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

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Can I research back into the Middle Ages?

Oriel College CharterPublic Domain
I recently posted about some of the limitations of the older records in the online genealogical database programs. But there is another entirely different aspect to researching back into the dim past and that is the practicality of doing research into the the Middle Ages and, if possible, beyond. The Middle Ages are usually defined as beginning with the collapse of the western Roman Empire around the 5th Century and as ending with the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery in the 15th Century. This particular characterization of history belongs exclusively to the countries in Western Europe. So if your ancestors came from Asia, Africa, North or South America, it would be a good idea to study the history of your own place of origin.

From a genealogical standpoint, our main interest is the existence of records of people's lives during any part of the world's history. Interest in genealogy is not confined to the descendants of Western European Ancestors and the existence of very old genealogical records in any area other than Western Europe depends on some of the same factors that determine the existence of records from that time period in Europe.

Gutenberg Bible Genesis
What are realities of doing genealogical research before 1500 A.D? As I have mentioned previously, the first and possibly most important historical fact is that printing with movable type did not begin until after 1439, so any books or manuscripts before that date (and for a considerable time afterwards) were written by hand. The number of books that have ever been published is nearly 130 million. If we go back to the year 1500, we get into what is called the incunabula, that is books printed before the year 1501 in Europe. See Wikipedia: Incunable. The total number of books in this category are just over 22,000. The year 1501 is significant because that is date that Aldus Manutius published his first book in italic type.

So by moving back into the Middle Ages with our genealogical research we are leaving the world of printed books behind and entering the world of manuscripts (from the Latin manu "by hand" and scriptus "written").

Augustine Gospels Full-page miniature of St. Luke as an evangelist, 6th century. 
For information about how manuscripts were made, see Manuscript Basics from the Free Library of Pennsylvania. Here are some additional websites that talk about medieval studies:

The total number of medieval manuscripts in existence is subject to some conjecture, but of course, there are no new manuscripts being made, so the number is related to those in libraries, museums, privately held, etc. For a detailed analysis of the number of manuscripts in existence, see:

Buringh, Eltjo. On Medieval Manuscript Production in the Latin West: Explorations with a Global Database. Leiden [u.a.]: Brill, 2011.

Buringh estimates the total number at around 2.9 million but this number includes every handwritten manuscript including those from Egypt, sheet music, autograph letters, deeds, charters and other types of documents from around the world. 

OK, now what are the challenges? How many of these manuscripts would have genealogical data? The difficulty in determining this number is that the libraries do not break out records by year but only by catalog entry. 

Family tree of theOttonians, from the Wolfenb├╝ttel manuscript (Cod. Guelf. 74.3 Aug., p. 226)
To get some idea, you might want to look at the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy website. Many of manuscripts are protected by "copyright" claims from the library or other institution. I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can claim a copyright to a book published in the 1300s, but that is what they do. Here is an image that is in the public domain:

Genealogy of the Kings Of England, In A Collection Of Chronicles Of English History And Miscellaneous Tracts
Even assuming that you could work out the details of gaining access to any substantial number of these medieval manuscripts, you would still have all of the challenges I outlined in my previous recent blog post. See What are the sources before 1550 A.D.?

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