Project Gutenburg Dealings with the Dead, Volume 2(of 2)
A Sexton of the Old School
"The ashes of the dead are ransacked, not only for hidden treasure, and for interesting relics, but there is a figurative species of raking and scratching, among them, in quest of one’s ancestors. This is, too frequently, a periculous experiment; for the searcher sometimes finds his progress—the pleasure of his employment, at least—rudely interrupted, by an offensive stump, which proves to be the relic of the whipping-post, or the gallows.
Neither the party himself, nor the world, trouble their heads, about a man’s ancestors, until he has distinguished himself, in some degree, or fancies that he has; for, while he is nobody, they are clearly nobody’s ancestors. In Note A, upon the article Touchet, vol. ix., fol. ed., Lond., 1739, Bayle remarks—“It is very common to fall into two extremes, with regard to those, whom Providence raises greatly above their former condition: some, by fabulous genealogies, procure them ancestors of the first quality; others reduce them to a rank, much below the true one.” This remark was amply illustrated, in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte: while some there were, who thought they could make out a clear descent from the prince of darkness, others were ready to accommodate him with the most illustrious ancestry. The Emperor of Austria had a fancy, for tracing Napoleon’s descent, from one of the petty sovereigns of Treviso; and a genealogist made a merit of proving him to be a descendant, from an ancient line of Gothic princes; to all this Napoleon sensibly replied, that he dated his patent of nobility, from the battle of Monte Notte. Cicero was of the same way of thinking, and prided himself, on being novus homo. Among the fragmenta, ascribed to him, there is a declamation against Sallust, published by Lemaire, in his edition of the Classics, though he believes it not to be Cicero’s; in which, sec. ii., are these words—Ego meis majoribus virtute mea præluxi; ut, si prius noti non fuerint, a me accipiant initium memoriæ suæ—By my virtue, I have shown forth before my ancestors; so, that if they were unknown before, they will receive the commencement of their notoriety from me. “I am no herald,” said Sydney, “to inquire of men’s pedigrees: it sufficeth for me if I know their virtues.”
Died 11th November 1821
Saint Mary - Heacham
© Godric Godricson
This species of literature is certainly coming into vogue. I have lately seen, in this city, a large duodecimo volume, recently printed, in which the genealogy of a worthy family, among us, is traced, through Oliver Cromwell, to Æneas, not Æneas Silvius, who flourished in the early part of the fifteenth century, and became Pope Pius II., but to Æneas, the King of the Latins. This royal descent is not through the second marriage with Lavinia; nor through the accidental relation, between Æneas and Dido—
Speluncam Dido dux et Trojanus eandem
but through the first marriage with the unfortunate Creusa, who was burnt to death, in the great Troy fire, which took place, according to the Parian Marbles, on the 23d of the month, Thargelion, i. e., 11th of June, 1184 years before Christ. Ascanius was certainly therefore the ancestor of this worthy family, the son of Æneas and Creusa; and the grandson of Anchises and Venus. Such a pedigree may satisfy a Welchman. I am forcibly reminded, by all this, of a very pleasant story, recounted by Horace Walpole, in a letter to Horace Mann: I refer to Letter CCV. in Lord Dover’s edition. In 1749, when Mirepoix was ambassador in England, there was a Monsieur de Levi, in his suite. This man was proud of his Jewish name, and really appeared to set no bounds to his genealogical gout. They considered the Virgin Mary a cousin of their house, and had a painting, in which she is represented, as saying to Monsieur Levi’s ancestor, who takes off his hat in her presence—“Couvrez vous, mon cousin:” to which he replies—“Non pas, ma très sainte cousine, je scai trop bien le respect que je vous dois.” The editor, Lord Dover, says, in a note, that there is said to have been another ridiculous picture, in that family, in which Noah is represented, going into the ark, carrying a small trunk under his arm, on which is written—“Papiers de la maison de Levis.”
Very few persons are calculated for the task of tracing genealogies; patience and discrimination should be united with a certain slowness of belief, and wariness of imposition. Two of a feather do not more readily consociate, than two of a name, and of the genealogical fancy, contrive to strike up a relationship. There are also greater obstacles in the way, than a want of the requisite talents, temper, and attainments:—“Alterations of sirnames,” says Camden, “which, in former ages, have been very common, have so obscured the truth of our pedigrees, that it will be no little labor to deduce many of them.” For myself, a plain, old-fashioned sexton, as I am, I am much better satisfied, with the simple and intelligible assurance of my Bible, that I am a child of Adam, than I could possibly be, with any genealogical proofs, that Anchises and Venus were my ancestors. However, there is no such thing as accounting for taste; and it is not unpleasant, I admit, to those of us, who still cherish some of our early, classical attachments, to know, that the blood of that ancient family is still preserved among us. No man is more inclined than I am, to perpetuate a sentiment of profound respect for the memory of worthy ancestors. Let us extract, from the contemplation of their virtues, a profitable stimulus, to prevent us from being weary in well-doing. By the laws of Confucius, a part of the duty, which children owed to their parents, consisted in worshipping them, when dead. I am inclined to believe, that this filial worship or reverence may be well bestowed, in the ascending line, on all, who have deserved it, and who are, bona fide, our grandfathers and grandmothers. It seems to me quite proper and convenient, to have a well-authenticated catalogue or list of one’s ancestors, as far back as possible; but let us exercise a sound discretion in this matter; and not run into absurdity. I am ready and willing to obey the laws of Confucius, as implicitly, as though I were a Chinaman, and reverence my ancestors; but I must, first, be well satisfied, as to their identity. I will never consent, because some professional genealogist has worked himself into a particular belief, to worship the man in the moon, for my great Proavus, nor Dido for my great, great grandmother.
Died 14th August 1943
Saint Mary - Heacham
© Godric Godricson
Domestic arboriculture is certainly getting into fashion, and a family tree is becoming quite essential to the self-complacency, at least, of many well-regulated families. The roots are found to push freely, in the superficial soil of family pride. Generally, these trees, to render them sightly, require to be pruned with a free hand; and the proprietor, when the crooked branches are skilfully removed, and all the small and imperfect fruit put entirely out of sight, may behold it, with heartfelt pleasure, and rejoice in the happy consciousness, that he is a Smink. If, however, these family matters, instead of being preserved, for private amusement, are to be multiplied, by the press, there will, indeed, in the words of the wise man, be no end of making books. Ancestors are relics, and nothing else. Whenever the demand for ancestors becomes brisk, and genealogy becomes a profession—it becomes a craft. Laboureur, the historian, in his Additions de Castelnau, tom. ii. p. 559, affords a specimen of genealogical trust-worthiness. “In 1560, Renatus of Sanzay built, with John le Feron, king at arms of France, a genealogy of the house of Sanzay, made up of near fifty descents, most of them enumerated, year by year; with the names, sirnames, and coats of arms of the women; whilst all those names, families, and arms were mere phantoms; brother Stephen of Lusignan, out of this mighty tub, as from a public fountain, let flow the nobility and blood of Lusignan to all persons, who desired any of it.”—Again, on page 320, Laboureur says—“They admitted, as true, all that was vented by certain false antiquaries and downright enthusiasts, such as John le Maire de Belges, Forcatel, a civilian, Stephen of Lusignan, and John le Feron, whom I will charge with nothing but credulity.” This, doubtless, is the stumbling block of most men, who engage in this semi-mythical employment.