By Daniel Hubbard | September 18, 2009
You may have run across a phrase something along the lines of “Genealogy without documentation is mythology.” It is a nice catchphrase and it certainly is out to make an important point but I must admit that I don’t care for it all that much.
First, I think our catchphrase is rather disparaging to myth. In an earlier post, I pondered the relation between the family stories we tell, the meaning they take on, and how both relate to myth (see Humans as Storytellers). To people like me who were force fed a hint of mythology in school, it should be said that myth for serious scholars is not the dusty details of the lives of those odd characters that made up the Greco-Roman pantheon. Ever since I stumbled upon the work of Joseph Campbell many years ago, I’ve had a great respect for myth. It is a universal human phenomenon that infuses the legends, folk tales and psyche’s of all mankind. Even some of our family stories take on some of these deeper implications of myth.
Today, when we think of the words “myth” and “mythology” we think of either a total fabrication of modern origin or a bizarre nonsense story told by the ancients. In reality, the oddities in myth are incidental. They are the mechanism by which deeper meaning is conveyed.
As a genealogist, I find that some stories that I dig up often grab me harder and harder the more I dig. Other stories might be interesting and well worth researching for many reasons but they fail to lock onto my mind the same way. I think at least part of the key is that the powerful stories are those that strike the deep symbolic cords of the mythic.
Myth is not something only related to the past. Campbell wrote of myth as a living breathing representation of our inner workings. In his conversations with Bill Moyers found in The Power of Myth, he referred several times to the mythic qualities of Star Wars. In fact, George Lucas drew upon Campbell’s book’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God as he was writing for his films. The time I’ve spent reading those three books and others by Campbell has been time very well spent.
Back to our catchphrase—is documentation enough to make a genealogy correct? Documentation, per se, is necessary but far from sufficient. Documents must give correct information to be a good basis for genealogy and often only further research shows that a document has problems. Useful documents can still be misleading when not properly analyzed and placed in context. A document’s history may give us reason to mistrust it.
A single document can also present a hodgepodge of trustworthy information and doubtful data. That is an important point. Once we get passed the history of the document as a whole, the history of every piece of recorded information may be different. A marriage record may give the date of marriage with a very high probability of being accurate but what about the ages of the bride and groom? Were they required to prove their ages? So, it is at the level of individual pieces of information extracted from documents, not the whole document that we need to concentrate. Analysis of our data needs to give a coherent picture. Simply using several documents doesn’t make our genealogy better if those documents turn out to violently disagree upon closer inspection.
In short, a better, though not so catchy, catchphrase could be “Genealogy without a single document is a figment and even with documentation can be a fabrication.”Twitter It!