I was thinking of taking a genealogy course that was oriented to Medieval studies and wondering if it would be of value to my own family research. I have trouble right now getting further back than the early 1600s, mostly because parish records where my Shepheard ancestors lived were destroyed in a fire at the churchwarden’s house in 1685. I am pretty sure that there were families I am related to that predated the earliest date of 1610 that I found in a will.
With regard to whether it would be useful for me to take the course, a friend commented to me: “[I]t depends.” The course I was looking to take deals with many different information sources from around the 1400s to 1600s. That time period is not really Medieval which is generally recognized as beginning around the 5th century and lasting until the 15th century. In fairness, the course is really an introduction to Medieval genealogy; that is, what you may learn will help you with finding and researching Medieval records.
But I digress. . .
My friend, who knows a lot about genealogy (she teaches it), and this course in particular, then went on to say that, “Almost all of us are descended from nobility at some point (math modelling tells us this must be true). There are virtually no documents for the time prior to 1066, unless you are of course a member of the Anglo Saxon royal circle . . . because historians have so little to go on. Some people claim to have discovered their ordinary families in sources such as manorial records and other sources used prior to 1600 or so, however even those sources tend to peter out the further back you go. To get back beyond 1370 would be very difficult.” So the course might be of value.
I got to wondering again, “So how is it that so many people can claim they are related to famous individuals such as Charlemagne?” I did a quick search on Ancestry for the man, born in AD 747 and died in 814 (exact dates used in the search) and found there are 126,224 Family Trees with him listed! I guess I should not have been surprised inasmuch as so many family historians of European heritage have been told they must be related to him so they all copy information from each other to show it.
People have done some math on ancestral lines and deduced that, when we calculate the numbers of our direct ancestors they double with each generation, to the point that, after a few iterations, the total almost reaches what would have been the entire population of Europe at one point (Chang, 1999, Recent Common Ancestors of all Present-day Individuals). Obviously that is unlikely so we must consider the numerous times cousins married cousins and that there was a web of relationships, not a straight line. Many models suggest the number of people in all of our lines is much smaller and that we must all be related to just a few people from that time period and, ergo, to each other.
Maybe if you go back to the origin of our species in Africa that might be technically true. But in the context of family history studies, it is virtually impossible to say that we, or at least so many of “we” descend from one man or one woman or the same man or woman. And, if we did, why would it be this particular man – Charlemagne? And not, say, someone like Imhotep, “vizier, sage, architect, astrologer and chief minister” to the Pharoah during the 27th century BC (according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica). He must have had a lot of children, too, who spread out across the world having families of their own.
We accept that humankind grew from just a few individuals hundreds of thousand or years ago – from “Eve” if you will (Who was “Adam”?) – over two million generations. Population grew to millions over the millennia. But then the models purport to show that a significant portion of the present-day population came down from some limited group about 20 generations ago. It’s curious how that is supposed to work.
There is no doubt that past royal families had many children of whom only a few could inherit titles and lands. The rest ended up marrying into the lower classes (Who else could they marry?) and producing other large families. We can thus all claim some connection to Charlemagne through these many lines. Or can we?
Many historians use these kinds of connections to show their relationship to Charlemagne. But are there records to prove those connections. I suspect, in almost all cases, there are not. Most of us have already found that people often lied when giving information about themselves. Prior to births, marriages and deaths becoming recorded on civil records in England, after 1837, many family relationships we find are very tenuous, especially if the people moved around. Just think what it might have been like 1400 years earlier when no records were kept. The time of Charlemagne was also before surnames were used complicating the identification of any individual or family.
In every civilization and society, since there have been civilizations and societies, there has always been one small group of people who took charge. In ancient Mesopotamia, they were predominantly religious leaders, held in high esteem when times were good, because they could apparently control the bountiful crops produced – with the help of a deity or two, of course. But when times turned tough, many of them were turfed out by angry, disenchanted citizens and new groups took power.
Charlemagne was one of these. He assumed the mantle of leadership during a failing Roman Empire. Through conquest he assimilated widespread regions, eventually taking over the Roman Catholic Church as well, the real source of power and control. His timing was fortuitous, arriving on the scene just as the world was coming out of the Dark Ages (a climatic cold period that had lasted hundreds of year and was characterized by persistent cold, frequent storms, major floods, epidemics affecting both humans and animals and harvest failures). Through force-of-arms and negotiation he was able to unite the many tribes who had spread across Europe seeking new and better living conditions.
Even in Charlemagne’s time the ruling class (mainly he and his family) were only a small percentage of the total population. And while many of his progeny may have expanded and married into the “common folk”, there were lots of other families of lesser importance who continued to have their own children and to spread into other areas.
I have devised a little diagram that tries to show what proportions of any population might be from a royal family or ruling class.
1. We take some point in time – perhaps when we cease to find records that will demonstrate relationships. It doesn’t really matter when except it should be after societies were established. Some small portion of the populace would become the ruling class, or nobility as it later would be called. The greater proportion of the people would be “common-folk”, from higher-ranking professional types down through tradesmen to labourers or peasants.
2. We can assume that each group expands at the same rate over time, notwithstanding plagues, famines, disease, etc. That may not be quite accurate as I believe many studies right up to present day indicate that the poorer classes generally had more children and might be expected to grow at a higher rate.
3. We can agree that many of the progeny of the “nobility” will not inherit in the same manner, if at all, and will gradually move down the social ladder and mix with the commoners. Over time they may expand, joining with other families so their descendants will increase in number, if not in influence.
4. There would be a gradual increase in the number and proportion of the overall population that would have members descended from the nobility – the Mixed Class. But there is no reason to assume that the commoners would die out any quicker than other groups or that the mixed group would become the largest segment of the non-nobility portion of the population.
5. No matter where we start, there will always be a large segment of the population that will have no relationship to the nobility of a previous time period no matter what the mathematical models might suggest.
Another complexity is that, in the Western World, even just restricted to Europe, there were several populations in several regions (with very different genetic origins) that ultimately mixed through colonization, conquest or migration. These movements could change the proportions of noble versus common classes or even who was part of the nobility. As well, people moved up the ladder as well as down, with some members of the working class becoming land-owners or business magnates and eventually moving into the ruling classes through marriage or assumption of power.
In any society in which there was a ruling class (i.e. nobility) there must have been a “ruled” class (i.e. not nobility). We can more easily trace the descendants of that ruling class, because they could read and write (or employed someone who could) and kept records to demonstrate where they came from. Their families may even go back to biblical times. We cannot trace those families who toiled in the fields of the feudal lords other than through church records, if we are lucky, and those records only go back so far. And it is doubtful any of those peasants would have had estates or written wills. But they did certainly have children who went on to have children, and so on, and so on, and so on!
So – can some of us be descendants of royalty, or historical figures such as Charlemagne. Of course. Can most of us? I doubt it!
But then maybe I’m just ticked off because I haven’t found any connection to royalty yet.
Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.