Is Family History “Proper” History?

This is my 100th blog post, and my first as an ex-civil servant. So to mark this milestone I’ve decided look at family history as a subject, and give my perspective on its place in the overall discipline of history. Does it actually deserve to be classed as history? 

Perhaps some do look down on it, thinking its a kind of “dumbed down” version of history. After all there’s nothing to collecting the names of a bunch of ancestors and tagging them with a few vital event dates. But that’s missing the whole point. Family history isn’t only about creating a tree full of connected names.

For me family history is a specific strand of history and is as valid a discipline as studying the Tudor period, or being an expert in the English Civil War. My history degree covered what are probably regarded as “traditional” history topics such as the origins of the Great War, the Russian Revolution, Latin American Independence Wars and politics, the Enlightenment and history of ideas or the foreign policy of the Chamberlain government. However, other elements had a definite family and social history slant. These included children in British society, parish registers, censuses, and various Factory and Education Acts.  

In fact family history encompasses a far broader time sweep than many specialist areas, with their comparatively narrow timeframes. More than that, it covers a wide breadth of elements. It requires a knowledge of international, national, local, economic, industrial, religious, medical, agricultural, demographic, political, judicial, legislative and social history – to name but a few areas. 

This broader historical perspective in turn leads to an understanding of when individual records so vital for family history were created and why, and crucially what is consequently available to further research. For instance parish registers and poor law developments down to the impact of the Civil War and Commonweath through to voting rights. 

At the same time geographical knowledge plays a part, from parish and administrative boundaries to the development of towns, transport links and migration routes and patterns. A bit of Latin and the ability to decipher handwriting akin to the meandering of a spider who has paddled in an ink puddle also helps.Family history therefore goes way beyond parish register and census hopping to create a list of names. It’s way more exciting.

To me family history ranges from contextualising the lives and times of my ancestors within events such as the Industrial Revolution, the English Civil War, or the First World War; it also drills down to putting specific life-changing decisions or events into the framework of national and international events, like the shelling of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool and my great grandad’s decision to enlist. Or the Irish Famine, its impact in County Mayo and the decisions made by my ancestors to remain or leave. 

Furthermore family history has enhanced my historical knowledge, drawing me to investigate areas that broader history would not touch upon. Lesser known events such as miners strikes in specific localities, such as Drighlington, and the impact it had on ancestral lives, leading onto coal mining communities and occupations generally; or the growth or decline of towns and villages, or industries and occupations and the associated migration patterns or job switches. It has also led me to conducting greater in-depth investigation into factors affecting their lives such as judicial changes, the Poor Law, various Factory Acts or diseases such as TB, diabetes and smallpox along with accompanying medical advances; without my family history hat on, for me these events would be looked at in a high-level generalised way and not considered in detail or applied to individuals who are my flesh and blood. Examining them in relation to my family makes them more real. And by extension it leads to communicating finds to other family members and hopefully making history more accessible, relevant and real to them.

And, as that’s the case, for me family history is truly one other strand of the various disciplines falling under the generic umbrella of history.  So done properly, and not a paper-chase exercise of populating a tree with thousands of names, the answer to those who cast doubts on its merits is an unequivocal yes: Family history is truly “proper” history.

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5 responses to “Is Family History “Proper” History?

  1. Thank you Jane for putting into words all those things we do while chasing family. Personally, i am just chasing my own surname of Appleford, what i have found makes me wish i had taken more notice of English history at school,,in Australia,,LOL. still i am learning about English history from my Ancestors perspective and i am enjoying that, much more interesting.

  2. To me (an academic historian and a family historian) the answer is ‘it depends’. For some, who take their research seriously, investigate context and immerse themselves in primary sources, then the answer as to be yes. They are a valuable part of the historical debate and this intensely personal brand of history is a wonderful way of encouraging people (who might otherwise be disinterested) to engage with history and heritage. There are also pedigree hunters who leap from branch to branch of the family trees of others in pursuit of the shaky leaf. I am not saying this is wrong (ok, deep down it really irritates me but it is none of my business what people do with their leisure time) but it is not history.

    • Definitely. I can honestly say that researching the lives of my ancestors has deepened my understanding of history and opened my eyes to areas I would otherwise have not been exposed to. Hopefully sharing my research in an accessible way via my blog might inspire an interest in history for others.

  3. Pingback: Things that go Bump …. in my world of spinning historical stories « The History Interpreter

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