Reconstructing the Stemma


Plausibly reconstructing an ancient stemma diagram is necessarily a matter of educated guesswork, since we have nothing other than medieval documents and classical-era allusions as a guide. We assume from Isidore's definition that such diagrams branched or "ramified", because he used the term ramusculi, and as the Isidore page explains, he does not seem to have meant the spreading pathways through a matrix, but rather the branching pattern of twigs. These two types of diagram are compared in the illustration.

At left is a fictional family reconstruction. At right is an arbor consanguinatis which is based on Isidore's triangular matrix but slightly redrawn for greater clarity. The equivalent kinship terms in English are offered in place of Isidore's Latin terms. There is no direct evidence that Isidore, or the Roman jurists he quotes, drew the matrix with an apex as shown here, but the logic of the figure suggests it. The trapezoid form (without any apex), as found in the surviving manuscripts, is slightly harder to understand, though it is perhaps more economical. The paths through the trapezoid were not explicit, so openings have been cut into the redrawn matrix to make the chains of relationships clearer.

I argue on this website that Isidore knew of two diagrams: the true stemma, which he defines but does not illustrate, and the "scala" diagram, which he reproduces in the Etymologiae, but does not name. The information that the stemma was used by lawyers is an important clue for anyone seeking to reconstruct its appearance.

The content of the fictional family reconstruction drawn here is merely a suggestion as to what a lawyer in the Roman legal system might have needed to write down while interviewing a client. The "first person" of such a stemma would typically be someone who had just died, and the client would be someone seeking legal advice, or a judgement, as to whether he had a claim on that person's estate. The parentage of both would have had to be traced (only the male line is presented here), and each of the persons thus identified would have had to be marked as dead or living. Some persons would doubtless have been named in vain during the inquiry, since closer examination by the lawyer would bring the conclusion that they were outside the six degrees of kinship and therefore no longer legally "consanguine".

This fictional stemma has been deliberately drawn with the four dead persons at the far right arranged in an arc, rather than in a horizontal line. Many of the medieval genealogies we have seen suggest that more complex stemma only followed an axial pattern in a loose way, and indeed, a concern with keeping the arrangement strictly to two axes only does not seem to arise until the introduction of moveable type, where printers must arrange all of their letters and blocks above, below, at left or right, with little opportunity for diagonal placement. The earlier loose approach need not imply ignorance of the need to follow axial rules. It could simply indicate a more liberal notion of what was possible, in much the same way that early spelling does show an intelligent sense of how to convert sounds to text while not requiring any great consistency between any two writers. Strict spelling ordnances also arose after the invention of printing, though with a somewhat longer delay, at a time when it became insufferable for craftsmen typesetters, and editors, to spell one and the same word several different ways in the course of a working day. One supposes that a similar tolerance applied in the medieval period to the stemma.

Each node of the stemma has been surrounded here by a circle, since that seems to be the dominant pattern in the early medieval period, the time from which the earliest remaining evidence comes. We simply do not know whether literate Romans drew circles around these snippets of text, or placed them in flattened ovals which would have been more sensible, or left the text borderless. Arguments for and against are:

If the diagram at the left is indeed the stemma which Isidore describes as being drawn by lawyers, then a comparison with the scala at the right is instructive. It is a simple matter when debating legal succession to count the six degrees of consanguinity through the nodes of the stemma in any direction and to mark off persons who are disqualified, either because they are dead or because their degree of kinship to the owner of an estate is too distant. In the example, the person marked as "sole heir" is five degrees of kinship from the deceased. The sole heir's son is consanguine, but no longer alive. The sole heir's grandson is alive, but seven degrees removed, and therefore disqualified from the inheritance.

Recording any real-life family, in which only a selection of the possible kinship types occur, is also simple and efficient with the stemma notation, which can easily be adapted to the space available on the page. This would be extremely difficult to do in the space of a scala.

Firstly, the scala cells are not large enough to contain multiple people who belong to any one class. Secondly, the case research is bound to reveal persons who are one or more degrees outside of the scala, yet the scala offers no place to record them. It would be an inefficient working practice, and negligent in the face of a legal dispute, to simply exclude them from working notes. Thirdly, the scala only works as a complete entity. It must always be drawn as an entire structure, since its rigidity vanishes and the cells are no longer supported by their neighbours if the draughtsman only draws the cells of the real-case kin. Nowadays we use printed forms which may contain many unused fields, but in societies without printing, where scribes had to prepare every page anew, this would have been an uneconomic mode of working.

It might of course be argued that lawyers in ancient times recorded genealogies only in list form, which is adequate for linear father-son chains of ancestry of the type given in 1 Kings and 2 Kings of the Bible. However it is hard to believe this would have been the preferred practice with complex kinship webs ramifying out to second cousins, as used in the Roman-period law of succession of property. Given the persuasive evidence that educated people in late western antiquity used other stemma diagrams, such as the arbor porphyriana and the status causarum stemma - in a philosophical or legal context, there can be little doubt that an analagous figure would have been adopted by jurists too as a simple and intuitive means to map out kinship.

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