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Learn to love your Latin
Family Tree

Learn to love your Latin

Posted Wednesday, September 7, 2016   |   2624 views   |   General Interest Get ready for a genealogical challenge well worth mastering... Dr Bruce Durie helpfully explains the key Latin words and phrases you’ll need to trace your ancestors even further back in time. You can do it!

Many genealogists find that they can easily access birth, marriage, death, parish and census records, but lots of family trees get stuck around the end of the 18th century. Fortunately, a rich seam of records – covering inheritance, land, tax and legal matters – is out there, and holds valuable clues to take your research back further.

Some of the records are in Latin – the formal language of legal documents in England and Wales until Lady Day (25 March), 1733, and it persisted in Scottish documents too, much later. But with perseverance, practice and some guidance, this needn’t be a barrier to filleting the genealogical information they contain.

Those who took Latin at school may remember enough to make sense of documents. But the classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar is 1,500 years and more adrift from the late medieval/early modern Latin of Church and legal documents. The main difference to bear in mind is new words created for specific purposes.

Some words, such as haeres (heir) patris (father) or in terris de (in the lands of) would make perfect sense to a Roman. But Scottish land-holding terms, for instance, such as in baronia (barony), dominio (lands) and feudifirmae (feu ferme = a legal land duty) would be meaningless.

There are various glossaries and formularies of old documents available. Formularies often contain translated examples of typical document types. Do get yourself a good Latin dictionary as well.


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For over 30 years, Family Tree has been helping amateurs and experts trace, research and discover the secrets behind their family history. In every issue, you’ll find practical step-by-step guides and helpful tips for researching your ancestry, with the aim of making the whole experience simple, interesting and fun!
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