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Finding Your Medieval Roots: Five Simple Tips

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Danièle Cybulskie, author of The Five-Minute Medievalist, is a featured writer at Medievalists.net. Her work has appeared in The Medieval Magazine, Medieval Warfare Magazine and Ancient History Magazine. She has a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature.

Tracing your ancestors all the way back to the Middle Ages (c.500 – 1500 CE) is a tricky business. Many people lived and died without leaving a trace of themselves in official documents, and there’s not always consistency in medieval burial markers or monuments. To make things worse, far-reaching religious and political changes like the English Civil War and the French Revolution meant the destruction of many church documents, while two world wars damaged and destroyed other artifacts and records. So, is it hopeless to try and trace your roots back that far? Not necessarily, but it will require some ingenuity and patience. Here are five tips for tracing your medieval ancestors, using English examples.

  1. Don’t let preconceived notions of the Middle Ages derail you.

While the majority of people in the Middle Ages were illiterate, they were actually very concerned with good record keeping in order to protect their rights and possessions. As a result, while it’s true that there may be few document trails from the Early Middle Ages, vast amounts of records exist from the 13th – 15th centuries, which is good news for genealogists. Records were kept for baptisms (usually not births), deaths, and marriages, as well as for things we moderns might not have given medieval people credit for. Soldiers in the Hundred Years’ War, for example, were not just lifted from their farms and set onto the battlefield: they were paid for their service. Searching a database like www.medievalsoldier.org can help you find not only a person’s name, but his place of origin, rank, type and date of service, and even his captain’s name. Guild records at www.londonroll.org will tell you a person’s status in their guild and the date, including records of new apprentices. Names were also recorded in land transfers, wills, and cases held in the secular courts or ecclesiastical courts (medieval crimes were divided into religious and secular, so it’s important to look into both types of cases). People from all social classes participated in the court system as plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, or jurors, so court cases are rich sources for names and family scandals, just as they are today. Some interesting records from the Court of Common Pleas can be searched at www.british-history.ac.uk.

  1. If you get stuck going backwards, go forwards.

Chances are, you will run into a gap somewhere around the 16th or 17th centuries, when political and religious chaos may have interrupted record keeping. Most medieval families stayed in the same area for generations or migrated to the nearest large city in search of work, so if you have an idea of where you last spotted your ancestors, stick with it. If tracing backward means you hit a roadblock, start earlier in the same city, town, or parish and try to trace your surname through wills and land transfers back to where you lost the trail. You can find many searchable wills and land transfers – along with other useful information – at www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk.

  1. Try different spellings.

Every area of medieval England had a distinct dialect, which included wide variations in spelling. On top of that, English is a hybrid of two languages (Anglo-Saxon and French) which means that the same surname was often spelled in different ways, depending on who was writing it. Fortunately, most UK databases have standardized spelling, but if you start running into walls, try getting creative and experimenting phonetically with French or Germanic variations. For some inspiration on early English surnames and spellings, have a look at The Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s census in 1086 CE.

British Library Add 12531 f.1, The Genealogical Tree of John, Duke of Lancaster
  1. Reach out to a scholar.

In the Middle Ages, official records for both church and state were kept in Latin, which can make them tricky to read. Even if you can remember your high school Latin, the records are complicated by abbreviations, bad spelling, and indecipherable handwriting. Though the UK has done a huge amount of work translating their records, many are still unavailable in English. Luckily, medieval scholars are an industrious and helpful bunch and have been busily translating church and state records for decades. Chances are, one of them may be able to point you in the right direction. While you can usually find a scholar’s email address from his or her university’s website without much trouble, it’s important to remember that while scholars are usually thrilled to be asked about their work, they are also usually overworked during the school year. If you are very specific about the person, place, or source you’re investigating, and if you get in touch between May and August when teaching loads are lighter, you’re much more likely to get the help you need. To get a head start on translating Latin documents on your own, check out the National Archives’ tutorials on reading old documents.

