The Beginnings


The text diagram which we often call a "family tree" or "inverted tree" is so common nowadays that we can scarcely conceive of a time when civilized people did not know of it. We not only use it to represent our own family descents but also the breeding pedigrees of animals, the evolution of life forms and the folders and files in computers (the "file tree"). In some of this diagram's modern uses we dispense with the term "tree": we draw hierarchies within government and business as "organization charts" and logical analysis as "flow charts." But in arrangement and rules, those charts are merely "trees" in another guise.

A survey of the origins of this pattern of recording written information reveals that it was already old when printing began.[*]I would like to thank Constant Mews for suggesting improvements, explaining to me some of the Latin and offering much background. Thanks are also owing to Nathaniel Taylor for his initial advice, to Giulia Orofino for giving her blessing to links to her Cassiodorus pages, to Michael Gorman for sharing a large bibliography, and to Andrew Millard for his continuing help in finding literature. None of them are in any way to blame if my observations or conclusions are faulty. Medieval works of art, often thought to be the inspiration of the "tree" motif, turn out to be derivative of something older still. The ancient documents have not survived, but there is compelling evidence that the medieval period did not invent hierarchical assemblies of information in root-and-branch patterns, but learned this method from ancient examples. Early medieval copies of the writings of antiquity offer some witnesses to the layout of such diagrams and to the variety of uses to which they could be put, and will be explored over the pages to come.

A key medieval use of these diagrams was in logic and science, to demonstrate relationships between higher-order and lower-order concepts. Teachers needed, for example, a graphic way to show that the study of rhetoric was one of the seven liberal arts, or to demonstrate the ways in which humankind is an adjunct of all earthly biological life. At times, this hierarchical notion of reality, so easily drawn, with God as its ultimate source, blinded scholars to other ontologies which are also useful but not as easy to depict.

The first evidence that the diagrams were used to represent histories of families comes from the 7th century, when the author Isidore says family charts had been in use among Roman lawyers. However it would be a mistake to suppose that this practice was a forerunner of our 21st-century interest in genealogy as a collecting pastime, just as it would be false to anachronistically project feudal attitudes to family power and property back to that earlier era. For Roman lawyers, exploring parentage would not need to have been anything more than a method to resolve citizenship issues, impediments to marriage and distributions of assets among heirs.

A fashion for genealogy does appears to have risen for a time within the elite in Rome during the republican era and then to have ebbed away. Various authors write of patrician family histories or stemmata being displayed as arrays of ancestral portraits or imagines on walls in the entrances of homes. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber suggests in her art-historical account of the family tree motif that the imagines were connected to one another by coloured linnea or cloth ribbons.[*]Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. L'ombre des ancêtres. Paris: Fayard, 2000.

The Latin term stemma is a loanword from the Greek where the original meaning was garland, and Latinists suggest a garlanded wall or niche where the imagines were displayed provides the literal origin of the term stemma's later figurative meaning of "a genealogy". More detail on my Latin page.

Klapisch-Zuber suggests that the genealogical metaphor of "descent" may derive from the practice of the long-dead children being displayed lower than the imagines of parents, with a family founder occupying the highest position on the wall.

While this might conceivably be correct for the presentation of family history as a feature of Roman home decoration, it does not help to elucidate whether there was any corresponding stemma figure that could be written on papyrus or parchment remains open to question. Klapisch-Zuber's is sceptical about this, but I think there are some signs that a simple stemma diagram had evolved by Late Antiquity.

The account of a stemma by Isidore appears to indicate that a lawyer or historian would have taken notes of family relationships on a wax tablet or more permanently on a written page using diagram notation.

We have no evidence that such diagrams were used in ancient times as organization charts to depict chains of command within government or military organizations. Simple tabulations into lists and sub-lists, as in the extant late medieval copies of the Notitia Dignitatum of about 400 AD, were perhaps adequate for that purpose. [*]This issue has not been finally settled. The link here leads to Ingo Meier's Compilation Notitia Dignitatum pages, where we hope to see more information about the Late Antique layout of the data, and to one of the codices in Munich.

As we will see, a similar notation was certainly used in philosophy and the classroom in late antiquity, though is it uncertain what general term the Greeks and Romans might have used for a figurative sketch of nodes and branching lines. For want of any corroborated name, the modern scholar Karl-August Wirth [*]Wirth, Karl-August. "Von mittelalterlichen Bildern und Lehrfiguren im Dienste der Schule und des Unterrichts." Studien zum städischen Bildungswesen des späten Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit, eds. Bernd Moeller, Hans Patze and Karl Stackmann, pp. 256-370. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983. calls the type as a whole the stemma.

Following Wirth's example, the term stemma will be used as a general term for any root-and-branch diagram in the rest of this history. It is a more neutral term than "tree", and indeed, it seems unlikely that the ancient label for the diagram could ever have been arbor (tree), a term which rose to prominence in the medieval period and spawned centuries of obsession with curing the imagined deficit in orientation of the "inverted tree" diagram with its "root" in the sky.

Any practicable stemma has its root at the top or the left where one begins to write, not the bottom, and ramifies down and across until the diagram has reached its full expansion, allowing the writer to then resume with the text. This orientation is not an "inverted" one, but the natural form for a stemma in any writing system where the pen is first set at the top of a page. Indeed, the arbor, rooted in the "earth" and reaching to the heavens as a religious motif, must have arisen as an adaptation - and inversion - of the older stemma. The term "inverted tree" for a stemma is thus a curious misnomer. In truth, the tree motif was devised by inverting its predecessor, the stemma.

It may have been that students in antiquity were told to imagine the stemma figure as being like a vine, which readily grows downwards or sideways, but it seems most likely that the stemma diagram was simply understood as being a sort of topographical map, where the nodes were not imagined as leaves, but as places, and the flow lines were not perceived as sticks, but as paths.

The fact that the paths of a stemma "branch" out need not refer to the growth form of vines or trees, but to the pattern of roads and waterways which fork towards different destinations, an idea derived at one remove of figurative speech from the botanical model. Sadly, much has been lost, and we can only dimly perceive these far-off origins of a mental construct which has become indispensable to modern times.

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