Imaginative Ancestry: 1. The shifting fabric

“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.

G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History

“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.

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales

Categories: 1300s, Ancestry, Imaginative Ancestry

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13 replies

  1. I loved history during my four years at junior school ( 7 to 11yrs ) in England. My old school friend remembers forever doing ‘The Normans’ but my memory is of starting with cavemen and woolly mammoths and by the end of fourth year we had arrived at the second world war. I loved our text books with colourful drawings of peasants farming their little strip to a Viking standing with sword poised about to plunge it into a hapless peasant woman!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly hardly taught today this way, or at all. I hardly recognise what’s going on in primary schools these days where so much of our history is not “politically correct”. Thanks for commenting and it’s good to have such memories too 🙏🙏👍

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a book I would enjoy. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the opening quote. I’ve been getting books through interlibrary loan to help me understand the context of my ancestors’ lives. Looking forward to future posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For me it really is all about the history. Who my 15th or 20th great-grandparents were means nothing if I don’t understand the lives of my grandparents. It’s not about collecting names and dates. It’s about building a narrative one generation at a time.

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  5. I remember reading Trevelyan too. I have very quickly tried to think about the most important events that have had most impact on English social history:
    The Norman Conquest
    The Reformation
    The English Civil War
    The Agrarian and Industrial Revolution
    The British Empire
    The World Wars of the 20th century
    Universal Suffrage
    The Welfare State

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess that’s a list I would have written too, but Trevelyan ignores 1066+ and begins in the days of Chaucer as you’ll see in my next post. Then into the next century in the era of Caxton. In both these centuries he’s reviewing changes in how the land was worked, movement from village to town and back, twice, the beginning of education for the peasants, the early attacks on the church pre Reformation, then how Caxton precipitated the merging of dialects into the English language. By the way, did you get my email or have I been spammed?


  6. I think you’re absolutely right about the pointlessness of going back further and further as an end in itself, and I now find, having looked at all my own lines and much of my wife’s ancestry, that I tend to lose interest in things before 1750-1800 because I cannot imagine what life would have been like then at all. I’m probably kidding myself in thinking I can imagine what life was like after that as well, but at least now there is more and more information available to give some idea. I doubt I’ll ever run out of things to keep me interested.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you for your supporting comment, before my focus on ancestry I wrote mostly about wine …. my main hobby as a collector. But I wrote mostly about vineyards I had visited, the people I had met, the landscape of the vines, the history of the region …. Burgundy, Alsace, Chinon …. and I always used to say “it’s not about the wine!”. Im currently researching tin mining as well as charting the main social changes in England through Trevelyan’s book, both overlaid on my Cornish ancestors. BUT, I have found something interesting going back into the 1500s – 1600s …… an ancestor who was Sir John….., a son who was knighted, and several daughters who were Lady xxx, but they’ll have to wait!


    • So true. I can almost imagine what life might have been like back to say 1890 because I had relatives who lived through that time and I visited their houses and saw the way that they lived and what had influenced them.

      Liked by 1 person


  1. Imaginative Ancestry #4: Shakespeare’s England 1485-1603 – Buddha walks into a library …
  2. Imaginative Ancestry #5: A PEST in Cobbett’s England! – Buddha walks into a library …
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