Putting It in Context RYO #11

Historical Contextualisation for Jewish Family History Researchphoto of a clock in Novara, Italy. Blogpost "Putting It in Context" of time and place, RYO #10, historical contextualisation for Jewish family history research.

This blogpost explores how historical contextualisation can help you develop your Jewish family history research to understand more about your ancestors’ lives within the context of the time and place in which they once lived.

In our previous blogpost Those Old Things RYO #10 – Historical Artefacts and Jewish Family History Research we explored how historical artefacts, inherited heirlooms, old documents and photographs help to build up a rich picture of your Jewish family ancestry.

Historical Contextualisation – The Background

So you have some historical facts about your ancestors. You have trawled the historical sources and found out the details of an ancestor’s life, illuminating aspects such as their parentage, birth, siblings, marriage, offspring, occupation, residences, migration and death. You may even have photographs or portraits of your ancestors, and possess artefacts, documents or letters which they themselves owned or penned.

However the information you have may be sparse and the further back through your ancestral generations you go quite often the range of information you have about an individual decreases. This can be due in part to the effects of the passage of time and historical changes which have impacted how historical sources have been preserved. Therefore where you are researching distant ancestors or even recent relatives for whom vital and life experience data is limited, you will need to find other windows upon their lives.

Gathering historical information about the period and location in which they lived brings multi-layered contextualisation. It provides a crucial way to give background to their lives, bringing to life the bare facts you may have. Particularly where ancestors relocated within a particular country or moved between countries, exploring historical contextualisation can offer multiple perspectives on the various stages of their lives.

The historical sources which can deliver contextualising information will vary from place to place, according to the country and dependent on the relevant time frame. You may be able to glean information from many relevant sources online, from genealogical and government generated data, alternatively from printed publications, historic maps, photographs and postcards.


The first area in which to historically contextualise your ancestor’s life story is perhaps the location in which they lived during different stages of their life. The idea of exploring location encompasses many levels, from the personal level to the national level. Investigate the locality where your ancestor resided, look at the city, town, village or rural area, and on the micro level study the street and property where they were resident.

On the wider level look at the country and specifically the region in which they lived. Find out about the nationality of that region and the ethnic makeup of its society. In what country did your ancestor’s home belong at the time they lived there? Was this the same during preceding and subsequent generations? Look at maps of the region, where were national and inter-regional boundaries, did they alter during your ancestor’s lifetime and what were the dominant conurbations in the region?


A significant feature of exploring location for historical contextualisation is to look at the geography of an area. Of particular use here are historic maps and town or city street plans. For example what defining geographical features were present in your ancestor’s home landscape or townscape? What influence did the surrounding terrain have on the population, how did it shape livelihoods and what were residents’ experiences of the seasons in that location? What were the dominant networks in the area which shaped society and commerce and what influence did transport and trade links have? Within an urban setting how did the environs evolve over time and did the built environment change, through fire, war or redevelopment. Were streets renamed and buildings demolished or does the urban landscape still exist as it did at the time your ancestor was in residence?


Individuals are shaped by their surroundings and no less by the people in them. It is worth exploring what form community life took in your ancestor’s time? Did your forebear belong to an identifiable Jewish community? What was the history and key events of that community at both the time and in the preceding decades and centuries. For example if you are looking at a specific synagogue community what was its orientation and what connections did it have with other nearby communities? What infrastructure did the community support in terms of study institutions, health care and societies.

Was there a mix of nationalities, ethnicities, faith groups and common language users present in their immediate surroundings? What language or languages would your ancestor have spoken? Was this the same for all residents in that place? Did this change over time and what were the national-political influences on this process? What was the population size of the place where they lived and what kind of infrastructure served the local populace in terms of public services? What were the prominent industries and trades in the area? What shaped local public discourse, were there distinct political or social strata which dominated local public life?

Look too at the specific context of your ancestral family, was there a sizeable group of relatives living in that settlement? How many generations were present and how long had the family been settled in that place? What family contacts were there elsewhere in the region and beyond? Was this the case for other unrelated families also?

Time Period

Another significant aspect which contextualises your ancestors’ lives is the time period during which they were alive. Finding out about the history of the century and surrounding decades can shed light on what shaped and influenced their lives. How many decades did your ancestor live through and what were the significant changes they witnessed during the course of their lives? Gather information about the history of those places and significant historical events in the region during the period in question. What about the development of settlements and the establishment of Jewish communities as well as the movement of people to and from that area? During that period what were the determining national and political factors and what effect did state policies have on civil rights, economy and social welfare? What were the dominant movements within society and what defined the era for those that lived through it?

Life Experiences

The most immediate context of your ancestors’ lives is their family setting and the personal and private background to their life experiences. From birth to death this will encompass many aspects to be explored: around birth, naming and records of birth rites, from schooling to university or occupational training such as apprenticeships, professional life and employment including commercial activities and business ownership. Within family life events around betrothal and marriage, civil or faith community weddings and divorce. Regarding civil status, records of nationality, naturalisation and civil rights. Official and public records such as taxation records, bankruptcy, property and land records, hospital and police, court and prison records. Public references and announcements in newspapers and other publications such as donation lists. Personal movement including relocation and migration between regions and countries can be explored, as can family migration patterns which might mirror those of other migrants from the home region or show distinct differences. Travel records show movements through flight manifests and ships’ records, with ships’ images, captain information and ports of call. Are there military conscription and service records, and documentation regarding major historical events such as conflict, persecution and displacement. Aspects related to death, burial, wills and probate can shed light on religious affiliations and family relations.

The benefit of historical contextualisation is a much richer picture of the life and times of your ancestors. It can shed light on the facts of their lives but also on what shaped the course of their lives. What was under their control and what was not. It can help to unpick the motivation for their actions and choices. It can uncover the background to events which influenced their lives positively and it can help piece together the circumstances of difficult times and events beyond their control which cataclysmically affected family life. Putting their lives in context can often deliver insights which can lead to new sources of information. It can even help overcome brick walls in family history research and contextualising can spark lateral thoughts as well as ideas outside the box which can take you forward in your exploration and knowledge of your family ancestry.

Ed., historytrace, 11/01/2016

Historytrace can help you to explore the historical contextualisation of your family history, to understand more about your ancestors’ lives within the context of the time and place where they once lived Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family artefacts.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Putting It in Context RYO #11 Historical Contextualisation for Jewish Family History Research”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2015; copyright image: freeimages.com / Rodolfo Belloli.

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