Anglo-Saxon Genealogies

Germanic pre-Christian ideas of ancestry wouldn’t necessarily be totally intuitive to a modern person looking back.

This is a favorite topic of mine. I rarely pass up a chance to point out others who agree with me. Here, Simon Roper.

The old, poetic genealogies handed down by our remote ancestors “were probably not completely reflective of genetic relationships in the same way as our modern idea of a family tree would be, so a lot of them seem to go back to a god like Woden, although post-Christianization the royal family trees were retroactively so that the god was somewhere in the middle of the tree rather than at the base. And in fact these genealogies seem to have reflected socio-political associations a bit more than they represented actual, real genetic descent as we would see it.

So, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that probably people coming from elsewhere and integrating into the local society could possibly be accommodated into that genealogy without actually having been a known blood relation of anybody in the group.

It’s clear that not being of genetically Anglo-Saxon ancestry did not preclude a person becoming a very active member of society with a lot of responsibility. So identity was rooted in descent but that descent was not necessarily strictly generation to generation genetic descent; that’s a very modern way of viewing it.

It’s broader than that, even. As an example well-known to historians, the genealogy of the Wessex kings descended from Cerdic seems to have been grafted on to the older and more prestigious genealogy of the kings of Bernica (Kenneth Sisam, “Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies”, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 39, pp. 287–348 (1953)).

These can be difficult concepts if you’re not used to them. I’m reminded of an old professor of mine who used to say, “Objectivity is nothing more than consensual subjectivity.” Powerful stuff. Think about that for a minute.

When we know there might be something to see, it’s not hard to find ways in our own culture where people see genealogical and cultural identity in different ways.

At a different point in this presentation Roper says, “Think of how many different ways people view their identity today – I know people who consider themselves British but have two natively Japanese parents, and people who consider themselves French despite not having had a French ancestor in more than a hundred years. Neither of these is an invalid way of viewing identity, but it goes to show that we cannot agree on what constitutes cultural heritage and identity nowadays. . . .

Our ancestors thought genealogy should reflect cultural relationships. We think genealogy is only true if it represents biological facts. We’re not talking across the generations about similar but different things. We can’t use their information for our purposes.

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