Genealogical Rolls: New Approaches & Opportunities
Late medieval European genealogical rolls are one of the most striking legacies of the 15th century. Their frequently colourful and striking appearance coupled with their distinctive layout and structure has led to their becoming a frequent feature of exhibitions. The British Library’s 2011 Genius of Illumination exhibition is only one such high profile recent example. It is, perhaps, no surprise that these items tend to capture the popular imagination. Genealogical rolls are, at their core, about something wholly familiar – family connections – while, at the same time, the information they contain is presented in a format that has become unfamiliar and unusual in the modern western world. And yet, until relatively recently, scholarship on late medieval genealogical rolls has remained remarkably limited. Traditionally, historians have focused their attention on more ‘straightforward’ chronicle sources. Why study a roll when, in most instances, the original chronicle on which it was based was available elsewhere, and often in a more complete form? The unusual format, decorative elements and, above all, the derivative nature of many rolls has often made these sources less than appealing. At the same time, for art historians rolls remain too much like ‘texts’ to be considered ‘objects’. And yet the last decade – and perhaps we might narrow that even further to the last 5-6 years – has seen historians turning to these sources with renewed interest.