Introduction



'A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.'
Samuel Johnson.

What follows is an attempt at a brief, practical introduction to medieval English genealogy, which will give some impression of the sources available and how they can be used. I am writing it not because I feel I have any particular expertise in the field - I am only a self-taught, amateur genealogist and this guide is based on my experience trying to trace my own ancestors - but because nothing of this sort seems to be available yet on the internet (although there is no shortage of genealogical data, and even some source material). So far, this is a very brief - and incomplete - sketch, but I hope gradually to put more 'flesh on the bones'.

Despite the explosion of interest in genealogy over the last few decades, medieval genealogy remains, relatively speaking, the province of a few enthusiasts. There seems to be a feeling that, for the bulk of the population, any knowledge medieval ancestry is unattainable. (In contrast, a hundred years ago, when genealogy was predominantly an upper-class pursuit - in terms of both the hunters and the hunted - medieval genealogy had pride of place.)

In reality, no such rigid limits apply. Indeed, the definition of the medieval period itself is little more than a matter of taste. The introduction of parish registers in 1538 is often selected as a natural 'cut-off point' for genealogists. But the survival of registers is patchy for a century or more after this date and, in any case, the bare information in parish registers always needs confirmation from other sources. Attempting to trace a family tree back to the sixteenth century using registers alone would be very unsafe (and even if accurate, the result would certainly be very dry). The kind of supplementary evidence that is used in modern genealogy - wills, records of land ownership, monumental inscriptions and so on - is also available in the medieval period. Naturally the older the record, the poorer are its chances of survival. But the public records relating to land ownership (or, strictly, tenancy) go back as far as the Domesday Book, and survive in great numbers from the end of the twelfth century.

It is also true that in medieval times it is easier to trace the ancestry of the wealthy and prominent than the poor and insignificant. (Of course, the wealthy have always been easier to trace than the poor - in the eighteenth century, the problem of tracing a labourer with a name as common as Phillips can be insuperable, and even in the nineteenth, with the benefits of civil registration and the census, it may be difficult to avoid picking 'the wrong Thomas Smith'.) In fact, medieval families can be easy to trace without being tremendously wealthy - the tenancy of a single manor could, in the right circumstances, give rise to detailed records of succession going back to the mid-thirteenth century (and possibly earlier). It can be argued that, if genealogy teaches us anything useful, it is that all of us have ancestors in all walks of life only a few generations back, so that (if we can only connect with them) we must all have many ancestors with traceable pedigrees in medieval times.

It should also be remembered that humbler people (in fact, usually, humbler men) frequently do appear in records - as jurors, witnesses, sub-tenants, taxpayers and legatees. Because of the sheer volume of the surviving public records, there are rich pickings for surname collectors, even if connected family trees are often hard to construct.

Finally, two great advantages for the medieval genealogist are, firstly, that so much research has already been done in the field and, secondly, that so much source material has been transcribed and published, often in English translation. The first of these is, to some extent, double-edged. It is always tempting to believe that published genealogical work is accurate, and that a mere amateur can never discover anything to add to what is in print. But no genealogical claim should be accepted without seeing (and if possible checking) the evidence it is based on; genealogy has had more than its fair share of shoddy research and even outright fraud in the past. As for completeness, traditional descents are being revised, and new discoveries made, all the time. Even for quite prominent families, it may be possible to discover something new even from printed sources, if you are fortunate enough to have access to a good library. (And within a few years, the internet will be the best library in the world...)

A note on surnames

One point to bear in mind when using earlier records is that hereditary surnames came into common use in England only gradually in the centuries following the Norman conquest. Although some hereditary surnames, such as Bigod, de Warenne and de Vere, do occur in Domesday Book (usually they reflect the family's place of origin on the continent), they are the exception rather than the rule, even among feudal tenants.

It's particularly important to beware of components of the name which look like surnames, but are not - although in some cases they later evolved into them. For example, the tenant of the manor of Norton might be called 'William of Norton' (or 'William de Norton' in Latin or French). If the manor changed hands, a generation later we might find the new tenant, even if completely unrelated, called Richard de Norton. Conversely, if one man held two manors, he might be described as William de Norton at one time, and William de Sutton at another. Characters such as 'Thomas fitz William' can also be dangerous. Originally this was no more than a French form of 'Thomas son of William' (hence the much later selection of 'fitzRoy' as a suitable surname for the illegitimate son of a king).

Because surnames were undeveloped in the earlier medieval period, the indexes of printed records and historical texts are often arranged by forename. In using indexes, it's important to check whether this is the case, as the system is likely to be applied also to families which did bear hereditary surnames, sometimes without giving cross-references.


Links and bibliography

The following Public Record Office leaflet is available online:

Published works: