“Our imagination craves to behold our ancestors as they really were, going about their daily business and daily pleasure. In fact the whole appeal of history (and ancestry) (my addition) is imaginative, and without social history especially, economic history is barren and political history is unintelligible”
These words are taken from the opening chapter of “English Social History: A survey of six centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria”, written by G. M. Trevelyan in 1942. I first read this book 45 years ago alongside other books I was reading about the Industrial Revolution in an attempt to “widen my horizons” after my mind had been narrowed down the tunnel of a PhD in chemistry. While I was in the university library reading previous research papers several of my friends were discussing and writing essays on Marxism, Empire, The Corn Laws, Luddites, and reading works by Hobbsbawm, Hobbes and ….. Trevelyan.
I recalled these writers as I was recently reading about my immediate ancestors, the tin miners of Cornwall who migrated during the Industrial Age, shifting from tin to iron, silver and gold. I was particularly interested in the engineering work of Richard Trevithick who pioneered the engines to remove water from Cornish tin mines which prolonged the life of those mines and made them safer for the miners. As I read about Trevithick’s work, I started to realise how he was influenced by previous engineers, but also how my immediate ancestors lives had been influenced by not only their parents, their parents parents…. etc etc, but also by the context and changes of previous eras. For example my previous posts told of how Sarah Elizabeth finished her days in The Workhouse. They described how The Poor Law had been changed several times between the 16th and 19th centuries, and that to understand the final version affecting my 3x great aunt I needed to understand how and why that law began.
My family tree research has therefore become an equal search between finding the ancestors themselves and finding out about the social changes affecting them, and the book by G. M. Trevelyan quoted in my opening paragraph has become my route map and tour guide. It is about English social history, not American, not Chinese, not Australian, nor Indian, but don’t be discouraged by that, my principle stands …. if you want to understand fully the lives of your immediate ancestors you need to imagine the past, the social history of YOUR country and the changes that probably began centuries earlier.
“Generation after generation there is the ploughman behind the oxen, or the horses, or the machine, and his wife busy all day in the cottage, waiting for him with her daily accumulated budget of evening news. Each one, gentle and simple in his commonest goings, was ruled by a complicated and ever shifting fabric of custom and law, society and politics, events at home and abroad, some of them little known by him and less understood.”
These quotes from Trevelyan are extremely insightful and significant as to why many of us have become researchers of our ancestors and creators of family trees. It’s not about going further and further back into the past, as I originally did, it’s all being driven by our imagination as Trevelyan says, a desire to “behold our ancestors as they really were” whether they be ploughman or parson, farrier or factory worker, miner or magistrate. The context of each century shaped them, not the context of kings and queens, or battles, wars and conquests, but by the shifts in habitation from field to town, changing from an agricultural society to a merchant based society, by educational shifts and the ability to read and write, by religious shifts from catholicism to protestantism to non-conformism, and by the massive changes of the industrial revolution. All of these shifts affecting our ancestors are introduced in the chapters of Trevelyan’s book and in my next post I will review the first chapter, Chaucer’s England 1340-1400, which describes significant changes such as the breakup of the feudal manor, the seeds of religious reformation and the beginnings of an English nation.