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.