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

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Revisiting Medieval Genealogy

I was thinking of coming up with some sort-of icon to warn readers when I start to go into a tirade. It might make things easier all around. But the specter of pedigrees dating back past the Dark Ages into the dawn of history has reared its ugly head again. One of my acquaintances (if he was a friend, he would probably know not to bring the subject up) started to tell me how far back he had taken his genealogy; clear back to 900 AD. It was neither the time or place to have an extended discussion and my wife, who witnessed the conversation, said I did an admirable job of controlling myself.

But each time this happens, I am forced to go back through the process of analyzing whether or not I want to get into the Middle Ages thing or not. If I were to believe the lines on for my family, my own lines go back into the dim, dark ages. Oh well, its time to go through the whole thing again.

Let's get some definitions going here. The most common definition of the Middle Ages is that time period from around 400 A.D. to around the artificial cut off date of 1500 A.D.  My rule of thumb, is that record accuracy begins to decrease and the difficulty of researching the same increases about 1550 A.D. For example, written English is considered to be Middle English (i.e. Chaucer) until around 1500 A.D. Gutenberg printed his first Bibles in the 1450s. If you are going to do genealogical research any time before 1550 A.D. then you will need to learn Latin and how to read Middle English handwriting. See the Script Tutorials, Resources for Old Handwriting and Documents. You may also want to look at Why do I mention this? Because almost none of the people who I talk to who claim to have their "genealogy" back beyond the 1500s have ever tried to read any of the documents or do any original research. They have simply copied out someone's genealogy from a book and called it their own. In fact, very, very few of the people with these extended pedigrees have even looked at the books. They have just copied some one's pedigree chart on which they found a name in common with someone in their own.

I am going to be blunt. This is intellectual dishonesty.

It may be harmless intellectual dishonesty, but it is dishonest. It is dishonest to claim you are descended from such and such a king living in 900 A.D. when you have no idea who that person was or how you could possibly be related, based solely on finding a convenient pedigree that ties into one of your supposed ancestors.

Now, all the real Medieval scholars out there, don't come back and tell me how your lines are validly proved and that some people really are related to the Kings of Europe and elsewhere. Yep, that is true. Kings had children just like the rest of humanity, and if you want to claim kinship, be my guest. But when do you stop" With Charlemange? With Adam?

I admire anyone who spends the time to learn to read handwriting from any period of time before 1700 A.D. I further admire anyone who learns enough history and early language to translate the old records into modern English. I just don't happen to know very many people who can do either. But don't boast to me that your mother's genealogy goes back to Adam!

If you have spent some time compiling such a genealogical line back to Adam, thanks for your effort. But please read some of the articles and publications of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy.  I will quote from the description of one study:
Medieval Lands presents narrative biographical genealogies of the major noble families which ruled Europe, North Africa and Western Asia between the 5th and 15th centuries. The approach is to verify all information against primary source material, quoting relevant extracts in the original language. This has enabled many traditionally accepted relationships to be challenged. The territorial emphasis and wide scope allow innovative conclusions to be drawn about the comparative development of the nobility in different geographical areas.
 Please focus on the statement, "This has enabled many traditionally accepted relationships to be challenged." Are you aware of the challenges? Do you know what they are talking about? If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. 


  1. James, I read this post with interest. I have Azorean roots. The Azores were settled in the 1430s by minor nobles. For Azorean researchers, there are 2 books and a collection of genealogies that can help bridge the gap from the 1600s when records become scarce to the original settlers. The researcher, of course, must trust those three works for their accuracy.

    Because I found one of my lines in one of the books, I was able to figure out who some of my original ancestors to the Azores were. Other researchers have taken these lines and worked them back to Portugal before the settlement and connected those lines to nobles and royalty.

    I admit that I have piggybacked on to their work. I've tried to find sources and biographies where I can and to see what is consistent and where there are conflicts. But, it isn't easy and I would rather spend time working on my current ancestors--the ones I feel more of a connection to.

    While I've entered these lines into my database, I consider them my theoretical ancestors. I do not feel comfortable enough to say without a doubt all the research is correct. In some cases, it doesn't seem like there is a way to really prove one way or the other.

  2. Mel,
    I also have Azorean ancestors, but have only begun to look into these ancestors. What are the 2 books and genealogies to which you refer and where might I find them?

  3. I agree 100% with your tirade, I have been researching my family for about eight years and to find and verify your own linear ancestors back to the middle ages is hard enough without laying claim to anyone who happens to have the same surname.

    In some respects I have been extremely lucky as a great number of my families papers going back hundreds of years are held in the Shakespeare Library in Stratford on Avon. I suspect that the family kept most of them because they seemed to be very fond of taking all and sundry to court to prove what was and what wasn't theirs.