|SOME NOTES ON MEDIEVAL ENGLISH GENEALOGY|
The emphasis of these pages is primarily on source material rather than secondary works. Nevertheless, many medieval families have had their histories written, and many more have been outlined in local histories.
A good published history of the family you are researching will be a godsend, and is obviously worth looking for at the outset. Conversely, a bad family history may be worse than useless; although if handled carefully it may at least be useful as a 'finding aid' to guide future research.
Generally, it's not too hard to get a broad impression of the quality of published work. Probably the best rule of thumb is the quality of citations to sources: a good family history will back up its statements with references to contemporary sources, and will discuss the evidence for points of chronology and identification; a bad one may refer instead only to secondary sources, or to much later sources, or to no sources at all. In any case, whatever the quality of the source, it is always a good rule to adopt a sceptical approach, and to question the evidence for the family relationships that are stated.
There are a number of indexes to older published genealogical material:
More recently, published genealogies, as well as a wide range of source material, have been surveyed in Stuart Raymond's British Genealogical Library Guides series, which includes county volumes, general volumes, and additional volumes covering particular subjects such as periodicals and occupations.
Several indexes to genealogy published in periodicals have been produced in North America:
There is also a useful online index to genealogical and historical periodicals:
Genealogy - both in print and on the internet - can also be located using the general finding aids discussed below.
As well as histories of individual families, many genealogical compilations have been produced. Often, they are themselves based on secondary material, and therefore have to be used with great caution. The best known example is Burke's Peerage, whose older editions were notorious for their uncritical acceptance of spurious traditional pedigrees. To some extent these were purged from later editions, but generally this is not a good source for medieval genealogy, particularly as no references are normally given in support of the pedigrees. Nevertheless, the current edition is now available online at Burke's Peerage and Gentry, together with data from other Burke's publications, as a (rather expensive) subscription service.
In a completely different category, and one of the indispensable works of reference for medieval genealogy, is The Complete Peerage, (2nd edition, 13 volumes, 1910-1959; reduced edition in 6 vols, 2000). This gives full accounts, including genealogical details, of all the holders of dukedoms, earldoms and baronies since the Norman Conquest. Though the work is certainly not infallible, references are (nearly) always given for its statements, so that the evidence can be followed up and evaluated. Obviously the scope of such a monumental work has to be limited - The Complete Peerage covers daughters and younger sons of peers only sporadically, and (at present) lacks a surname index. A 14th volume of additions and corrections was recently published in 1998, which reflects many (but not all) of the new discoveries made since the volumes were published. See a collection of further corrections and additions to the Complete Peerage, on this site.
Two biographical compilations particularly deserve to be mentioned:
There are two critical bibliographies of royal (and medieval) genealogy available online:
There is also a new generation of genealogical compilations on the internet. Though they can provide a very quick and convenient means of reference, these should generally be used with even greater care than their printed counterparts.
Another mainstay of medieval genealogy, apart from specifically genealogical works, has been the large body of local history published over the last 400 years or so. Traditionally, English local history has been largely concerned with tracing the descent of manors and other landed estates, and has therefore had a strongly genealogical flavour.
The conventional English county history would have a separate section for each parish, typically beginning with an extract from the Domesday Book, and then tracing the descent of manors and other estates down to the date of publication; there would usually also be a description of the church and its monuments. Most counties are covered by at least one such history, and many by more (Hertfordshire, for example, has five). A comprehensive and quite readable survey of these works is given in A guide to English county histories, edited by C.R.J. Currie and C.P. Lewis (Stroud, 1994), which makes it easy to see not only what histories are available but also how reliable they are likely to be. A list of some older county histories that are available online can be found here.
In a sense, the culmination of this tradition is the Victoria History of the Counties of England (known as the Victoria County History, or the V.C.H. for short), a huge project covering the whole country, still in progress after a century. The content includes parish histories on broadly traditional lines, and also sections on other aspects of county history, including political history and religious houses. In the more recent volumes the emphasis has shifted away from medieval history and genealogy to some extent, but manorial descents are still included. If the family you are researching is known to have held a manor in one of the parishes covered, the V.C.H. should give you a fully referenced outline of its descent. The Victoria County History has its own website, and many of the published volumes are available at British History Online. More details, including a list of the contents of the volumes published so far, an index of place names, and links to text online, are available on this site.
Also very useful are the serial publications of the dozens of historical societies (or archaeological societies, as many were known), which came into their own in the 19th centuries, and many of which still exist. Some of these societies were national, and some were devoted to publishing a particular class of record, but many were county societies which published a wide range of local material. In additional to parish and family histories, much of the content consisted of transcripts, abstracts or indexes of records, such as wills, inquisitions post mortem, parish registers, deeds, charters, taxation records, feet of fines, heralds' visitations and so on. Over the past few decades, the publication of local records has been given a fresh impetus by the local family history societies, although their emphasis is usually on comparatively modern records.
The contents of series published by many local and national historical societies (and also by some official bodies) are listed in
Many of these societies have their own web pages. The Federation of Family History Societies maintains a list of links to the web sites of family history societies (including those for local societies arranged by county).
Source material in periodical publications is also covered in Raymond's British Genealogical Library Guides and The Periodical Source Index (PERSI), as discussed above. Papers in academic journals since 1981 are included in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index (Institute for Scientific Information), which is available to academic users in the U.K. through Web of Science.
For specific types of records, some lists of printed material (and links to other web sites) are given in the other sections of this guide. There are many other resources for finding useful material, whether on the internet, in print, or in manuscript.
For material on the internet, apart from the general search engines, there are a number of specialist genealogical web sites, which have their own search facilities and contain classified lists of links. For printed material, many library catalogues are now available online. It's worth bearing in mind that searching these will usually find only complete published works, not articles in serials; for these, see the indexes mentioned in the local history section above.
Google's Book Search facility will allow the texts of several million published works to be searched, and will provide full access to older material that is no longer in copyright.
Several extensive bibliographies for medieval history, covering Continental Europe as well as Britain, are available online:
The Discovery catalogue covers the holdings of the National Archives and many other record repositories in the UK. Similar material is also available at the online catalogue catalogue of the National Library of Wales.
A listing of record offices and repositories, with links to web pages and catalogues, is available online:
Archive collections in UK universities and colleges are indexed at the Archives Hub, and those in higher education institutions and learned societies in Greater London at AIM25. At present, these are primarily listing of collections - though with links to more detailed online catalogues where available - so individual documents and their contents won't appear. For many collections, there is a reasonably detailed description, though.
The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections is an online index to collections in the USA, maintained by the Library of Congress, which includes some medieval English material.
|Public records: General >|