When Vital Records Reveal More Than Genealogy – Thursday Thoughts

Births, deaths, marriages and more

Rabbi's signature and seal, Hungary, circa 1846. historytrace blog post about historical documents and vital records. Image copyright Hannah GillYou never quite know what you are going to get when you first look at a set of historical vital records?

You might be looking for your Jewish ancestors in civil birth, marriage and death registers written in the local language or the language of the state. Alternatively you may be consulting synagogal circumcision or naming records, marriage, burial registers, seat holder or tzedakah lists written additionally in Hebrew or Yiddish, Ladino or Portuguese. If you have an ethnically or religiously mixed family background you may also be looking at baptismal or other church records in Latin.

There are always lots of unknowns before you begin.

  • Will I find the person I am looking for?
  • How many entries will I need to look at before I find something of interest?
  • Will I be able to decipher the handwriting?
  • Will there be annoying gaps in the records?
  • What language might the records be written in?

There is always trepidation too, but a few minutes and pages later, you’ve got your eye in, and the format has become more familiar, the handwriting less obtuse and you can settle down for the long haul.

It is always an amazement when you do turn a page and find the person you are searching for.

Sometimes you know exactly what the information will be when you find it, at other times it is a complete surprise, perhaps answering long-held questions or resulting in further genealogical puzzles.

Certainly you hope to find your ancestors in the records, but you may also learn a lot about the community in which they lived and within which their life events were recorded.

Scrawls, flourishes, marginalia and national politics

But these kinds of historical documents also shed light on the personality of author of the words you read, the authority which presided over the records, the politics of the region and period, and the linguistic patchwork of the environs.

You might encounter the almost incomprehensible scrawler who clearly gave no thought to future readers and anachronistically avoided the use of surnames. There might be the Rabbi’s effusive authority sprawled across the page adorned with seals. The scribe who unfortunately liked to abbreviate surnames or even the curate who defiantly eschewed Church Latin for the language of the locals, even though the authorities in the region had some years ago changed to the language of the most recent conqueror. And then there is the unexpected marginalia: smiley faces, radiant suns and elaborate doodles.

Every historical document has its own historical story to tell, even the very documents that illuminate our ancestors’ lives. 21st century digitally submitted forms will seem very bland, if easier to decode for future genealogists, so long as they are not simply deleted along the way…

Hannah Gill, historytrace, 14/07/2016

Historytrace can help you to discover your family’s places of origin right across Europe. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family history on a deeper level.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Lost Voices – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: Hannah Gill.

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