Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Silent, Now; Unknown; But They Were Our Ancestors

When we think of medieval genealogy we tend to think of descent from kings and nobles, generals, and (sometimes) religious leaders. That's because the records of these people survive better from the medieval era: They were more likely to show up in documents, and the documents were taken better care of. It's kind of like looking for lost keys in the street; you start over by the streetlight, where you can see better.

In a lot of places, though, and here I'm talking about Europe and the British Isles, there were plenty of documents that mentioned ordinary people making regular deals in their typical lives: leasing land, getting sentenced for some legal infraction, witnessing documents, paying taxes. A large percentage of these documents have vanished over the years. But not all.

I'm going to spend the rest of this blog talking about Britain and France, because my name is Ward. (There are some other kinds of names in my genealogy, but those will have to wait.)

Beginning about two hundred years ago the British government began sponsoring the reprinting and (in some cases, and most usefully) the translation of some of these documents. In the last hundred years there have been a very large number of books published containing data from government, religious, and private records of the period 1300 AD to 1700 AD. There have even been quite a few published with data from earlier times, but these are hard to make use of in genealogy – tracking names people used before they began to use consistent surnames is almost impossible unless the person is a widely documented historical figure.

By 1350 or so we can see families with a surname that follows from father to son, and occasionally we can find families that change their surname from one known name to another. And so we can start tracking the families.

There were millions of individuals living in this period, and I don't have enough time to write down all their names and tell you about them. I do have time to write about a few, and to give pointers to places where other people are described.

Maybe someone with lots of money and a desire to resolve the unknown ancestry of all that is ever to be knowable will some day do this. I see a large church, a big corporation, and a vast assortment of enthusiasts' groups out there as likely candidates for this. The government of the UK, and people studying medieval history, geography, prosopography, seem likely to continue to produce books and dissertations we can examine for this kind of information. Let's see what we can turn up.

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