Method Genealogy: Standing in Your Ancestors’ Footsteps 5

We are probably all familiar with the concept of Method Acting, where the actor attempts to fully identify with a part by living as their character lived or sharing experiences but method genealogy? As diligent family historians, it is something that we should all be practicing. We need our ancestors to be as fully rounded as possible, to lift them from the two-dimensional pedigree and to understand what their lives would have been like. When I wrote my book Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs, about seventeenth century social history, I said, “Our seventeenth century ancestors may be people that we can identify, or they may be lurking, nameless, waiting to be discovered. In either case they existed, therefore we owe it to them to find out more about their way of life.” The same is equally true of more recent inhabitants of our family tree.

I have just discovered this beautiful photograph of a member of a family that I am researching. It isn’t actually my own ancestry but she will one day I hope be part of a novel based on incidents in her family’s life, so this could be my cover photo. She has bare feet. She lived on a cobbled street. What is it like to walk that street barefoot? I don’t know but I need to. Ok, I’ll be honest, I’m probably going to wait for better weather but I will be trying this. Part of my life is spent as an historical interpreter, so I do get to dress in the costume of my ancestors. Have you any idea how difficult it is to go upstairs in a full length skirt, especially when you are carrying something? What about household tasks? That bucket you need to fetch from the well could weigh four stone (30kg), oh and you probably need eight bucketfuls of water a day. What is a home like without electricity? I get to try this in my 400 year old cottage when our power fails.

Reality television has often attempted to get people to turn back time. In some cases they go back to their centrally heated homes and twenty-first century luxuries every night. Even if it is a more sustained experiment the participants know it is only temporary but such experiences are the closest we may get to the lives of our ancestors. We probably won’t get to be on TV but we can still try things out for ourselves. What is it like to carve a homestead from virgin forest, to clear, to plough, to plant and to hope for an eventual harvest? We might have trouble trying to find virgin forest to clear but what is it like to chop wood with an axe rather than a chain saw? A few years ago, I was privileged to take part in a project to reconstruct homes from the Neolithic period. Many questions were posed. What was the most effective way of roofing the building? How labour intensive were the alternative methods of constructing the walls? Although none of us will be tracing our families back to Neolithic times, the principle remains. We should aim to have some conception of the processes involved in what would have been essential tasks in the past.

If we are physically capable, we need to enter the realms of experimental archaeology to find out what was involved in the occupations of our ancestors. If we know that they walked a certain route to school, to work or to migrate, then can we walk it too (if only virtually with the aid of Google Earth)? What was the terrain like? What marks on the natural or built landscape may they have passed? Family History is not just about amassing the largest family tree in the world it is about getting under the skin of those we have discovered and doing the best we can to gain an insight into their ways of life.

About Janet Few

Janet Few is an experienced family, social and community historian who writes and lectures regularly on these subjects throughout the English speaking world. She is well known for her appearances as her alter ego ‘Mistress Agnes’ who aids Janet’s work as an historical interpreter. Janet is the manager of Swords and Spindles, a company providing living history presentations for history groups and schools. For further information see

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