Due to a very busy period at school and at work, I haven’t been able to post as frequent as I would like. This will probably continue up to February, when I don’t have lectures anymore and can more or less make my own time schedule. I have found some time, however, and as many people have been busy with their ancestors during Samhain or Halloween, this feels like the appropriate moment to tell something about genealogy.
Genealogy is a contraction of two Greek words, meaning to gain knowledge about those who were born before you: your ancestors. You can do this in various ways, obviously. Tracking the male lineage is most often done, finding ancestors with the same family name as you. Sometimes you see different spellings of a name, which makes it even more fun, as you have to discover whether it was actually distant family or an entire different family. The further back you go, the more difficult it becomes. As not all people stem from great, royal houses who always used surnames, it might be impossible to track your family back when the surnames are left out. In the Netherlands, and I assume in many other countries as well, people were named after their father. This way, Peter Johnson could be distinguished from Peter Ericson in name. The patronymics were used more often than actual surnames, and though it might be enough in a small village, a whole country will have more than 1 Peter Johnson. At some point in history, most countries required their inhabitants to use a surname, though Norway only passed this law in 1923!
When you have gone as far back in the male line as you possibly could, it is enormous fun to discover what people nowadays are very distant relatives. That means finding out what all the children did, whom they married, continuing to present day. Sometimes you have to go back 10 generations to find a common ancestor, but hey, it’s family! That way I discovered that Joop Zoetemelk (a former Dutch cyclist who won the Tour de France) is very distant family, coming from an ancestor some 8 or 9 generations earlier.
But why investigate only one side of the family? Your mother is the only one who definitely is your biological parent, so unless you have DNA material of relatives on the father’s side of the family, you can never be entirely sure. Belle van Zuylen, a Dutch/French female writer from the 18th century once suggested that children should get their mother’s surname, for this reason exactly. Feminism, yes, she was very ahead of her time, but very sharp-minded as well. Tracking the female lineage or finding the parents of your parents and their parents, doubling the number of people with every step you make, is also quite common. This is called a pedigree (a kwartierstaat in Dutch).
What value does your family tree have? Just the value you assign to it. You learn where you are from, who your ancestors were, how they lived, where they originally lived. You can honour your ancestors as is done in some traditions, or simply acknowledge them. I know the male ancestors on my father’s side back until 1500, and it seems we have never really moved. Even then, my family lived in the same area of the Netherlands. That feels good, knowing this is ‘familiar ground’ where we have been for hundreds of years. I have learned there is a family grave not to far from where I live, so I might visit it some day. On the other hand I’m very exited that one of the other branches on my family tree appears to go to (or rather: come from) Belgium, perhaps even France.
It takes quite some work to figure out your family tree, and perhaps you get stuck further back than your grandparents. But that’s okay! It is simply nice to know where you came from, and who your ancestors were.