By Jenny Weston
This post was originally inspired by a recent revelation that one of my ancestors may have lived in Leiden in the early 1600s. A particularly unexpected find — given the fact that my family is from the West Coast of Canada (over 7000 km from Leiden) — it was a surprise to find that my ‘eleventh-great-grandfather’ may have lived, literally down the street from our office here in Leiden, almost 400 years ago.
In the wake of this little discovery, I began to wonder about the history of ‘family history’. In the Middle Ages, how did people keep track of their family heritage? How important was it to know where you came from? (Or perhaps, how important was it for others to know where you came from)?
For some medieval families, the task of documenting and publicizing the ‘family tree’ was critically important. This was especially the case for royal and noble families, who were reliant on the continuation of blood-lines to maintain positions of power and prestige. These family histories often survive in large chronicles or genealogy books, some of which include artistic representations of the family tree — each branch of the tree signifying (and confirming) various relationships.
The following image is from a biblical and royal genealogical chronicle that traces the connection between King Edward VI all the way back to Adam and Eve. To make sure that more people could fit on the page, the scribe has turned the book sideways, maximizing his workspace:
Some of these royal genealogies feature impressive detail, giving brief artistic glimpses into the personalities of each family member. In the family tree of Edward IV (presented below), one can see a number of characters emerging out of little flower pods. Some individuals brandish a sword, while others firmly grasp the royal sceptre. Admittedly, this tree looks more like a scary, out-of-control garden weed:
Royal families were not the only ones interested in preserving their history on the page, however. There is a nice example of an early-fifteenth-century nobleman named John Lovell, who commissioned a liturgical book to be made as a gift to Salisbury Cathedral. What is different about this lectionary book, however, is that it is riddled with Lovell family history (as well as that of his wife’s family, the ‘Holands’).
The book opens with a picture of Lord Lovell himself, caught in the act of donating the book to the Cathedral:
Throughout the remaining pages, the artist adds all kinds of Lovell/Holand memorabilia, such as this initial that features two angels holding the family’s Coat of Arms:
As well as various other images of the family’s heraldry:
Perhaps Lord Lovell wished to preserve his family history in a book that he thought would be safe in the hands of the Cathedral. It is also possible that he wished to add a few ‘friendly reminders’ to the users of the book, reminding them who commissioned the volume in the hopes that they might say a few extra prayers on behalf of the generous donor. There is an inscription in the book that suggests this may have been the case. It states:
Orate pro anima domini iohanis lovell qui hunc librum orinavit ecclesie cathedrali Sarum pro speciali memoria sui et uxoris.
[Pray for the soul of John Lovell who gave this book to Salisbury Cathedral, on behalf of the memory of him and his wife].
Another way to make sure that the family’s achievements were remembered was to ensure that your Coat of Arms was entered into a book of Heraldry. Most noble families from the Middle Ages were represented by an artistic crest, which would be painted on shields, flags, and other possessions that were put on public display. One of the earliest and most well-known Heraldry collections is known as the Dering Roll (c. 1270-1280), which contains over three hundred Coats of Arms from English Knights (and spans an impressive 2.64 meters):
While there were a number of ways to preserve one’s family history in the Middle Ages, it seems that this was an activity pursued most regularly by wealthy and noble families — those who could afford to document their history in a manuscript book, and those whose status relied most heavily on the continuation of the family line. That is not to say that other medieval families were not interested in their ancestors, but simply that they did not typically have the means to formally record their history in a book or roll. Alas, we must resign ourselves to the fact that the medieval record is dominated by royal family trees, lined with kings and queens dangling from the blossoms.