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