1. Your oldest document

    This post is by Wayne Shepheard.
    What is the oldest document you have found for an ancestor? Do you have a picture or image copy of it?
    Church registers are among the most common sources for information. They are also among the most desirable as they are primary sources for birth, marriage and death dates, the building blocks for genealogical research. But many church records don’t reach back even to the 16th century, due to a lack of preservation or, in some instances, because they were never created.
    Vital records appear to have been kept in most regions from the early 16th century onward, with a few local exceptions:

    • England – parish registers mandated in 1538 at the time of the Reformation; only a few Roman Catholic parishes have vital data from before this date, mainly for only prominent families


    • France – civil legislation mandated registers be kept from 1539; oldest have been found in Givry Parish from 1334.


    • Germany – Protestant records from 1524, St. Sebald in Nürnberg; most reform churches kept records from 1650


    • Italy – mandatory from 1563 onward; oldest in Gemona del Friuli from 1379


    • Scotland – requirement for records of baptisms and marriages from 1552; most areas date from much later


    • Sweden – some parish registers date to 1620s; churches were ordered to record detailed books from 1686

    One might well ask why it took that long before authorities across Europe demanded the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Perhaps it was to do with governing bodies wishing to keep new and more accurate lists for tax purposes.
    Genealogists may also find names of their ancestors, not necessarily with correct, or any surnames, hand-written in manorial or property documents. Other sources might be court records, both civil and criminal.
    A tremendous upheaval in European population occurred following outbreaks of the Black Death of the mid-14th century resulting in the displacement or migration of great numbers of people. Connections to their origins may well have been lost with the mass movement of these working class people. Genealogists today would have great difficulty in tracing these families back further than the 15th or 16th centuries.
    So the vast majority of us, who descend from regular people, will find difficulty in tracing our full family history. This may be one reason why so many family histories end up with Charlemagne in their tree.
    In my search for the oldest genealogical-related record, I found a reference to a marriage in 449 BC interpreted from the Elphantine papyri, part of 175 documents found in Egypt in 1893. The record appears to be a formal recognition of the marriage between a Jewish temple officer, Ananiah, and Tamut, an Egyptian slave (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephantine_papyri#/media/File:Aramaic._Marriage_Document,_July_3,_449_B.C.E..jpg).
    Marriage Document of Ananiah and Tamut, July 3, 449 BCE, Brooklyn Museum
    The oldest record image for family members in my own library does not quite go so far back! It is for the 1603 baptism of an 8th great-grandaunt, Marie Sheppeard, in Plympton St. Mary parish, Devon. At least I am pretty confident she was related. The existing parish register only begins in 1602 so unfortunately just misses the baptism of my 8th great-grandfather, Nicholas Shepheard, which I believe took place in 1601. I do have a copy of the record of his marriage to Margerit Lee in the same parish in 1630, the baptisms of two of their children in 1633 and 1638, and his will, made in 1657.
    It is very important to actually see original or copies of original documents. Too often transcriptions and indexes misstate information. Getting back before 1600 is a challenge, though.
    What is the very oldest record you have found for which you have seen a copy of the actual document? How did you come across it?
    About the Author
    Wayne is a past student of Pharos, having attained a certificate (with distinction) in Family History Skills & Strategies (Intermediate). He is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. Wayne has his own blogsite, Discover Genealogy, in which he relates his experiences as a family historian.

    2 thoughts on “Your oldest document

    1. jaygen2014

      I agree it’s so important to see the original document (or image). As I’ve mentioned before, what appeared to be a second marriage for my great, great, great grandparents on Ancestry, was actually a list of banns which were crossed out – possibly indicating that the marriages didn’t take place in that parish after all. So the mystery of why they seemed to have married twice was solved.
      Typing their names into google, led me to a digitised book of the Court rolls of the Manor of Acomb near York. They actually lived in Bury, Lancashire, but they had relatives in Acomb and had inherited land there. I was able to send for a transcription of the Court rolls of the Manor of Acomb which led to me finding even more ancestors. They were also very helpful in sorting out family relationships! I found that their were several of my families in those court records, but the earliest record mentioning an ancestor was on Saturday, 25 Apr 1620 which stated that Richard Plaister owed suit to the court but defaulted and was fined. So, although I haven’t seen the original court records I know their names are on those court rolls somewhere!
      Strangely enough, one of my family lines has led me as far back as Charlemagne, but the oldest document I have is the will of Thomas Barton dated 1508, and the oldest parish register (image) I have is the burial of Anne Barton in 1571 at St Peter, Prestbury. Old documents fascinate me – I’m just so amazed how long they’ve survived and how much information they reveal!

    2. helenosborn

      I also have a line or two back to Charlemagne. I was racking my brains to think what is the oldest document I actually have a copy of in my possession (as opposed to just knowing it is in an archive). I have a 15th century will for a client who interestingly enough is descended from agricultural labourers right the way back to the 17th century, when they had property of their own. I can’t connect him to the family in the will, but the surname is very rare and I feel there must be a connection as yet undiscovered.
      On my own family, I think the oldest document must also be a will, I have quite a few 16th century probate documents, from the time of Queen Elizabeth in my main area of research on the Beachcrofts. I went through a stage when I avidly collected every PCC will I could find relating to some pretty distant ancestors. I have the 1495 will of Sir Ralph Hastings who is my 13th great grandfather, but I can’t say I really identify with links that far back. Nor do I remember what is in the will!
      I think, in summary that probate documents are the most likely to have survived and it is good to remember that they don’t just relate to lords and ladies but some pretty ordinary husbandmen and yeomen too. I know that doesn’t help you with Devon ancestors Wayne because of the destruction of the Exeter probate registry during WWII.


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