Where have I been this last month? Time-travelling. Rooting around in past centuries, discovering long deceased ancestors, and trying to record the information correctly in my own archives. Oh, and the usual daily round and common task, plus various extra things like making Christmas cakes that occur regularly at this time of year. Not much of an excuse, really. But blogging has had to take a back seat.
The genealogical research has been fascinating for me – I have already confessed to this addiction – and I can now bore the socks off all and sundry with hundreds of names, dates and meagre facts that give a glimpse into the lives and loves of those long dead whose genes we still bear.
I have also learnt some delightful terms in German, such as “Stabhalter am Dingtag” – literally the man who holds the staff on the day of the assembly, but actually an official at local assizes. The word “Tag” is still used in modern German for an assembly, such as “Bundestag” for the German Parliament. Presumably once upon a time everything could be dealt with in one day (ein Tag). Ding, of course, is cognate with Thing, the Anglo-Saxon folkmoot, Manx tyn, etc. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thing_(assembly) explains this better than I can.
And discovered a quaint custom of adding the feminine suffix –in to the surnames of females, thus the wife and daughters of Mr Müller become Müllerin. My daughter pointed out that this has not died out. My elderly neighbour refers to another neighbour in the same way. And it accounts for the name of the famous tyre manufacturer Michelin – wife or daughter of Michel.
As for the ancestors themselves, their lives reflect the social and political history of their times. I have been mainly researching the West German side of the family, long settled on the left bank of the Rhine near the border with France. This is a border that has always been very imprecise, and a region ravaged by armies in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the Nine Years War of the Palatine Succession (1688-1697). The population of one village where we had ancestors was reduced from 100 to just two families by the middle of the seventeenth century. A hundred years later, the French Revolution and then Napoleon Bonaparte brought fresh chaos and confusion.
The countryside is beautiful, mostly wooded hills with little villages scattered here and there. Culturally and linguistically there is little difference between the folk of the Palatinate and those of Alsace-Lorraine. They are certainly much closer to one another than to either far-away Paris or Berlin.
Documenting births, marriages and deaths prior to 1800 is a challenge. When researching your family, it makes sense to start with the present and work backwards, from what is known and certain. Usually, it isn’t too difficult to get to the grandparents, even the great-grandparents. I was helped in the early days of my research by the fact that the previous generation in nineteen-thirties Germany had been obliged to draw up a family tree going back three generations, an exercise disguised as a history project but actually designed to discover whether a child truly was Aryan or had Jewish blood. In our case, a tree made by an aunt took us back well into the early nineteenth century, and showed that family members came from the same or neighbouring villages. There were also family anecdotes and even some ancient photos.
However, for the past thirty years I have been unable to discover any more about the man whose surname we all still bear apart from the fact that he was born in 1777 in a tiny village in Alsace, married over the border into a family already well established in the same village our family lives in today, and had 10 children. My research into his parentage was hampered by three main obstacles.
One was that much documentation was lost during the French revolution, when the church was officially abolished and no longer kept BMD records. As the priest was the only person in the village who could read and write, this meant that in rural communities people continued to be born, marry and die, but nobody recorded any details.
The second obstacle was that unstable border between Alsace and the Palatinate, which determined how and where records were kept. Some were in German, written in old German script, which is very difficult to decipher: was this person called Miss, Niss or Wiss? The initial capital letter could be almost anything! What is this place that looks like Fluis or Lidel? The Catholic Church kept records in Latin, and this is usually easier to read because it was written in copperplate. However, each entry begins with something like: “Today on the sixteenth day of the month of November in the year one thousand seven hundred and thirty-five was baptised XY …” so it does take a very long time to plough through all the entries if you are not absolutely sure of the year of the event you are trying to ascertain.
The third obstacle was that until very recently, I didn’t even know where to start looking. Then I was given a lead to the archives, which are reproduced as facsimiles online, and found myself floundering as I tried to decipher them.
However, like the cavalry in a Wild West film, a couple of heroes rode to my rescue. The online genealogical community is very helpful, and suddenly a person I had helped with his family tree turned out to be an expert in reading these old church records. In the space of a single evening, he supplied me with parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, of our Clan father. Another – who turned out to be a fifth cousin – opened up his own family tree plus links to several others, and in no time at all I was back in the sixteenth and even fifteenth century, with the amazing discovery that at least three lines lead back to Switzerland.
Now, we have been living in Switzerland since 1973, and although there was a rumour in the family that some ancient forefather had been Swiss, until now we had had no evidence of this claim. My Swiss son-in-law’s family tree shows that they have been settled here since 1602 at least, and very proud they are of this. At last we can compete! We even have an Untervogt, an elected Deputy Governor or henchman of the local count.
Another seventeenth-century ancestor, with the burlesque-sounding name of Fridli Wydler, fathered nineteen children, three of them by three different women within 2 years (his wife, who appears to have died giving birth to her tenth child, his mistress who must have been pregnant at the same time, and his second wife who went on to bear him eight more). He was certainly doing his best towards helping maintain population growth!
And the neighbouring area of the Palatinate benefited from his efforts. With the population of the Palatinate almost wiped out by war, a number of Swiss emigrated and settled there, some of them marrying into the families of the millers I wrote about a few weeks ago, others hiring themselves out as shepherds and farm hands, or plying trades such as linen weaver and tailor. And I think I am on the trail of the bossy genes that keep revealing themselves in my daughter and granddaughters: quite a number of their forefathers were connected with keeping law and order in their local communities.