Pitfalls in Researching a Very Old Ancestor
|Location of Lorenzago di Cadore|
Amongst the trickiest part of researching a family tree that extends back many generations is the temptation to read history backwards. One of my earliest ancestors, Oliviero DeMichiel (1535-1568) lived in the village of Lorenzago in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains of northeastern Italy. As I tried to write about Oliviero’s daily life my 21st Century assumptions about society (education, sanitation, transport, art and culture, technology, etc) kept getting in the way. I could catalogue historical facts (eg Michelangelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1535, the year of Oliviero’s birth) but could not assume that Oliviero would have been aware of the event, or of anything going on beyond the confines of Lorenzago. In an effort to paint a word portrait of my ancestor I needed to research the social structure of the period – hierarchical, every layer of feudal society conditioned by position in the social order and dependent upon someone on the next rung of the ladder. I read about such esoterica as the eating habits of the 16th Century Italian peasant, the place of religion in daily life, wars and pestilence and calamities brought about by fire, flood and avalanche (apparently all too common). The effort and time taken to do the research slows down the writing process but enriches the end product – a family history that brings an ancestor to life. Otherwise, information about Oliviero is limited to year of birth, marriage and death as recorded in the parish registry by the village priest.
|Lorenzago di Cadore|
I began reading. With no evidence to the contrary I must assume that he was a serf. Having gained some knowledge of 16th Century Italian social structure I can write that he was on the lowest rung of the social ladder, beholden to a vassal, who in turn relied upon the nobility (princes and counts), whose allegiance was to those at the top of the ladder – pope and king or emperor. Serfs had only their labour and loyalty to offer in exchange for protection from attack by foreign invaders and land-hungry nobles, in return for which they received a parcel of land sufficient only to grow enough food for the family and perhaps a little extra to barter for an animal or for household goods. Serfs could be conscripted at the drop of a hat to fight in the army of a noble, alongside knights who were better trained (and much better equipped and fed). Since formal education was the exclusive preserve of those on the middle and upper rungs of the feudal ladder, serfs were vulnerable to exploitation, repression and involuntary ignorance, lived and died without hope of the possibility of rising to the next rung of the ladder. On the next rung of the ladder, vassals were dependent for protection and income upon the nobility; if astute, they could be trained to fight and, if they fought well, might hope for a grant of land to parcel out to a serf and thereby gain some little wealth.
With all this as backstory I can write that Oliviero and his wife Giuliana (c1568-1617) lived in what might be termed a rural commune (Lorenzago was probably not big enough to be called a town) with their six children, three boys and three girls born between 1584 and 1615. The sixth child, Bonetto (born 1615) is the next direct descendant on my father’s ancestral tree. As members of the serf class, Oliviero and his children were unlikely to have had a formal education, learning the lessons necessary for survival by observing their elders – how to hunt, plough, plant, water and weed, harvest, press olives into oil and grapes into wine. Giuliana would likewise have learned life skills by observation – bearing and caring for children, preparing food, storing crops, tending a herb and vegetable garden, collecting edible fruits and berries, milking goats, spinning and weaving.
Life in feudal towns such as Lorenzago was circumscribed by the limits of the commune, and in all likelihood its inhabitants would rarely (if ever) have ventured beyond those limits. Their shelter would have been rudimentary, probably made of logs cut from the surrounding alpine forests, a dwelling probably shared with Oliviero’s parents (in the Italian tradition, once married a woman left her birth family to live with the family of her husband). They ate coarse dark bread, chickpeas (ceci) and white beans (fagioli), pasta and buckwheat polenta, and the occasional fowl or forest animal if hunting was good; drank wine with meals, bathed in the river, dressed in homespun with the addition of animal skin garments for warmth in winter. Each day in the exclusively Catholic commune began at sunrise and ended at sunset, the hours marked by the ringing of church bells signalling matins (morning prayers) and compline (evening/bedtime prayers). Cultural life in rural settings centred around the church: feast days of patron saints or reverences of religious relics were marked by processions of villagers celebrating their faith in song and prayers led by the priest. Market days provided opportunities for barter to improve a herd or trade household goods, to socialise with like-minded (Catholic) people, exchange gossip and hear news that filtered in from outside.
For me, this level of detail is so much more satisfying than the diagram of the family tree with birth, marriage and death dates. All that remains is to tackle the next umpteen generations!
Welcome to Geraldine, who is joining our blogging team this month. Geraldine will usually do her posts on the 4th Monday of the month. Tiggy’s regular post will appear next week. We say farewell for now and many thanks to Lyndall who is stepping aside from the blog due to other commitments. There will be more changes next month, so watch out for updated profiles. GSQ