  1. Have patience.

Having read this far, hopefully, you’ll have discovered that there are good resources out there to help you trace your roots back even farther than you may have thought possible, but finding medieval ancestors is still challenging work. Every day, more databases are being uploaded and updated to help scholars and genealogists trace back ordinary people, but it may take a lot of googling, improvising, and following links to find what you’re looking for. With patience and perhaps some help, you may well be rewarded with a connection you never expected. Either way, you’re likely to make numerous exciting discoveries about the fascinating world of the Middle Ages.

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  • Nancy Kiliany


    May 22, 2017

    With a surname of Edwards,I have just begun to search and this I’m sure will help. Somewher down the line I’ve heard there was a rape by King Henry the VII on a wife of an Edwards man and the result was a child-who’s the father? A great question. Any suggestions?

    Nancy Edwards Kiliany

  • Daniele Cybulskie


    June 15, 2017

    Hi, Nancy.

    (Sorry for the delay!) Unfortunately, this type of situation would be nearly impossible to trace. Some kings were very good about providing for their illegitimate children, but not always. As usual, land grants would be the place to start. You can look for something suspicious, like a wealth of property given to someone who didn’t have much before. Good luck!

    Danièle

  • Leann I Papp


    July 5, 2017

    I have been able to trace back to Hans (Jakob) d’ Alder Klein born 1450 Saarland Germany and hit a road block. Any suggestions where to continue searching? I seem to have more information than any of the “usual” ancestry sites.

  • Ronald E Reafs


    July 5, 2017

    My surname is REAFS, probably middle English. My DNA shows a great deal of British but by family oral history–what little there is of it– tells me my father’s grandfather came from Prussia. So how and where and when did the surname REAFS get attached? A misspelling of Ruof, Rief, or a shortened version of something like Reifsnyder–or–who knows what? any ideas?

  • McMenamin


    July 5, 2017

    I have been told McMenamin came from the Clan responsible for the imprisonment of ST PATRICK. MY RELATIVES now live in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

  • Beatrice


    July 5, 2017

    Thank you for this read. It has answered a lot of questions for me. At 90 years of age and the family
    reunions on both sides of my family were held every 3rd year, I knew my parents brothers and sisters,
    my grandparents and their brothers and sisters, also my greatgrandparents., only some of their siblings.
    The problem I face is not knowing their full names.

    Thank you,

    Beatrice

  • Sherry Brush Geddes


    July 6, 2017

    Thanks for the very interesting ideas! I have a major roadblock on my father’s side. We know when his ancestor arrived in the US in the 1600s but no one has had any luck figuring out how he and his brother got here; e..g, if by ship which ship from what port? Richard and Thomas Brush presumably sailed from somewhere in England and arrived on the eastern tip of Long Island (NY). The town they later co-founded with two other families is Huntington, NY (incorporated in 1653) so I’ve often wondered if they came from somewhere with a similar name in England???
    Anyway, thanks again for a fascinating article. If I can get past this roadblock, it will be fun to try going back to medieval times!

  • Russell Robertson


    July 6, 2017

    Thank you for this advice. The issue I have is understanding what my relatives did and how they lived. Some I have been fortunate with but others nil.
    I have traced back to about 450. Somewhere dates have become confused in records, eg child born after death of parent, or parent 2 yrs old at time of birth for child.

  • James S Guerrero


    July 6, 2017

    I am trying to trace my paternal heritage, it is mostly 75% Iberian peninsula. Are there any data bases that you might recommend for my situation.

    Thanks,
    Jim

  • Gerry Emmons


    July 6, 2017

    My surname is Emmons and although common in parts of America, and not that uncommon in the UK, I have actually never met anyone who has previously heard of it. Whenever I spell it out, letter by letter, mysterious d’s almost always appear. Many years ago I went to a parish church in Essex to read the register before it was sent off to central records, as I think happened across the UK in the 80’s. I found that the name was spelled 3 different ways by three consecutive vicars. Whether they they were unhappy with their predecessors hearing or their spelling ability was unclear.

  • Ron M.


