If you don’t understand your ancestors’ cultures you’ll make mistakes

When I research my wife’s and my ancestry, I sometimes make a subtle mistake: forgetting the differences of culture.

I’ve seen major cultural changes in my own lifetime, whether it’s social media’s major impact on truth, the internet’s change in how we consume news media, and the decreasing freedom that children have to explore the world without their parents.

Human culture changes dramatically, and in very little time. I know I have a tendency to assume that my ancestors’ cultures weren’t that different from my culture, and that can result in jumping to conclusions and making mistakes.

Let me give you a few examples just to highlight how crazy past cultural practices were.

Take Martin Luther’s marriage to Katherine von Bora in 1525. The custom among ethnic Germans was that the marriage was consummated before the wedding—the marriage and the wedding were two distinct events, and the wedding at the church couldn’t take place if the marriage hadn’t been consummated.

That’s not the weird part, though: there had to be a witness to the consummation. As Eric Metaxas writes in his biography of Luther,

after the small ceremony, the couple were escorted to their bedroom in the cloister, where [Luther’s friend] Jonas did the curious honors, watching the two become one flesh literally and figuratively. There was often an observation deck above the bed, though this detail seems not to have been observed in this case.

Can you imagine that the witnesses to your marriage license didn’t just have to sign the paper, but that they had to watch you and your spouse have sex? Privacy had a completely different meaning in 1500s Holy Roman Empire.

What does this mean for genealogy? Because culture varied dramatically, the message here is to immerse yourself in the history of ancestors, especially when things don’t make sense. You can probably find a book about the daily lives of normal people for any period & country. If you look carefully, you may even find one with genealogists as the intended audience.

Let me give you some examples from my favorite book on Colonial culture: David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s seed.

On page 114, Fischer described Puritan death ways, saying “In early New England, corpses were hurried into the ground with little ceremony… The grave was marked by a simple granite rock, or a rough wooden paling.”

Virginians were so spread out that it was cumbersome to transport bodies to a church that could be miles away, so people were buried in graves in special gardens close to home. Tombstones were rarely used, again considering the cost to transport one. Besides, it was your garden, so you knew where the graves were.

To put it another way, you won’t find graveyards with tombstones of genealogical value in early New England or Virginia. And if you see records for these, be skeptical.
Onomastics or naming ways were also important. Fischer noted that Pennsylvania Quakers typically named their first son and daughter according to a strict pattern, of “honoring the mother’s father and the father’s mother” first. While it wasn’t a 100% thing, that gives you a great clue for getting to the next generation.

Virginians also typically named their first-born children after their grandparents, but in this case, it was the male line that mattered. The first-born son was named for his paternal grandfather, the second-born son after his father.

Virginians also used a mother’s maiden name as a forename for sons—for example, the son of Joseph Chew and Ruth Larkin was named Larkin Chew.

All great clues for discovering the next generation back.

By contrast, New England Puritans often named the first son after his father, and the first daughter after her mother. They also embraced necronyms or naming a newborn after a deceased sibling. Fischer notes that 80% of the time a child died, the next child born of the same sex was given the name of the deceased child.

Puritans also had the singular practice of closing their eyes, pointing to a page in the bible, and naming their child after that word. That’s why you’ll see names such as Thankful, Wrestling and Notwithstanding.

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