings (c. A.D.450–A.D. 752).
The full answer to the question would also have to take into account the preparation and background you would need to extend a valid pedigree back before approximately 1550 A.D. As I have pointed out in past posts, you would need to know Latin and a variety of other old European languages, you would have to have completely documented your ancestral line back to the starting point in the 1500s and you would have had to have spent years studying the history of Europe. Then and only then you could start to do some research. Oh, I almost forgot. You would have to learn how to read the handwriting.

So why are there so many ancestral lines extending into the Middle Ages in online family trees? The basic reason is ignorance. These lines have been copied out of generally available books of European Royalty. If you do think you have a line or two that goes back to European Royalty, then why aren't you rich and living in a castle? That is not a trivial question. But I always note that Royalty had children and some of us must be related.

By the way, if you really would like to get started with Medieval manuscripts, I found a rather extensive list, if not slightly out of date, of the major digital websites. It is entitled, "Medieval Manuscripts on the Web" and it is dated January 6, 2017, and it comes from Siân Echard at the Department of English of the University of British Columbia.

Gunderson in his article above mentions examining hundreds of pedigrees. I can say I have examined thousands of pedigrees and with very, very rare exceptions the documentation for all those pedigrees (including my own on several online family tree programs, essentially end with a lack of documentation in the 1700s with a few going back into the 1600s and even fewer going back into the late 1500s. Almost uniformly, these early pedigrees are copied from a variety of lists and sources without the benefit of any original research.

Where is the largest list of European Royalty and Nobility? It is on the FamilySearch.org website in the Genealogies section.

From my experience, most genealogists are stopped in the early 1800s or possibly the late 1700s with a "brick wall" at that point. In most cases, these lines all end with a lack of any substantial documentation and a jump to an ancestor with the same surname and no documented connection.

Believe me, you can spend your entire life doing research in the 1700s and 1800s.

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