top of page
  • Writer's picturePatrick

From the Nobles to the Monkeys

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

In the classic family tree, families have immortalized themselves as they wanted to see each other. Now the classic family tree is about to die. Because of migration, changes in the name right or adoptions its principle of classifications are no longer suitable.

The man with the timeless short haircut is responsible for maintaining the pedigree of his time-honored Bernese family. If relatives die and new ones are born, the computer scientist complements the digital family charts. Recently he searched in a database for unknown relatives. What happened then, he does not forget so quickly: The family tree has literally exploded, he says, so numerous added the database new people. It took him an entire afternoon to 'clean' the tree.

This example is no exception: the classic family tree strikes the last hour. In online databases such as Familysearch and Facebook, genealogists are always looking for and finding new family members, who they list in growing data sheets. On the Gedmatch platform, they even identify distant relatives using DNA samples. And on Ancestry, even the genealogically inexperienced researcher hopes to be able to determine his genetic roots - also, from which region of the world and from which population he descends, whether he has Celtic, Germanic or Jewish ancestors or to which part he is of Indian origin.

The genealogy finds its way into wide-ranging affinities and mobile folk stories. It situates the individual in an infinitely growing structure, whereby the 16th century forms a threshold that can hardly be overcome, because before that time there were no parish registers documenting baptisms and marriages. Also, computationally one reaches borders: Who lives today would have around the year 1000, about 40 generations back calculated, billions of ancestors, thus much more, than residents at that time lived. In reality, distant relatives had children with each other, which reduces the number of real ancestors (so called pedigree collapse). Nevertheless, this quickly becomes unmanageable.

Part of the Mankind Family

The new databases shatter traditional genealogy. They turn this into the opposite of what they have been for centuries. If it used to exclude unwelcome relatives and to secure possession and domination, it leads them today - in the age of patchwork families and reproductive medicine - for integration. The individual becomes part of a great mankind family. With its digitally fed excesses, the pedigree loses its importance. As late as the 19th century, it consolidated local family identities. At that time, even simple bourgeois families drew artfully painted family trees, not only those of the Tschudi, the Stüssi and von Graffenried. Their copies, however, are particularly impressive. In the Basel State Archives, for example, the plans of the "Daig" families (local upper classes families), which are up to nine square meters in size, are neatly folded in drawers.

The pedigrees follow the principles of patriarchy and primogeniture: from the thick tree trunk, which bears the name of the forefather, grow laterally and upwards rejuvenating branches with many descendants. Only the male offspring of the first couple are listed, and the firstborn are listed first. One can read the pedigree as a phallic metaphor, which symbolizes the passing on of the sperm. The origin of the women admitted to the family, if they appear at all, remains invisible. Illegitimate, apostate, abusive descendants remain invisible, which one prefers to remain silent after having whispered about their scandals.

The traditional family tree did not reflect the reality of the family. Rather, it wanted to create reality. It made with the paternal names and bloodlines patriarchal regulatory policy by regulating the inheritance and succession. Such a family tree did historical misrepresentation. It put the family in the best light according to the principle: We are a particularly exemplary family, from which continuously successful offspring sprouts, all of them descended from exemplary ancestors.

Even in Republican Switzerland, almost free of aristocrats, people did not hesitate to get family crests adorned with chivalrous helmets and noble ancestors, which were knighted by a king in the Middle Ages - or even descended from him. So still in the veins of the common man, whose ancestors were artisans and farmers, blue blood flowed: how classy!

A play of ideas shows how arbitrary this kind of genealogy was: If, starting from the - ultimately arbitrarily set - ancestral pair of a family, through which it justifies its centuries-old origin, we would not follow the male, but consistent follow the female descendants, it would become a completely new family tree. The composition of the family would be different. And even if the illegitimate and their offspring were faithfully list according to the blood principle, the tree would soon grow wild.

The bourgeois pedigree designs the ideal, healthy family as the nucleus of the society. All the more beautiful it shines in front of its counterpart, which of course exists without floral decoration: Around 1900, psychiatrists meticulously record genealogies of degeneration that threaten the national body. Famous is the portrayal of a Yenish family (the so-called Zero family), which passes on their criminality and promiscuity, their alcoholism and their poverty from generation to generation.

The scientists were convinced that this was due to the moral depravity and the inferior genetic material of the ancestors. The remedy, however: one must stop the reproduction, cut the tree. The nation-state developed eugenic techniques for this: prohibition of marriage, sterilization, family dissolution. In place of the disenfranchised man was the official guardian, who took the women and children under his wing.

The basis of the traditional pedigree is the father-son connection. The motif already appears in the Bible. In the Middle Ages, the Jesse tree represented the descent of Christ from King David and his father Jesse. The family tree was established in the 15th century by the nobility. However, the nobility initially drove no clan and ancestry cult, but wanted to avoid kinship, so as not to fall under the incest prohibition of the church: marriages with descendants of common ancestors, who passed back seven generations, were prohibited. The kinship charts of the nobility were therefore centered on legitimate twosome relationships, not great genealogies.

Marriage becomes the sacred principle

At the beginning, the women were still present in genealogy. There are painted tree blossoms containing a man and two women - the two following wives - and even matriarch trees with strands growing from the mother's belly and breasts. In the Middle Ages and especially with the nobility, at least the wealthy woman held a stronger position than in the bourgeois modernity. "Family" included more diverse connections between people than just the married couple and their direct offspring. The Reformation then declared marriage to be the sacred principle to which all human should subordinate themselves, and the husband was declared the head of the family.

Now the pedigree is about to end. He can no longer cope with the changing family forms it has successfully hidden for a while. Already the changes in the name right saw at its roots, so if the man takes the name of the woman or the sons of those of the mother instead of the father. There are also patchwork families, same-sex parents, surrogate maternity, adoptions, transsexuality: all this is far too much for the pedigree. Neither the blood nor the name are more suitable as principles of classification.

In addition, the enthusiasm of the researchers is boundless. With the turn of the genre of population genetics, they reach far into the history of mankind, which thus becomes a history of migration. The family researchers have a choice: either they continue the pedigree according to the old patriarchal principles and thus move further away from the family realities, or they open it for the new family forms and thus lose the overview. In the long run, the pedigree will not survive. That makes it a bit more free. Consequently, the genealogists of today would have to land with the great apes: the ape as the first ancestor instead of the nobleman. At last, family history becomes human.

Source: NZZ am Sonntag, 30thJune 2019, Urs Hafner (free translation)

393 views0 comments


bottom of page