Conversations with the past

In the car earlier this evening, with the radio on, I listened to an interview with Mary Beard, the classicist academic. She talked of how studying history ought to be about having conversations with the past, rather than standing back from it in awe, and I was struck with how apt that phrase is when applied to family history. For that’s what we do, isn’t it? Our ancestors may no longer be around to actually talk to, but by discovering who they were, how they lived, and what was going on in their world they come alive to us and become so much more than a name and a few dates.

But we do need to understand their time and society as it can be dangerous to think our culture and attitudes applies to them. On an online forum this week, someone posted a message expressing surprise that a Scottish ancestor got married, in the 1860s, at a farm and not in church. He couldn’t understand why they’d chosen not to get married in the church. What he was assuming was that a church ceremony was the norm and his ancestor was therefore deviant. But in Scotland in the 1860s hardly anyone got married in church. The home of the bride or groom was the most usual location, but the ceremony could be conducted by a minister at any location. It would actually have been deviant to get married in church.

Once we start developing that kind of knowledge, we can have a proper conversation with the past – questioning, interrogating, thinking about what ifs, and using the facts we manage to find out like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, imaging what the missing pieces could have shown. We’ll never know what we imagine is right, of course, but the point isn’t about coming to final conclusions – it’s about the conversation.

6 responses to “Conversations with the past

  1. I love this call to have a conversation with history — one of the things I love about doing genealogy is the revelation of so many assumptions as I search for understanding. Here’s to having conversations not answers!

  2. And this is exactly why I encourage all my friends who are new to genealogy to also study the past! I try to read one book a week about something related to my tree.. this week I’ve just finished a book called Life as We Have Known it, edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies, which is the stories of working women in Britain, written by the women themselves, and is set in the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s brilliant, and cleared up more than a few puzzles for me. The stories of the women married to coal miners in particular were useful. And entertaining. And sad. And yes, this is why we should study history, not just names and dates and places.

    • That book sounds fantastic – must get hold of a copy. Reading around your ancestors lives strikes me as a necessary adjunct to among the records research. I must do some posts about books I’ve found really useful.

  3. Yes, very true Judy. Finding names and dates is sometimes the easiest part.

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