Reflections on genealogy (3)

More on the pitfalls vs the success of doing genealogy today. (3)

One of the worst problems to be encountered in years of this sort of work with genealogy has been (mostly for some Australian, New Zealand or US genealogies) with receiving emails from matriarchs who want to set one to rights. They mostly have mistaken or low-grade views on history, if not plain wrong; worse, they tend to have inflated views on the achievements of members of their family. (If they are older people, which they generally are, their education is probably not good.) I suspect, but don’t know, that they achieve their role by default – no one else is interested.

These matriarchs mostly have little or no interest in proper foundational history because of their inflated views on the achievements of their own family. So be warned, these women’s contributions have to be taken with large grains of salt. Some of them can be quite correct and very entertaining with it, but if and when they are wrong, they are a positive danger.

There are others errors to be made and reasons for errors … To go back to the early seventeenth century, the system of “awarding” baronetcies, which was a wonderful earner for James I of England, who introduced this baronetcy system, was in many ways helpful to genealogy, as it introduced a well-watched system that redounded down the generations, and often, profitably so for the “awardees” and their descendants. This system of baronetcies created a kind of low-level aristocracy that, sitting just above the middle and upper-middle class in England, created an entirely new echelon, and an often reliable echelon, for the inspection of the historian interested in human social life. (At least one of the baronetcies created from the 1790s in London still thrives today.)

But there arose a publication now known as Burke’s Extinct Baronetcies, which partly as so many lineages became extinct (there was no one left to ask) became very inaccurate. The result was that scholars used this information – some of which was inaccurate – and thus perpetuated errors about various eras. Burke’s Extinct became a menace for historians. It took me a long time to get clear of this problem.

Other errors arise because of disputes over spelling. (Smith or Smythe, Ferguson or Fergusson, Blyth or Blythe?) All my life I have had to live with questions about the spelling of my own name (Byrnes, which is Irish, or Burns, which is Scottish.)

The reasons for errors with genealogies go on and on. There are “grandmothers” who might censor tales of the behaviour of family members, or perhaps disapprove of the choice of a spouse, and might feel free about excluding or censoring information about people they disapprove of. A child might be disinherited for reasons not given. Or, there might be other reasons for errors to be made. People often lose touch with their family members when a person or persons emigrate or move to a different part of the same country (this applies to many notable Londoners who had roots in the country counties).

I can think of at least one Scots commercial lineage active in the early nineteenth century where one can easily see the passage of a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder (once known as manic depression). A male lineage can die out so that the line is carried on only by women, which can become confusing, more so if some of the women have multiple spouses. (And errors can arise in history where a man or women has multiple spouses, some of whom can be forgotten, censored, or otherwise somehow “disappear” from the records – this can also interfere with correct information on the parent(s) of particular children.)

Sometimes, a man changed his surname to be able to inherit an estate, often from a maternal uncle or great-uncle.

But not to be negative, let us now survey reasons which assist accuracy in genealogy. Today, it is frowned on when cousins marry, but such marriage behaviour was very common till the early nineteenth century, either for reasons of the protection of property, or maybe because people saw themselves, rightly or wrongly, as having limited options for making choices about marriage partners. Illness, some other health problems or the premature death of a spouse, might also be a factor here. It generally is helpful to research if-or-when cousins marry, if only because a genealogy stops expanding for a time, and so to speak, curves back in on itself – and stays accurate.

Generally, however, and it is rather remarkable as human behaviour, genealogies tend to be as mathematically expansive as they are genetically expansive– because individuals mostly choose their partners at random. That is, they fall in love or otherwise find ways to get on, which means a couple often stays together.

What can be remarkable here is that historians still have few protocols for an understanding of “falling in love”. This sort of business tends to be assumed, and divorces or partings are also accepted by historians in a shrug-shoulder sort of way. It is also noticeable, how many old people, male or female, die during winter; it must have been a medical cliché, and also a cliché for funeral directors.

And at last we should ask, what, if anything, have I learned from these genealogical delvings? One thing seems clear, and it is something that Marx failed to notice, and it’s one reason why Marxism is wrong about class. In general, parents try to protect daughters by marrying them to their own class (horizontal class behaviour) or some class above it (a verticalising class behaviour). It is seen by most parents as cruel to induce or make a daughter marry beneath her own class (although some daughters make such a decision on their own). Sons are generally a different matter; they are more impetuous with their decisions, harder to control and they travel differently and probably further than young women do. Sons are a wild card with marriages, daughters are more compliant.

The long-term result, discernible via genealogy, is a gentle upward movement in and for society. Marxists mistake this and attribute it to rather basic economic explanations. I tend to a more behavioural explanation for this tendency to slow upward social mobility. Of course, downward social mobility exists to, perhaps due to moral failure (such as alcoholism or gambling), some effects of war, the early death of a spouse or of children, medical problems, mental illness, genetic inheritances, disruption-in-general, failed investments, failed business experience – and failure might be harder to explain than success.

More to the Marxist point, and assuming that other things remain equal, women with successful marriages tend to become wealthier, better off. Families I conclude, also, partly due to the Industrial Revolution (which is basically for England dated from 1760 to 1830) that individuals and families become wealthy not necessarily because they inherit, or posses wealth that grows via interest rates and/or skilful family management, or work both hard and well; they became wealthy or not due to climbing onto one or several income streams, particularly during times of technological change. (In the Western World, we know a good deal about technological change, due to the said Industrial Revolution and its continuances.) Poverty tends to be found where people for various reasons (and often arguable reasons) have limited access to expansive income streams in a technologically changing society.

And lastly I return to a discussion of the software that anyone might use. Because of the problem – of duplication. If errors exist, and they will inevitably appear in ways small or large, then duplications for individuals, or marriages, entire family groups, will have to be managed. One’s choice of software to use could and perhaps should take this into account, though this problem tends not to be discussed as a problem. The problem exists, however as I have found to my cost. Genealogy is an uncertain art. There are many different kinds of historical problems which can arise because of inaccurate genealogy.

But there is a sort of satisfaction to be found here too. Generally, any historical problems that are noticed will subside when genealogies are finally gotten correct. (This is a conspicuous finding with the descendancies of say, Pocahontas in Virginia.) We live, however, in times of change other then technological change. In the days we live in, when around the world now, men can marry men and women can marry women, and if either can care for children, there has been a revolution regarding “families”.

If so, what is the role of software which is based solely on male-female relationships? Rather like bulls and cows and their progeny. I think myself that the role of software has changed. Genealogical software will have to be rewritten to be able to cope with the issues – because the issues are no longer merely sexually binary. (Ends this series of articles.)

Author: Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is an Australian poet, writer, historian, a one-time journalist in Tamworth NSW Australia (or, Country Music Capital, Australia). Born in Sydney in 1948, meaning in late 2018 he is aged 70! He is deeply interested in modern Australian history (since 1788), literature, poetry and music. He had a normal high school education plus several stints at university, ending with a double major in History/Psychology, then with an Honours degree in History. Of late, and as he gets older - in 2019 he will be 71 - he spends time compiling and recompiling old work, adding to this blog, and wondering deeply with the history of Australia since 1788, a relatively new country, which received up to 162,000 convicts from Britain, why there is such apathy to maritime history in general and in particular, such apathy to the question: who owned/insured the convict ships?

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