Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How real are our ancestors?

Yesterday I was listening to CBC talking about St Patrick's day and they mentioned that St Arnulf of Metz was the patron saint of beer. Now it turns out he is not the right St Arnulf, the patron Saint of brewers is St Arnulf of Soissons. The patron of beer thing is only a humourous thing to know and laugh about, but real or relevant is Arnulf to me?

Arnulf of Metz is someone I have paid attention to because he is the earliest ancestor I have that I can trace a descent from. But what does it mean to me to know I am descended from him?

I share him as a common ancestor with a large number of people in the world, but what really has come through from him to me? The amount of DNA that would come from him is miniscule, there are no stories that have come through to me as a family memory of him. All I know of him is from the historical record.

The ancestors I can feel a connection to are the ones that I have a family memory of. This realistically goes back to the 16th century at the earliest and for many of them it ends 18th century. My aunt Sabine speaks of her great grandmother Beate Elisabeth von Gruenewaldt nee von Stenbock. I remember us talking about having to move from the family home 1849 at age 15 because her father died and the estate passed on to the Swedish branch of the family.

She also has spoken of other ancestors that were alive in the early 19th century. These people are much more personally real to me than someone like Henry the second of England.

In my family, stories of Great Northern War still have faint echos, but this war was utterly devasting to my ancestors. "The War" for the older generations still meant this war.

In my genealogical work I have done a lot of interviews with relatives and this has given me a rich sense of the history from about 1850 to 1950 and echos from the times before. Does knowing I am descended from people earlier make any difference to the richness of my family history?

In genealogy there can be a tendency to 'collect' ancestors. Looking for that gateway ancestor to another time and place, but it is not real. I have enjoyed seeing how far I could back in time with my ancestry, but am I doing it at the expense of building and preserving a strong narative of the last two hundred years?

The Estonians are helping a lot by offering a host of old documents online. I am able to build richer history of my people. I know where they lived, what they owned, what they were appointed to, and when they were in court.

There are earlier people I want to know the ancestors because I do feel a family narative connection to them. Specifically Heinrich Scholman, the earliest Schulmann we can trace back to. I would like to know where he came from, how and why the family came to be on Saarema. When did we become enobled and why?

Heinrich appears for the first time in 1495 and nothing from before him.

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