• Michaela Selway

The Importance of Genealogy in the Middle Ages

Having an indeterminate past, or as Francis Ingledew calls it, to be ‘lineageless’, was a vulnerable position in the Middle Ages [1]. It was, however, a common occurrence because of the disconnect between the literary and oral traditions in the Ancient and the Medieval worlds [2]. Because of this disconnect, many nations did not have a record of their origins [3]. At best, they remembered the names of ancestors to the third or fourth generation, occasionally with their notable accomplishments. In many cases though, this did not include the founder let alone their possible connection to an ancient and highly respected society. The Bible became a particularly valuable source in these authors’ search for origins. Among other things, the Bible is a book of history – the OT sections are structured around historical events in order to build an argument for moral ideas. The Biblical texts use historical events as literary motifs to portray broader moral ideas on correct Christian behaviour. Indeed, Robert Wilkin argues that history provides structure to the Biblical narrative. It connects varying stories of admirable and shameful people over a long period of time through the common objective of instructing the reader [4]. As well as providing structure to the Biblical narrative, history allows for present-day people to identify their connection to the historical narrative.

One method that medieval authors used to connect their people to Biblical figures was through the construction and alteration of genealogies. Throughout the Middle Ages, legitimacy generally stemmed from the possession of time, as it showed that the family had held that position or place for generations. Where this was a position of authority, the length of time correlated to the amount of divine authority a family or person had been granted. This was especially relevant in Christian societies as ‘all legitimacy came ultimately from God’ [5]. A writer who could establish a long line of rulers with enduring character could argue the divine ordination of that monarchy [6]. Thus, the further back the genealogy went, even with non-existent ancestors, the greater the prestige and political and social legitimation [7].

Medieval author drew upon three forms of genealogy. The first, and most commonly used, was biological genealogy that traced filial descent. Borrowing from the Biblical tradition, early Medieval renditions of genealogies used the Latin term genuit, which translates to begat. This style of succession was found in Jewish and Christian genealogies and often followed the patrilineal line, though some were known to include prominent females or follow the matrilineal line [8]. In the later Middle Ages, the presentation of genealogies underwent a transformation, though the exact date is debated amongst historians. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber notes that family genealogies and the pressure to remember and record family lines began to appear around the eleventh and twelfth centuries [9]. This dating correlates with the twelfth-century Renaissance, which witnessed a growth in historical interest - in both the ancient texts and personal history. Gabrielle Spiegel also argues that by the twelfth century, family genealogies were ingrained in the historical awareness of Medieval writers, as families began to ‘organize themselves into vertical structures based on agnatic consanguinity’ [10]. In contrast, Walter Pohl argued that royal genealogies displaying succession can be found as early as the ninth century [11].

The second form was spiritual genealogy, that traced the extension of divine authority beyond the Bible to Medieval priests. Optiz argues that a genealogy traces ‘real or imagined blood ties and kinship relations’ - they were more symbolic ‘expressions of social memory’ than rigid associations [12]. He posits that though they were not biologically connected, the members of a spiritual community were bound together like a family [13]. Indeed, to argue that members must be biologically connected through blood negates the fact that adopted family members were incorporated in biological family trees throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages [14]. For example, Getatchew Haile reinforces the legitimacy of this form of genealogy as examples arose around the world at the same time that they were appearing in Europe. For example, Täklä Haymanot of Shoa (Ethiopa) wrote down ‘the (spiritual) genealogy of our fathers’ in the eleventh century [15].

The final example of a genealogy used prominently in Medieval writing was what Raphael Falco termed the genealogy of cultures. Falco argues that cultural genealogy connected two communities separated by time through shared beliefs and traditions. This is generally in an author’s conception of themselves. For example, Falco comments that Orosius of Braga was a Spaniard ‘who boasts of being a genuine Roman’ and Gregory of Tours saw himself ‘as [a] member of privileged rather than barbarian stock’ [16]. However the argument is stronger when used for a community who considered themselves to be the continuation or reincarnation of an ancient society due to their preservation of cultural traditions and beliefs [17]. Falco specifies that the key factor driving cultural genealogy is literature, as it builds on and disseminates the cultural practices and beliefs of the ancient society [18]. Cultural genealogy is primarily found in Histories written about Britannia, whose authors claimed that the British were the present-day manifestation of the Israelites. These Histories, such as William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum or Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, emphasised how the British upheld Christian principles and traditions. Moreover, the British past was linked to the Israelite’s through the consistent peaks and troughs both narratives witnessed. Neither people continually progressed in morality, as both fluctuated between following and then rejecting God. Thus, these authors paralleled the fortunes and misfortunes of the Israelites and the British to imply that they were connected.

By incorporating these three forms of genealogy to connect their people to the Bible, medieval authors not only established for their people a legitimate claim to time, but one that boasted of a divine foundation. The connection they established through the development of the Biblical timeline, the incorporation of Biblical stories, and genealogies claimed that they were the biological, spiritual, and cultural descendants of the Israelites. Therefore, they believed that as long as they upheld the beliefs and traditions of the Israelites, they too benefited from God’s divine favour. This placed a degree of spiritual importance upon their formerly unknown or misrepresented history.


[1] Ingledew, ‘The Book of Troy,’ p.681

[2] Ingledew, ‘The Book of Troy’, p.681; Rippin & Fleming, ‘Brute Force’, p.65.

[3] Pollmann, ‘Exegesis without End’, p.259.

[4] Robert Louis Wilken, ‘The Novelty and Inescapability of the Bible in Late Antiquity’, in Lorenzo DiTommaso & Lucian Turcescu, The Reception and Interpretation of the Bible in Late Antiquity, Leiden, 2008, p.3.

[5] Rippin & Fleming, ‘Brute Force’, p.65.

[6] Rippin & Fleming, ‘Brute Force’, p.56; Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe, Princeton, 2002, p.44.

[7] Ingledew, ‘The Book of Troy’, pp.675, 680.

[8] Ingledew, ‘The Book of Troy’, pp.675, 680. Geary, Women at the Beginning, p.18; Walter Pohl, ‘Genealogy: A Comparative Perspective from the Early Medieval West’, in Eirik Hovden, Christina Lutter & Walter Pohl, Meanings of Community across Medieval Eurasia: Comparative Approaches, Leiden, 2016, pp.235, 244; Cross, ‘Genealogy’, p.26; See in particular E. Anne Clements, Mothers on the Margin? The Significance of the Women in Matthew's Genealogy, Cambridge, 2014.

[9] Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, ‘The Genesis of the Family Tree’, I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 4, Chicago, 1991, pp.105-6, 107.

[10] Spiegel, ‘Genealogy’, p.47.

[11] Pohl, ‘Genealogy’, p.235.

[12] Opitz, ‘Genealogical Representations’, p.183.

[13] Opitz, ‘Genealogical Representations’, p.196.

[14] Klapisch-Zuber, ‘Genesis’, p.111; Pohl, ‘Genealogy’, p.259.

[15] Getatchew Haile, ‘The Monastic Genealogy of the Line of Täklä Haymanot of Shoa’, Rassegna di Studi Etiopici, 29, Rome, 1982, p.23.

[17] Falco, ‘Is There a Genealogy of Cultures?’, p.394.

[17] Falco, ‘Is There a Genealogy of Cultures?’, p.395.

[18] Falco, ‘Is There a Genealogy of Cultures?’, p.396.


Michaela Selway is the co-founder of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying how biblical ideas on Origin Myths were projected into Chronicles throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.

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