Making Real Records – When Life Creates what we Research

I started this blog, oh, just over a couple of weeks ago, with the aim of writing something every day until I run out of things to say, which might take a while.  That was perhaps a little ambitious (I didn’t write anything yesterday, and it’ll be a good two weeks before my next post), but I’ve otherwise been pretty good at keeping at it. What I wasn’t expecting when I started was that Life would Get In The Way.  This happens, occasionally, with my genealogy research too, but only sporadically, and it’s easy enough to pick up where I left off.

In this case, a few days after I started the blog, my very agèd grandfather quite suddenly passed away. He was only a couple of weeks shy of 96, so at that age it wasn’t really a surprise.  The suddenness, on the other hand, was: as far as we knew, he’d been old but healthy.  Being a grandchild that lives on the other side of the world makes matters a little tricky, but with family back in Sweden to look after the funeral arrangements there’s only a few things left to do.

And they’re terrifying.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I rather enjoy flying (oddly) and popping back to Sweden is usually a pleasant experience. Logistically, I’m expecting nothing different.  But this time, I have to go through the probate process, and it’s a first for me.  I’m anxious because I don’t know what to expect, which is probably true for anyone.  And then I got to thinking what this would have been like for the people say, 100 years ago.

Suddenly, I understand how invasive it must have felt (and feel) for surviving widows to have their entire household and financial life laid bare to independent scrutiny. Not only that, but open for her wider family: all of a sudden weird cousin Torckel from over the hill could get the stickiest beak* of his life.  Accounting for every minute item and having it all valued down to the last Riksdaler must have been terribly confronting, especially for those whose first probate process it was. That’s bad enough, but then I dug deeper with my thought experiment.  I can read up on the legislation, take legal advice, and will understand everything (I hope!) that goes on during the process.  But how would Anna Pehrsdotter (from my previous post on probate records) have fared with this?  Placing yourself entirely into the hands of the judicial system without knowing what was to pass, and whether you would have a roof over your head after all debts were paid cannot have been an easy ordeal.

Edit: That said it is likely that Anna would have had plenty of experience with these matters before she was widowed (likely previous deaths in the family). And no doubt she’d know what was what in her household in terms of money. The process requires reporting of the inventory to a district court, but did not require legal council. -Thanks to Ingela Martenius for her insights into this.

The full process nevertheless casts the documents I’ve been treating so clinically in a different light.  Although the event of the death itself is sad, and grief no doubt plays a part in it, the probate records themselves are the product of a legally required process (assuming enough assets to report). This unyielding grinding of administrative cogs seeks to uncover and reveal areas of your most personal situation. It is not pleasant.

It won’t stop me from using probate records in my research, of course.  But it will make me stop and think about how those records were created and what they meant at the time. Rather than just opening up the past so that I can sticky my beak in for a snoop.


Bertil Lennermar, 1922-2018

* A “sticky beak” is an Australianism for sticking your nose in it or snooping in other people’s business.  Like going to open houses and looking around for the sake of it, rather than for the purpose of purchasing real estate.

The featured image shows a detail from Magnus Eriksson’s law book (about 1350:s) in a copy from ca. 1430. The image shows the beginning of Ärvdabalken, the part of the legislation dealing with inheritance.  Accessed 16 Oct 2018 from

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