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Guest Post - Collecting Baseball Cards - Genealogy vs Family History

Charlemagne

From Brian Wills-Johnson, who gave us the erudite series "A Frenchman in Australia", we have received this interesting meditation on distant ancestors: 

It seems that I am a direct descendant of Radbot, Count of Klettgau, who was born circa 985, founded the Habsburg dynasty, and died in 1045. Somewhat more tenuously, his line can be traced back to Adalrich I, Duke of Alsace, born circa 645.

My ancient French lineage should come as no surprise. My wife, who is of Irish descent, is also a descendant of Radbot, as is our French daughter-in-law, and our son-in-law whose family arose in Cornwall. In fact, every person on earth who is of Franco-Anglo-Celtic or other European descent, counts Radbot and Adalrich among their ancestors.

The popular expression “everyone is descended from Charlemagne” pokes fun at the English actor Christopher Lee who, in 2010, proudly asserted that he could prove he was descended from the first Holy Roman emperor. The mathematics of genealogy easily demonstrate that all we ‘Europeans’ are descendants of everyone who was alive in Europe at the end of the first common era millennium.

Simply put, we each have two parents, four grand-parents, eight great grand-parents and so on, an exponential expansion of the ancestor cohort. Radbot of Klettgau and I are separated by 35 generations, which means that the European population would need to have been an impossible 17 billion if each generation were unique - 17,179,869,184, to be exact. The Holy Roman Empire had an estimated population of 11.3 to 12.7 million at the time. [1] As geneticist Adam Rutherford explains, “branches of your family don’t consistently diverge … they begin to loop back into each other”, resulting in each race being highly inbred. [2]

So doing a Chistopher Lee, and collecting ancestors to fill a family tree, is not much different from collecting baseball cards to fill an album. We all have access to the same cards, once we go back a few generations. So why bother with genealogy? The worthwhile objective, in my view, is to recover previous lives and to explore their experiences within their historical contexts. And of course, the most interesting lives that a family historian could select are those from his or her own lineage. Jean Pierre Meunier, about whom I have written previously, is a case in point. This French soldier, convicted in Quebec of desertion and transported for life to Australia, was my great-great grandfather. He led a unique life encompassing the Peninsula War, a Swiss mercenary regiment and convict-era Australia.

Genealogy, then, is no more than a framework within which the much more interesting exercise of family history can be conducted. Werner the Pious, Albert the Rich, Rudolph the Kind, all of them steps on the path back to Radbot of Klettgau, will all add to the richness of the family’s tapestry as their stories are discovered and told.

 

[1] Eltjo Buringh, Medieval Manuscript Production in the Latin West, 2010; and Alexander Avakov, Two Thousand Years of Economic Statistics, vol. 1, 2015, per Wikipedia.

[1] Scott Hershberger, ‘Humans are all More Closely Related than we Commonly Think’, Scientific American, 5 October 2020.

 

Today is Toussaint, a national holiday in France, when most people think of their families, making this reflection on family history very timely, indeed. Many thanks, Brian.

 

 

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