Cultural Genealogy

I’m in love with Raphael Falco’s Cultural Genealogy. It’s the book I wanted to write but never did.

Genealogists who work on ancient and early medieval genealogy often think it’s all pretty simple. There are chronicles that show the generations. Enter those in your software and you’re done. You have descents from Adam, King David, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and so on.

Tell these people there are problems with this simplistic approach and you’re likely to get lynched. That was an almost daily occurrence for me when I was spending my time working on Geni.com. The folks working there now seem to have arrived at an accommodation—fake lines are fine. It’s collaboration that matters, not accuracy.

Discussing the problems with ancient and medieval lines can be very weighty and academic, but it can also be relatively easy and straightforward.

It begins with a simple fact that most people learn in college history. Our European ancestors aren’t really the heirs of ancient Rome. Instead, we’re the heirs of the barbarian tribes, and only by adoption are we heirs of Rome and Greece.

Our Renaissance ancestors re-discovered ancient texts. The texts weren’t lost but they were largely marginalized. Their discovery led to a mania for Antiquity. It was fashionable. The experts translated texts and the rich paid for it. They studied the philosophy and law codes. They excavated old buildings and recovered ancient statues (that sold for small fortunes). They copied the art and architecture. The period we call the Renaissance was one huge recovery project.

And this is exactly the period when we first begin to see those texts that connect the nobility of the time to the early medieval history of the region, and those early leaders to the remnant families of the Roman empire. And this is the period when Europe’s royal families began to collect and publish stories that linked or seemed to link themselves to the royal families of antiquity; to the Romans and Trojans.

Where we can test the links, they don’t hold up. Instead, these genealogical texts seem to be aspirational. They gave a sense of connecting to the ancient past that was so fashionable. And they gave a sense of eternal authority to rulers. They were rulers because they were established by God and their ancestors have always ruled.

I’ve known people who refuse to accept the evidence. They hold firmly to the idea that there must have been an underground oral tradition that lasted for hundreds and even thousands of years, and just happened to be written down in the era of genealogical invention and fakery.

But most people, when they get over the surprise that these venerable old tests are just examples of our ancestors “putting on the dog”, have a good laugh about it.

Of course, everyone wants to know the stories. Knowing they’re fakes doesn’t detract a bit. It just changes things. Instead of being proof of our ancient lineage, now what we have are the stories our ancestors wanted to believe about their place in history.

Publisher’s Description

“Cultural Genealogy explores the popularization in the Renaissance of the still-pervasive myth that later cultures are the hereditary descendants of ancient or older cultures. The core of this myth is the widespread belief that a numinous charismatic power can be passed down unchanged, and in concrete forms, from earlier eras. Raphael Falco shows that such a process of descent is an impossible illusion in a knowledge-based culture. Anachronistic adoption of past values can only occur when these values are adapted and assimilated to the target culture. Without such transcultural adaptation-without this “lie of descent” strategically deployed to violate and suppress the boundaries of time-ancient values would appear as alien artifacts rather than as eternal truths. Scholars have long acknowledged the Renaissance borrowings from classical antiquity, but most studies of translatio studii or translatio imperii tacitly accept the early modern myth that there was a genuine translation of Greek and Roman cultural values from the ancient world to the “modern.” But as Falco demonstrates, this is patently not the case. The mastering of ancient languages and the rediscovery of lost texts has masked the fact that surprisingly little of ancient religious, ethical, or political ideology was retained — so little that it is crucial to ask why these myths of transcultural descent have not been recognized and interrogated. Through examples ranging from Petrarch to Columbus, Maffeo Vegio to the Habsburgs, Falco shows how the new techne of systematic genealogy facilitated the process of “remythicizing” the ancient authorities, utterly transforming Greek and Roman values and reforging them into the mold of contemporary needs. Chiefly a study of intellectual culture, Cultural Genealogy has ramifications reaching into all levels of society, both early modern and later.”–Provided by publisher.”

More Information

Introduction 1. The lie of descent 2. The technology of descent 3. The web of myths 4. Manufacturing discontinuity 5. Demythology and vertical time 6. The blood myth and the bee 7. Not so deep as genealogy 8. Epilogue: The privilege of myth

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