Sunday, 6 April 2014


I have studied history all my life, it was my favourite subject in school, and I've never stopped. I wouldn't go so far as to think of myself as a historian, because I think that implies a high level of dedication and possibly specialization; I am much broader in my interests. But I am quite comfortable interpreting certain aspects of history, which after all has to be the point of it all. Anyone can memorize names, dates, and places, but without some sort of of context, it's meaningless.

My interest is largely in social history - I really don't give a damn about kings and battles - I am far keener to consider the lives of ordinary people like you and me, and for that reason one of the aspects of human history I am most interested in is migration.

Obviously I'm a migrant myself, so that may have started it. But the phenomenon of an individual, family, or entire people travelling a distance and settling in some other area is nothing new. Ultimately we all come from Africa anyway, but what absolutely staggers me is how most people have absolutely no idea just how much movement has occurred in the last couple of thousand years.

Even more so, when I get onto the topic of genealogy, which is to say fairly recent history, I am totally gobsmacked by the lack of knowledge people have about Europe.

So. Assuming you have European ancestry, and that it was reasonably direct (we are not referring to conquistadors here) then you are a mutt. Hope that isn't too much of a shock. (N.B. The same applies to other parts of the world, so if you have no European ancestry the same principles apply, just with different details).

Not only did people move from country to country, the countries wandered about a bit too. Some of them disappeared completely. Some only began to exist in really very recent times. Some went away and came back. Many, many borders shifted. Some more than others, for example, if you think of yourself as having German ancestors, that could mean a lot of different things, because the word Germany means lots of different things.

At the beginning of that video you can't actually find "Germany" anywhere. And yet, in the centuries before, the Holy Roman Empire covered most of the territory shown and was known as officially for a time as "The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation". And in fact, when this video begins, the Holy Roman Empire (said by Voltaire to have not been holy, or Roman, or an empire) still covered about half of it. German borders have changed over time more than you change your socks. Confused yet? Good.

What happens, in fact, is that nationality at any given time is often more of an attitude than a reality. At any time, there are legal residents, or even citizens, in any given place, who don't identify with that place. There are always people whose inner concept of who they are is at odds with where they are. Even if they were born there.

This can happen if you stay in place and the borders move around you, which is common enough, as I've said. But it can also happen if for some reason you were forced to move. It doesn't have to mean that soldiers marched you out of town, although there have been plenty of examples of that. It can mean that you had to choose between migration or starvation. The vast majority of movement is neither truly voluntary nor truly coercive. It's more like Hobson's choice. 

You can sometimes see from surnames where your ancestors orginated from, but it's only part of the picture. One of my family names is Thurman, a family with English first names in London in the late 18th century, but how long had they been there? Thurmans can be found in Germany today, but they also moved to Britain in every century prior, right back to when surnames were first used. 

There have been many waves of movement. It's even thought that home sapiens as a species had two attempts at Europe, the first having been a total failure. But by the time records were kept - so we're referring to the Romans here - the continent was full of established tribes. If you had met each one, you'd have found it had many smiliarities to the one next to it geographically, most of the time, because there was never anything exclusive about tribes. But every so often, people travelled a bit farther than the tribe next door. 

When the Romans spread all over Europe, they took their genes with them. These were sufficiently different to have markers in the DNA that we can pick out now. We can dig up a body in England and confidently ascertain it was a Roman, without any other clues. People with part Roman blood then spread this around, obviously diluting and mixing it with others, but keeping it moving. 

In Medieval times trade routes were a big factor, but so was persecution, mostly religious, and while some moved to places where they were more tolerated, some were simply thrown out, like the Jews in Spain. 
And if you were a woman, and you married outside your own ethinc, linguistic, or religious group, your history was LOST. Your birth name gone, not always even recorded at the time of marriage. 

London, 1593

"By banns on Friday 12th, Thos Woode, and Sarah, a Jewesse."

It's only now that we can look for markers in the DNA that we have any idea of who we really are, and there are so many lines. I'm going to have to do a bit of math, bear with me.

2 Parents
4 Grandparents
8 Great-grandparents
16 Great-great-grandparents
32 Great-great-great-grandparents
64 Great-great-great-great-grandparents
128 Great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
256 Great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
512 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
1024 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
2048 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
4096 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
8192 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
16384 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
32768 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
65536 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
131072 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
262114 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents

Let's look at the date. We have roughly reached Shakespeare's time here, and already our ancestors number that of the population of the whole of England. Twice as many as the population of quite a few other countries. If you go back a few more generations, you have more ancestors than the population of all of Europe, and a few more gives you more ancestors than the population of the entire planet.

How does this happen? Well, obviously, the same person crops up in multiple lines. So, while you would have 262114 entries at this point in your family tree, you may only have 12000 actual individuals. In my family this repeat happens as recently as 1856 due to a first cousin marriage. People knowingly and unknowingly married cousins frequently throughout history. My current aim in my family history research is to find out where partners and inlaws connect as cousins, and of course professional genealogists do this stuff all the time, with announcements like "Obama is Brad Pitt's 9th Cousin!!"  

Yes, you can even see it now you look carefully, HA!

Some people are totally shocked by this stuff, but they shouldn't be. You, reading this, are my cousin somewhere. Even if you come from a remote Pacific Island, and we'd have to go back hundreds of thousands of years to find a common ancestor, there was one. 

But reigning it back in again, within Europe, you still have a lot of ancestors, and I can assure you they were not all born in the same place you were. They didn't have to be part of an invading army, or a wave of migrants. They only needed to travel 100 km in an entire lifetime (you could crawl it!), and in 20 generations (5 centuries) they've crossed the continent. In practice some people never left the village they born in, while others hopped on a boat and did it all in one go. But when you average it out, there is absolutely no reason at all, and no need for a reason, why your 262114 ancestors reading Shakepeare when it first came out could not have had representatives from every single country in Europe. And they probably DID. 

There's a new phenomenon in Europe. It's a generation born into the EU with the freedom to live, study, and work wherever they like, and who identify as European first and the place of their birth second. Obviously this doesn't apply to everyone, and never will, but it is a bona fide attitude among those who it does apply to, and I think it's a wonderful thing. 


  1. I love the whole Europe version of that video. Have you read Fernand Braudel? I should re-read them. Anyway....what also fascinates me is the way psychology both remains the same and changes with the times. Even within my life time. How can I make clear what it was like to be a girl, prior to the most recent wave of feminism? And starting to be sexually active before the pill?

    1. Won't be easy, but you could try. I have a blog brewing on the lack of education available to girls when/where I was growing up. I think sometimes these things work better in the context of a story.