Thursday, December 29, 2011

Genealogy software: A research tool?

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Old Man and His Grandson

I have an off-again, on-again interest in family history. All history fascinates me, but I am not a notoriously patient person, and once in a while when I am attempting to track my forebears I run up against a brick wall and get disgusted. (That's an odd mixed metaphor, chasing my forebears into brick walls, but never mind.) Usually it's when I hit a period when all the guys are named William, none of the women are named at all, somebody apparently got married at age 5, somebody else died two years before his first son was born, and yet another was born, lived, married, and died on one coast and is supposedly buried on the other. At those moments, I generally decide I'm going to be an ancestor, not a descendant, and I pack away the family history stuff and wait impatiently for my son to produce offspring, who can then (all in good time...) look me up.

During one of my descendant periods, my husband gave me some family history software. It's a sort of specialized database that allows researchers to enter facts about their family members and organize the information in a variety of ways: charts of descendants, charts of ancestors, reports of relationships, timelines, and many other useful things. I poked away at it for a while, found another of those irritating conundra, and quit. But I was working on my first novel, set in 1216, and I had a lot of people to keep track of, and it occurred to me that perhaps this software could be pressed into service to produce useful charts and reports about my characters.

So I entered them. But not without problems: although this software is remarkably openminded in many ways and will tolerate all manner of unusual relationships, not batting a cyber-eyelash at multiple simultaneous marriages, children born out of wedlock, or families with multiple surnames, it balked at what I was trying to do. It wasn't thrilled with the fact that in 1216 lots of people didn't have surnames (you have to list them somehow, it whined), and it certainly wasn't gruntled about names like Dino del fu Giovanni detto "Il Rosso". It kept throwing messages that gently suggested I might possibly not have been entirely circumspect about my capitalization, for example. And all those little extra words just farbled it more. I could (and did) override, but it was an uphill struggle.

If you want to try this, by the way, do profit from my errors: learn enough about your own software that you can figure out a way to code entries as to whether they are historically accurate or whether you made them up. This goes for specifics of names (all those unnamed wives...), or dates (not a whole lot of certainty about birthdates in the 13th century, for example), or entire people (my characters needed cousins; I made them up). You think you'll remember what's historical and what's your own invention, but if you're anything like me, you walk away from it for a week and suddenly you will have no clue as whether the afore-mentioned Dino really died in 1308, or whether you just decided that might be convenient.

What will this do for you? It will give you a visual output that makes certain things jump out and grab your attention, for one. Faced with all those birth and death dates in a family, you will see which children died young, you'll get a sense of the ages of the oldest children when the younger were born (or when specific incidents in your story occurred),
and the relative ages of people who may well be part of overlapping generations, given the large size of many medieval families (like the family of Martin Friedrich the Younger, a Northern Bohemian glassworks master, shown here in a painting probably done by Eltas Hille in 1596, showing the entire family present at the Crucifixion - not an unusual thing for art patrons to require of their artists).

If there are gaps - periods where no children are listed, although they were appearing fairly regularly before and after - it would not be unreasonable to guess that children were born but did not survive infancy, given the alarmingly high infant mortality rate. In the period I'm working with, such children often would not be mentioned in the surviving records. Also in this period, it is not unusual to find sons listed but no daughters. I have one character who has a dozen sons by three (sequential) wives, all dutifully documented. I am hard-pressed to believe that he never had daughters, so I gave him some.

If there are discrepancies, this will help you to see them. A historical figure often described as the grandmother of one of my characters would have to have had a child-bearing span of about fifty years, for example, so we're back to the drawing board on that one. You will also note naming patterns: Corso Donati, one of my historical characters, is often described as being called "Il Barone" by the people of Florence because of his pride and arrogance, but a look at his family history shows the recurrence of nicknames like Baruni, Baroncione, and other variants of "Barone". One could conclude that Corso wasn't being egotistical; he was just using a family nickname. And I've named characters whose names are not recorded (generally women) by looking carefully at the naming patterns in later generations of the family.

If you are tech-savvy (and I am the antithesis of this), you might find you do better with a powerful database program, not specifically configured for genealogy. It would, for example, enable you to run reports that state how old everyone is in a particular year, something I had to go to a spreadsheet to track. But for those of us who need something quick and fairly easy, the family history software has certain advantages. For writers working in periods where pictures are available, they can be included; links to documents can be made, and extensive information about individuals can be entered. Your reports and charts will probably never be as lovely (or as loopy - see the one with descendants perched on the tree branches) as some of the charts shown in this post, but they should be clear and informative.

So, is it a good tool? I find it to be, though like anything else it has its limits. What I like about it is that I can use it not only to see what's actually known, but to see where I may need to invent something. It's oddly satisfying to be able to churn out a genealogy chart for someone who lived hundreds of years ago. If it sounds like it might be useful, or even just be kind of fun, I'd say give it a try.

Family tree images, in order of appearance: Page from a Portuguese Renaissance songbook; Ahnentafel von Herzog Ludwig (1568-1593), painted by Joachim Lederlin nach Jakob Zuberlin in 1585, in a Stuttgart museum; page from a 15th century manuscript in Paris. All images in this post are US-Public Domain by reason of expired copyright.

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