DNA and Medieval Genealogy

Last weekend I attended the AGM for the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy (FMG), which just so happened to be followed by a talk about the uses of Genetic Genealogy within Medieval genealogy. The talk was given by Graham Holton of the University of Strathclyde, the lead tutor for the Postgraduate Programme in Genealogical Studies. The talk outlined how Genetic Genealogy could potentially aid a greater number of people to identify their Medieval ancestors.

Finding your Medieval ancestors is often not an easy task and a great deal of people are never able to identify their Medieval ancestors. This is largely due to lack of documentary evidence, unless your Medieval ancestors were not peasants and belonged to the wealthier, landed classes. Even then, if you belong to a subsidiary branch of a landed family, the link between the two can be difficult to find, or can have got lost in history. The documents that show the connection could have been lost, destroyed or may never have existed in the first place. It could also depend on the knowledge of the time (whether the connection was widely known) or whether it was relevant. The relative that didn’t inherit the land may not have been seen as important enough to have been recorded.

The talk made me consider the possibilities of the uses of Genetic Genealogy to aid with these problems. Granted, most of the focus is on Y-DNA (plus documentary evidence) and direct male ancestors, purely because it is easier to track a person when the surname is not constantly changing from generation to generation. This doesn’t mean that changes of surname wouldn’t happen though, as illegitimacy does throw up a bit of a problem. A person with a certain surname may not be related to the family they think if there was any illegitimacy, which a Y-DNA test would show. The possibility of using Autosomal-DNA testing in conjunction with Y-DNA and documentary evidence for tracing through female lines also came up, which is an interesting concept. I am wondering if something like this can be applied to a problem I am having with my own Medieval ancestors, particularly the Sydenham family in Somerset.

There are other issues that came up in the course of the talk (including the obvious question of ethics), but the main fact that came over to me, was the need for people with documented lineages to be tested. It seems that for DNA methods to be most successful in helping to locate Medieval ancestors, these people would need to submit their DNA as they already have the documentary evidence to prove which Medieval subject their line descends from. But of course, like most, not all of these individuals would want to be tested, for whatever reason. This seems to be a bit of a roadblock for this method, although Graham Holton and his colleagues have been employing similar methods for the two projects being undertaken at the University of Strathclyde’s Genealogical Studies department. The first researches descendants of those at the Battle of Bannockburn and the second researches descendants of those involved with the Declaration of Arbroath.

All in all, the talk was very enjoyable and has certainly given me a new perspective on how DNA testing could benefit the study of Medieval ancestors. Perhaps it might even help me find some of mine!

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