The modern practice of learning who our ancestors are (originally a right only reserved for the elite) taps into our deepest, most romantic yearnings. “Imagine, dear son! In our veins runs the blood of kings, queens, rulers, conquerors–you are royalty, child, pure lightning in a bottle!”
Indeed, as can be said for the majority of Europeans today. In recent decades, genomic research has hit us with a rather stunning notion: to be descended from Charlemagne and Eleanor of Aquitaine is not so much a magical exception as it is a foregone conclusion. All prepared for our role as the toad who transforms into a blue-blood prince, the stage production screeches to a halt.
(Considering that roughly 80% of the world’s wealth is in the hands of less than 150 organizations, why not base our aspirational research around tracing the moneylenders in our family?)
Without delving into the gruesome details, I’ll simply note that both geneticists and mathematicians have synchronously realized that, as recently as 700 years ago, all Europeans share a common ancestor, and more incredibly, that every person on earth is chromosomally anchored in one figure who lived only a couple thousand years ago. Similarly, all of us today will probably be the ancestor of every living member of the human race a couple thousand years from now.
There’s nothing quite like deflating scientific statistics to elicit a symphony of eye-rolling, is there?
On the weekend before Thanksgiving, appropriately, my girlfriend and I took advantage of our new proximity to the Mormon Genealogical Library here in Salt Lake City and went for a brisk stroll downtown. Upon reaching our destination, we found ourselves in a pillared, grandiose lobby with well-dressed society-types gliding past us. “This is like something out of Great Gatsby,” I whispered excitedly to Jenifer.
After being detained for some time by my iPhone’s ability to take high-resolution photographs, we finally wandered into the genealogical computer lab. The first thing I noticed was a family tree diagram on the wall linking Joseph Smith, the fabled founder of Mormonism, to several major U.S. presidents and Winston Churchill! As I fumbled with my iPhone to open up its camera, I suddenly heard a polite female voice behind me. “We have handouts for that, would you like one?” Uh, yes ma’am, I would!
Summarily, we were ushered over to adjacent computers and pleasantly guided through the process of hunting through the database for our grandparents’ names. And so on, and so on. I must say, the Mormons have done a great job of making an experience out of the whole thing which, I suspect, deep down is what we all want–that sense of wonder from having connected in some way with our ancestors.
In fact, I encourage anyone to visit the Family Search website and give it a shot. Everything is totally free, which is cool, and the database itself along with the way it’s structured is extremely pragmatic. If you do find royalty somewhere in your heritage, it won’t be by virtue of a fuzzy line. Once you create an account, you can start to thread your family tree together–and there’s no turning back!
And as you may have suspected by now, I did find royalty in my line. An entire buzzing hive of royalty, in fact. My Dad, sister and I, stuffed with turkey and tofurkey (give it a chance) in the aftermath of the Thanksgiving feast, took the family tree for a ride. Before we knew it, we were in 15th century England, stumbling across pompous dukes, duchesses, lords and ladys. A lone Plantaganet popped up, which turned out being the single raindrop before the May shower.
Now we were seeing such lusty names as King Edward Longshanks, James I of Aragon, King Louis IX of France, Richard the Lion-Hearted, and even Isabella “The She-Wolf”, who appeared to be one cold you-know-what. Beside ourselves with astonishment we kept going…and going…and going. On one line was Charlemagne, another Ferdinand The Great (his title is somewhat dubious). On the latter’s, we found ourselves following an unbroken chain of Spanish and Portuguese kings from the 9th century, to the 8th century, to the 7th century, many of them Teudor kings who had originally come from the north.
Now deep in the annals of Western history via the sudden time-machine of our family tree, we arrived at Alaric I, the Visigothic king who sacked Rome in the 5th century. Yes, we had made it all the way back to the fall of Rome! Alaric first invaded Italy at the age of 25, embellishing his conquests with self-mythology and insisting that everyone call him ‘Alaricus’. By 408 and 409 Alaricus had his hands around Rome’s throat, and was thus able to extort 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, and 3,000 scarlet-dyed hides, among other things. What a damnable rogue!
The whole thing became an enjoyably licentious jaunt through Western history, which is kind of fun to witness in such a circumference of propriety as family company! I should note that these historical fireworks are exclusive to my paternal grandmother’s side (RIP Nana Lucille!) and specifically to the line of Bucks and Derryberrys of whom, of course, none of us had ever heard. Which leads us back to the beginning.
Again, we have established that you are more the exception if you aren’t related to European royalty rather than if you are. Any sense of privilege derived from such a thing has been effectively annihilated in the world of modern science. Still, that’s not as disappointing as it sounds. Rather, I think we should change our approach to the matter of royal descent. Researcher Mark Humphreys has said it best:
“You can ask whether everyone in the Western world is descended from Charlemagne, and the answer is yes, we’re all descended from Charlemagne. But can you prove it? That’s the game of genealogy.”
The privilege, then, comes not in being connected to these glitzy monarchs–since we all are–but rather in exhuming the unique path that leads your family back to those heralded networks in the first place. And personally I think, despite the all-encompassing statements made by these geneticists, that genealogy is more defined by the delicate subtlety of degrees. Sure, it’s accurate to draw a big circle around the human race, but, as they say, the devil’s in the details! I think it’s far more interesting–and yes, romantic–to trace how we’re interrelated. It’s bound to be different for every family!
For example, it’s one thing to say that every U.S. president is related to European royalty, which on the surface must be accepted as true in the same way that it is for every European, and entirely another to say that every U.S. president is related to European royalty. The latter suggests a far closer, less incidental proximity to potentates past. And while that’s an entirely different–and fascinating–subject, perhaps you can see my point.
So in conclusion, I have to take my hat off to the Mormon Genealogical Library. For whatever it’s worth, they’ve provided me a great diversion and also seriously educated me on the fine points of my heritage, both amazing and banal. And as for our endless quest for edifying historical identity, well…the good news is that we’re all fantastically dynastic, and the “bad news” is that we’re all fantastically dynastic. Ultimately, it’s what we make of it–and that determines what it makes of us.