    July 6, 2017

    Nice article. My father` side of the family is Finnish and that makes the surname search really difficult because the surname changes with every generation as the son get the fathers first name + son (Matts+son = Mattsson) and daughters get the father`s name + dotter = Mattsdotter. So you have to go backwards one generation at a time to ensure you have the right trail. But Finnish church records are pretty accurate so I did get back to 1500s so far. Any suggestions on other sources beyond church records in Finland/Sweden?
    Ron

  • Marika P. Leon


    July 6, 2017

    My Family name on my Father’s side was Buggle. They lived in Ireland as far back as 1700. We are told their Ancestors were actually from Germany. I have not been able to find a source that will provide the exact immigrant who left Germany for Ireland, with name & date???

  • Randy Boone


    July 6, 2017

    Daniel Boone historians can only trace his line to George Boone I in Devinshire England and then it stops. However some have traced the linage further to a King Henry (?) in Scotland. Are you familiar with this search? Or connection to George Boone I (Great Grandfather of Daniel Boone) coming from medieval Scotland?

  • Kate McDougall


    July 7, 2017

    As a Gajda/wyoytowich I was always told we were descended from Catherine the Great! hmmmm how do you find this?

  • Neil


    July 7, 2017

    Thank you for a very well written and informative article

  • Robert Pondrom


    July 7, 2017

    Our family name is Pondrom. We were told it was French. Our great gandfather came to the U.S.A, around 1854 from Luxembourg and settled in St. Louis. It is known his relatives spoke a dialect of French called Walloon. There is historical and genealogical documentation of Pondrom ancestors going some distance back in time in the Wallonia regions and there are Pondroms living around France today. Genealogical reports say that our name was possibly of germanic origin from the name Baldrahmni meaning” Baldrahms dwelling”. In my research I found there is a village in Belgium called Pondrome that is said to go back to ancient times when the region was under the control of the Roman Empire. I researched the history of the Roman conquest of that region. Julius Ceasar led the Roman conquest into that region starting in 57 B.C. He called the area Gallia Belgica and it was under the Roman Empire’s control for three or four centuries. During that time of the Roman Empire’s occupation, the regional tribes who had been influenced by Celtic and germanic influences, came to speak Vulgar Latin as the common language of the region. Vugar Latin later evoled into the romance languages of French, Flemmish, Spanish, Italian and others, after the waing control and fall of the Roman Empire. During the Roman Empire’s reign, the Roman army garrisoned legions throughout the area to keep resistance under control and defend against invasions from Germanic tribes east of the Rhine. From my findings I have come to the conclusion that Pondrome and our family name Pondrom are obviously related being basically one and the same. I have also come to conclude that Pondrome is neither of French or Germanic origin but rather is purely Vulgar Latin. The first half of Pondrome is “Pond” and pond is Latin for weight as in a measurement and is from where the Enlish word pound derived. The second half of Pondrome is “rome” and Rome is Latin for the capital of the Roman Empire.Therefore Pondrome would mean “The Weight of Rome,” and the weight of Rome was the Roman army which was keeping the people of the region under the Roman Empire’s control. There are Roman archeoligic sites around the region Pondrome is located and Pondrome was noted for being strategically located along a main road between two larger cities during the time of Roman occupation. In all likelihood an ancestor of ours live in Pondrome back when sir names became fashionable and took the name such as Jean Baptiste du Pondrome which meant John the Baptist of Pondrome. Over time the “du” and the “e” were dropped and the family name became Pondrom. This is historically more logical than Baldrahmni. Our family and probably the citizens of the village Pondrome would much rather our name mean “The Weight of Rome,” than “Baldrahmn’s dwelling” and any genealogist worth their weight would agree that my assumptions are the most logical.

  • Vince Lelond


    July 7, 2017

    Just getting into geneology. I am interested in Lelond and Hobbs

  • joy


    July 7, 2017

    When did we get last names?

  • David Howe


    July 7, 2017

    My surname is HOWE, and my line has been traced back to a Robert Howe/How who (according to tradition) lived in Hatfield Broad Oak, Essex, England. His mother and father have been traced to Magdalen Laver, Essex, England in the early 1500’s. Any suggestions on going back further in order to discover the grandparents of Robert?

