chapter  2
27 Pages

The technology of descent

Systematic genealogy developed as a new technology in the early modern period. Previous forms of recording descent relations were eschatological and prophetic, following the biblical precedents of Genesis and Matthew. The relationship between these two genealogical approaches is of paramount importance to understanding how ordinary genealogy laid the foundation for a persuasive and enduring myth of cultural genealogy. By the late fifteenth century the notion of genealogy as a systematic process had begun to emerge from the chaos surrounding late antique and medieval notions of recording descent relations. This is not to say that scientific genealogy, as we know it today, developed immediately. In fact, it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that genealogy became reliable. Yet, nevertheless, regardless of its now laughable blundering, genealogy that purported to be systematic had a new legitimacy in the Renaissance. It was proof of progress from medieval incompetence, and, as is well known, soon became a fashionable rage in the public life of the period. From kings to courtiers to middle-class glovers like John Shakespeare, the urge to establish ancient, and often highly implausible, familial origins became all but an obsession. As I mentioned in the previous chapter, Elizabeth traced her lineage back to Eden, while, in the same vein, Maximilian peppered his genealogy with fabricated heirs from all the important ancient tribes, empires, heroes’ families, religions, and nations. For ordinary courtiers, much of the ferocious activity surrounding genealogical origin-hunting had very practical aims: if one could prove good blood, one’s chances of patronage improved exponentially. Heralds became arbiters of considerably more than archival veracity, and as a result many of them were suborned, which resulted in the production of outlandish genealogical records bearing the imprimatur of officialdom. Although scientific genealogy later helped to clear away some of these more outlandish claims, cultural genealogy reaped invaluable benefits from the fictitious lineages in establishing a myth of transcultural descent.