Genealogists understand the need for skepticism when we find new or unfamiliar information on the Internet, especially when it’s in compiled family trees and genealogies. But when it comes to printed sources we may be tempted to let our guard down. We tend to think of print as more reliable than the Internet. Think again. It’s important to remember the old adage that just because it’s in print, doesn’t mean it’s true.
I was reminded of this when looking at an article about William I (aka William the Conqueror) the other day that my husband pointed out to me on the website of the English newspaper, The Guardian. This past August 25th was the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings when William took England from the Saxons. I learned from the article that many biographers have depicted William as actually being rather sweet and jovial. This came as a surprise to me. I would think that anyone who could win a battle as bloody as Hastings would be unlikely to have a sweet bone in his body. It is estimated that over 100,000 people died as a result of that battle and the later repression of the Saxons.
Marc Morris, a British historian researching William for a biography, felt instinctively that something was wrong with this characterization of the Conqueror, and he wanted to get the man right. He had Latin expert David D’Avray go back and translate the original source from which this jovial interpretation of the Conqueror originated – a Latin manuscript nearly a thousand years old, part of a chronicle written after William’s funeral. David D’Avray discovered that the section of this chronicle that modern historians had believed was a description of William was not about him at all. The words of praise actually were offered in memory of a little-known Abbot named Richard of Verdun. Both men had died around the same time in 1087 and the description of the genial Richard had been misunderstood and taken as a description of William.*
The mistake persisted as professional historians relied on, and recycled, a translation from a printed source rather than going back and checking the original. Likewise, we find the same mistake being made by many of us as we work out our family histories. We easily assume that surely those published genealogies that we find on the shelves of our local libraries and genealogical societies have to be accurate. After all, they did make it into print, didn’t they?
Helen Osborne has written about this problem in her book Genealogy: Essential Research Methods (2012).** At one point she compares research in England and the United States. England is a relatively small country so people are more likely to travel to look at original sources. In the United States people are more likely to rely on printed sources rather than take on the challenge and expense of traveling great distances to consult an original document. As a result Osborne has found that there is “a vast amount of uncritical, unscholarly work deposited in the big genealogical libraries that has found its way into many family trees.” One mistake in a printed source is picked up uncritically by another and another and another, just as happened in the biographies of William I above.
If you find yourself skeptical of what a British genealogist is saying about American libraries, don’t be. She has a point. Just check with the Daughters of the American Revolution, among one of our earliest American lineage societies. DAR genealogists have discovered that some proofs of lineage accepted by their predecessors no longer hold up. The links are broken in a number of cases and have to be proven using more reliable original sources, if such sources can be found. In these situations previous genealogical paths to a particular ancestor can no longer be trusted. People now seeking membership in the DAR may have to forge new trails to prove they are descended from soldiers of the Revolutionary War. Of course printed sources can continue to be used as potential signposts to documents, but never as infallible proof.
Anyone familiar with the Internet is likely to have noticed how freely it can take mistakes and replicate them on a far grander scale than book publishing ever could. The Web has made it even easier to find questionable family trees online that people copy with abandon, not even checking sources (that is, assuming they are given in the first place). But the Internet has also given us a more positive gift, the ability to pull up an actual image of original records housed in other states and other countries. We no longer have to travel great distances to look at them. We do have to learn how to locate them, cite them, and use them, but that has always been a part of doing accurate genealogies. The crucial further step is to learn how to use Internet sources prudently. This takes time and experience. But the result will be the creation of a more reliable family history and a deeper understanding and appreciation of our ancestors.
*Marc Morris’ book is entitled William I: England’s Conqueror and has been published by Penguin this summer on the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. The mistranslation begins with the publication in the nineteenth century of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, whose prose is characterized by Morris as a “flowery Latin . . . not the administrative Latin that most medieval historians – like me – can cope with.” See Dalya Alberge, “Not So Jovial After All: How Historians Misunderstood William the Conqueror,” The Guardian, August 20, 2016.
**Helen Osborne, Genealogy: Essential Research Methods (London: Robert Hale, 2012), pp. 176-177.
vea/31 August 2016
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