Medieval Genealogy for the Medievally-Challenged (Like Me)

by Martin E. Hollick | Jul 2, 2009

Martin E. Hollick

Many genealogical breakthroughs necessitate a re-education for the researcher. Suddenly you are in a new geographic location, dealing with a new language, a new religion, or a different historic time period. The rules you've used to get you to this point may no longer apply to future research. This is particularly true when you make the jump from North America back to Europe and cross the timeline that separates modern and medieval history. That year is tricky to fix, but for argument's sake we'll call it 1600. It's a nice round number.

There are several excellent resources available for the average person to pursue their ancestry before the year 1600. Gary Boyd Roberts's The Royal Descents of 600 Immigrants to the American Colonies (2008) or RD600 as it is commonly called, lists all the gateway ancestors to British North America with their closest royal descent. Each line gives names, no dates, but is fully referenced for further research. The French version of this type of work is Denis Beauregard's website Genealogy of the French in North America. A more formal genealogical presentation of royal and medieval lines is given in Douglas Richardson's two works: Plantagenet Ancestry (2004) and Magna Carta Ancestry (2005). These works provide dates and biographical material on each generation from the gateway immigrant back to the royal or noble line.

The down side to using these works is that they are only concerned with connecting an individual immigrant back to a king or Magna Carta baron. The entire ancestry of any given immigrant is not given. Another method for medieval research is to see if your medieval ancestors appear in the ancestry of well-known persons. The ancestry of the Prince of Wales was published in two volumes by Gerald Paget in 1977. Because his maternal grandmother was primarily British, Prince Charles's ancestry yields many overlaps to colonial immigrants and provides their entire ancestry, not just lines back to royals and nobles. This is also true of Neil Thompson and Charles Hansen's ongoing study of the ancestry of King Charles II of England, which has been serialized in the journal, The Genealogist, and is presently back to ancestor #2031. Two more works will yield additional information in forthcoming publications: the ancestry of the late Princess of Wales for twelve generations was published in 2007 by Richard K. Evans, and in its next volume will be devoted exclusively to medieval times. Likewise, the publication of the entire ancestry of Winston Churchill is planned. In all these cases, you can easily piggy-back your way back through time without much effort and with the knowledge that these works are well-researched and reliable.

These resources are available only in print for now. Some online websites offer similar information, much of which may come from the aforementioned works. Tim Powys-Libbe's medieval work is also well-researched as is Chris Phillips's. Leo van der Pas's Genealogics website gives many medieval lines, all of which are well-documented, although too much emphasis is given to 19th century works such as the Complete Peerage and Europaischer Stammtafeln. Much of the current scholarly genealogical literature is built upon correcting these two works.

Ongoing discussions and scholarly research can be found at Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, as well as the usenet group soc.genealogy.medieval. This last group is one of the oldest genealogical discussion groups on the Internet and can be best utilized by searching its archived postings via Google. Remember when using secondary or consolidated genealogical resources whether in print or on the Internet, that you are using Other People's Research (OPR). There is good OPR and bad OPR. Good OPR has footnotes that cite to primary sources such as probate records, patent rolls, inquisitions post mortems (IPMs), and contemporary medieval records. Good OPR always gives a reason for making a conclusion. Bad OPR is wrong information that does not realize it is wrong. It is a webpage that says the information came from Joe who got it from Jane who downloaded it from an Internet site that Tim uploaded to, and so on and so forth.

Should you wish to pursue your own research on medieval ancestors, the Internet is opening up avenues for that purpose. Google Books is taking many books with copyright--that one once needed to consult in large research libraries--into the public domain, and making them available for free (for now) to the public. These include many older histories and journals from the 19th century. They must be used with caution, but many hold invaluable clues. There are online tutorials for paleography for those wishing to read pre-1600 wills such as or from the British National Archives. Lastly, the British National Archives, and many other depositories, are making their holdings available online either fully (such as the Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills) or as indexes to materials. In that aspect, the Internet is still in its infancy for the pursuit of scholarly research on medieval genealogy. Another source being digitized are the many visitation books. These are compiled genealogies of prominent families in Britain from the 1400s to 1600s and must also be used with caution.

Remember to ask yourself these questions when pursuing medieval research:

  • is this the most current research on the subject or has it been disproved?
  • when did people start using surnames in the country in which I am researching?
  • when do parish registers start? (this is key for research of the lower classes v. landed classes)
  • how can I tell if the surname I am searching has variant spellings, and if so, which are accurate variants? For instance Lewkenor can be variantly spelled Le (w or u) (ck or k) (optional e) nor (optional e).
  • does the timeline work, noting that many medieval marriages were contracted by parents for children and cannot predict ages accurately?
  • where does this information really come from?

Medieval genealogy can be a wonderful journey connecting you and your family to an even more remote part of history. Good luck!

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