43. Why and what can we know about our German ancestors?

Posted on Facebook on 15 October 2017.

Nearly every day I am working at least half an hour on the pedigrees of the Weis(s)enborns and Wittenborns. I am sorting out the information I have found in the archives and clergyman's offices this summer and I am searching for additional information on the internet. As a result, the time span between 1600 and today is shrinking in my perception, to the point that 1600 becomes yesterday. Moreover the four centuries between 1200 and 1600 are coming alive for me. I think I owe this changing awareness of time to the concrete and verifiable knowledge of the name bearers who lived in these periods.

Why am I able to know who my ancestors were? Because there are books in which the data I am looking for have been recorded. Over time I have found out that this recording has started some 400 years ago and also that some of these unique books have been lost. Last month I found a more complete answer to the question why we can know our Weis(s)enborn and Wittenborn ancestors - who were common people originating from central Germany - in the Wikipedia entry for "Kirchenbuch". The English counterpart of this entry is not a translation. Its emphasis is on the parish registers in the English speaking countries. Several interesting details in the German entry have been left out in the English entry. The next paragraph contains a summary of these details.

The oldest exhortation in the German-speaking area to keep parish registers was given by the bishop of Konstanz, Friedrich III von Zollern, in 1435. The oldest surviving fragment of a parish register is from the 1490 baptism register of Basel. The Council of Trent in 1563 ordered the churches to keep baptism and marriage registers. In 1614 came the instruction to also keep a burial register, and rules on how to structure the baptism and marriage registers which still hadn't been introduced everywhere. In the areas where the Reformation took hold, parish registers were introduced from the start. This summer I consulted the baptism, marriage and burial registers of the St Blasius church in Mühlhausen. They start in 1568, 1542 and 1616, respectively.

Napoleon gradually invaded Germany from 1799 onwards. In the areas under his control - as in the Netherlands - he introduced his "Code Napoleon" which made the recording of birth, marriage and death a task of the state. In Germany this initiative was reversed after Napoleon's demise. The parish registers remained the only recording until 1876.

The above summary makes it clear why we have data about our ancestors from roughly 1600 to the present day. I am collecting, ordering and publishing the available data for all Weis(s)enborns and Wittenborns, so that every name bearer will know how he/she is related to his/her ancestors who lived around 1600. By turning the available data about all Weis(s)enborns and Wittenborns into pedigrees I am creating verifiable knowledge about the connection between the name bearers living in 1600 and us living today. I experience this as shrinkage of time: these name bearers have become a reality for me. They are part of my everyday world.

The time between 1200 and 1600 is coming more and more alive for me. I know now that between 1200 and 1350 some men - they were living in a much more male-dominated world than we do - took the name Weißenborn to identify themselves and their families. From then on this name has been passed on and on along the male lines of descendants, together with the Y-chromosome, in many respects an X-chromosome with a leg clipped off. The X-Y pair of chromosomes determines manhood, while the X-X pair determines womanhood.

On my webpage I have listed 25 male Weißenborns who were alive in or before 1618, and the location where they or their (grand-)children were living in the 100-year time span around 1618. These men, and an estimated 25-odd more, inherited their name from their earliest ancestor, who lived 300 to 400 years before them. The structure of the Y-chromosome of each of the 50-odd men is virtually identical to that of a male descendant along the exclusively male line in the present day, and can hence be determined. The slight difference, which can be quantified by comparison of the Y-chromosome structure of two such male descendants, is caused by spontaneous variations during production of sperm in each male on the line of descendancy.

The structure and the variation in the course of 400 years enable extrapolation back in time. Some (or all!) of the 50-odd men may be related in view of their virtually identical Y-chromosome structure. The number of spontaneous variations may indicate when their common ancestor was alive, if the statistics of such variations allows: how many spontaneous variations does every male ancestor contribute on average?

I have at present no clue about the cost and the complexity of the extrapolation using DNA which I have outlined above. It may become standard and cheap in the coming years, so that we can do it ourselves. It may also be ground-breaking research, in which case I will try to get a university interested. What we as Weißenborns and Wittenborns have going for us is that the population involved has a non-trivial size - about 10,000 persons - and is still tractable, at least for me.

At present the time before my first Weißenborn ancestor - so about 1200 - is hardly accessible for me. Will I live to see that change also?