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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Descent from Antiquity -- A Genealogical Conundrum

If you need to put a name to the genealogical process of trying to establish lines of descent from a remote ancestor, then you now know that this is called "descent from antiquity." On a very small scale, I see this in researchers who are convinced that they are related to a famous person or royalty and trying to prove their relationship by following the descendants of the remote person. I had someone recently who was convinced that they were a descendant of the Mayflower passengers, although they had never done the research to prove a connection. In that case, the researchers indicated that all she had to do was trace the descendants of the Mayflower down to her ancestral line thus showing a great deal of optimism that the connection would be made.

Strictly, the term "descent from antiquity" is the project of establishing a well-researched, generation-by-generation descent of living persons from people living in antiquity. The term "descent from antiquity" was apparently first used by Tobias Smollett in the 18th century newspaper The Critical Review. Technically, the term applies to research focused on the ancestries of royal and noble families. For an more extensive discussion of the term see Wikipedia: Descent from antiquity. One of the basic treatises on the subject is a book by Sir Anthony Richard Wagner (Wagner, Anthony. Pedigree and Progress Essays in the Genealogical Interpretation of History. London: Phillimore, 1975).

I have alluded to descent from antiquity in a few previous posts. But I found this quote from Marshall K. Kirk that describes the problem much better than I have articulated it:  
Unfortunately, popular American genealogical literature is rife with supposed ‘ancient’
pedigrees which are neither likely nor plausible, and in some cases provably bogus, passing, as they do, through long chains of supposed personages who never existed. How, short of acquiring a comprehensive knowledge of many phases of world and national history, half a dozen ancient and modern languages, the various branches of philology, and an immense (and highly specialized) research literature (surely a job for several lifetimes!), is the ‘lay’ reader to tell the plausible from the preposterous, the reasonable from the ridiculous?
See Kirk, Marshall K., [1957-2005] NEHGS Reference Librarian ‘Ancient’ Genealogy: Fact, Speculation, & Fiction, [Syllabus and bibliography for a lecture at the NEHGS Sesquicentennial Conference, July 1995].

I certainly agree with the characterization of the research background needed to even begin to address pedigrees extending back into the Middle Ages. Unfortunately for most of the researchers I deal with who aspire to establish a connection with a prominent historical figure, they lack even the most basic research skills to do an adequate job of finding and proving their ancestry back into the 1800s much less into antiquity. Almost weekly, I find people "stuck" on an ancestor that lived most of his or her life in the 1900s. If researchers have difficulty finding their ancestors in the United States in recent times, what make them think that they can accept copied connections to remote ancestors in antiquity? Yet, I commonly find this contradiction. Just yesterday, I had to try an convince a patron at the Mesa FamilySearch Library not to incorporate a file from a relative containing more than 25,000 names.

If you would like to get the flavor of the issues involved in establishing the ancient families of Europe, you can start with this book review:

Taylor, Nathaniel L., Roman Genealogical Continuity and the "Descents-from-Antiquity" Question, A Review Article. [Prepublication MS of article, subsequently published (with minor emendations) In The American Genealogist 76 (2001), 129-136]

Taylor is reviewing a book by Christian Settipani, Continuité gentilice et continuité familiale
dans les familles sénatoriales romaines à l’époque impériale. (See Settipani, Christian. Continuité gentilice et continuité familiale dans les familles sénatoriales romaines à l'époque impériale: mythe et realité. Oxford: Unit for Prosopographical Research, Linacre College, University of Oxford, 2000).

So you don't read French? Perhaps that should tell you something about the research skills needed to ante up to this subject.

This particular type of historical study has a name. It is called prosopography. In historical studies, prosopography is an investigation of the common characteristics of a historical group, whose individual biographies may be largely untraceable, by means of a collective study of their lives, in multiple career-line analysis. See Wikipedia: Prosopography.

Now, I don't want to discourage any of you budding prosopographical historians, but the rest of the genealogical researchers who aspire to extended pedigrees should be aware that they are treading on very complicated territory. 

1 comment:

  1. hey nice post meh, I love your style of blogging here. this post reminded me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog: Negatives That Hinders Your Goal .
    keep up the good work friend. I will be back to read more of your posts.