Methodology: History versus Genealogy

A long time ago, I wrote a doctoral dissertation in history–never worked in the historical field after completing my degree, but completed it none the less.

How is a historian’s methodology different from a genealogist’s? As a case study, I decided to analyze how I would have written my history dissertation differently had I been using genealogical methodology.

The subject of my dissertation was William Gilbert (1544-1603), a physician of the Elizabethan period who wrote several treatises on natural philosophy, including De Magnete (On the Magnet). As a budding historian, I wanted to identify what in Gilbert’s origins or his education or the milieu in which he lived and worked resulted in his relatively novel view of magnets and magnetism.

My dissertation started with a short biography reviewing Gilbert’s parentage, education, and career. My conclusion was that Gilbert was not particularly “advanced,” “non-traditional,” or “modern” in his reading material or in his views relative to other university-educated professionals of his time.

The original source materials I used included many early printed books and some manuscripts–Gilbert’s own works, the works he cited (his source bibliography, as it were, which I recreated), and books he is known to have owned. My sources also included college and university records, wills, and estate inventories of other physicians educated at Cambridge and Oxford. (Was I a crypto-genealogist even when I was a history graduate student?) As a matter of methodology, I also provided a survey of historical and scientific books and articles about Gilbert.

What would I have done differently if I had been writing a genealogical dissertation? I would probably have focused more on Gilbert’s biography–taken a “life and times” approach rather than writing an intellectual history. I would have delved more deeply into Gilbert’s parents identities and lives in Colchester, hoping for parish and occupational records. I would likely have researched Gilbert’s classmates at St. John’s College, Cambridge, more thoroughly in original sources, and taken the same approach with his associates in London and at Queen Elizabeth’s court–both those who belonged to the Royal College of Physicians and those he mentioned in his works. (In the dissertation, I relied mostly on published historical accounts for the biographies of these individuals.) I might also have given more attention to investigating Gilbert’s London neighborhood (the area around St. Paul’s cathedral), looking for parish, civic, and occupational records, and to Queen Elizabeth’s household, itself a small city.

An interesting exercise–but I’m not going to rewrite the dissertation!

In case you’re interested, here’s the dissertation reference:
Gilbert as Scientist: the Portrait of a Renaissance Amateur (Brown University doctoral dissertation). Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1978.