  • B. Maynard


    July 7, 2017

    I have noticed that the names changed throughout finding my ancestors. This site has been helpful in giving clues even though I have come across gaps. Thanks for the suggestions.

  • Cynthia Tenicki


    July 8, 2017

    This is really interesting.My maiden name is Potter.

  • Maggie Kennedy


    July 10, 2017

    What about the Irish? Some went to England in the 19th century, but many stayed in Ireland.

  • James Ussery


    July 10, 2017

    I have been able to trace my Surname back to my 8th great grandfather but after that there was a name change. My 7th great grandfather Sir John Thomas Ussery Jr. Born in 1672 in Lunemburg Virginia USA, his father, Sir John Thomas Sr., born in 1640 in Belton, Lincolnshire, England. This is where I get confused, he is the son of William Eure born 1604 in England. Now I was able to whom would be my 29th great grandfather if the research is correct, and his name was Ranulf “the moneyur” du vains. There were several name changes between Ussery and Eure to fitzJohn, de Vesci and as well as a hand full of of others and not one of the Ussery’s that I have emailed or talked to is sure as to why. So my confusion and uncertainty leaves me wondering if I am indeed the great grandson of these men or if it stops Sir John Thomas Ussery Sr. Any help or input would be most appreciated. Thank you!

  • Pam Cibulski


    July 10, 2017

    I was wondering if you could be related to my husbands family. We are CIBULSKI, this never happens to us to find someone with a name close to his family’s name. Id love to hear from you.

  • Lee


    July 10, 2017

    The information regarding the noted databases was very helpful. On my first search provided positive results.

  • Daniele Cybulskie


    July 25, 2017

    Hi, everyone, and thank-you for your comments! I’ve been away, and it’s lovely to come back to see such enthusiasm for the Middle Ages!

    I will be honest and say that I don’t specialize in genealogy generally (my work is mostly about everyday life for medieval people), so I don’t have a lot of suggestions for more specific databases in some of the countries you’re asking about. (I wish I did!) As I mentioned in the article, hunting around a parish church’s records in whichever country your ancestors are from is the best place to sniff out clues. If you speak the language of your ancestors, you can get even further. I’ve found that most people in charge of municipal and parish records are enthusiastic about history, so they are likely to have many more leads than I can give you, personally.

    When it comes to immigration to North America in ships, the seventeenth century may well have some records, but narrowing down the port is pretty critical. The National Archives (UK) have some (mostly later) passenger lists and alien entry books (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/passengers/), and you may also have some luck if you contact the city in which your ancestor is likely to have departed from. There are lots of digitized historical maps which will show you which towns existed at any point in time, and they may give you an idea of likely routes your ancestors may have taken to get to a port. Here’s a place to start for UK ancestry: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~genmaps/

    As for when we got last names – well, we’ve had them for thousands of years. Medieval people may not have used them much in everyday life in their small towns, but they did record them in court proceedings and legal documents. Spelling of names was always variable, even in Shakespeare’s day.

    Thanks again for all your enthusiasm! Happy hunting!

    Danièle

    P.S. (For Pam) The Cybulskis I’m related to landed in Canada a few generations ago.

  • Dvora Nougrechl


    July 27, 2017

    אם אתה יהודי, הנושא הרבה יותר פשוט.
    יש כמובן פנקסי קהילות, ורישומים ברורים, חוץ מהמסורת הברורה והשמות העוברים במשפחה.
    .לי עצמי יש שושלת מהימנה עד דוד במלך, עד כמה שזה ישמע בלתי הגיוני.
    יש את המוצא העדתי הברור ההיסטוריה המתועדת לאן התגלגלנו ואיך במהלך הגירושים, הרדיפות. נדיר שיהודי יחפש ולא ימצא מוצא ברור מאות שנים אחורה.
    !תודה לאתר הזה שעושה את המשימה קלה בהנף מקלדת.