Scope, Readership and Economy of Printed Genealogies in Early Modern Germany

Résumé de la communication prévue dans le cadre du colloque

L’entreprise généalogique, Paris, 27-28 novembre 2014



Volker Bauer (Wolfenbüttel)

Scope, Readership and Economy of Printed Genealogies in Early Modern Germany:

“Special Genealogien” vs. “Universal Genealogien”

From the 15th to the 18th century, countless printed works were published in the Holy Roman Empire that record princely kinship relations. They broadly fall into two distinct categories:

On the one hand, starting in 1491 with Ladislaus Sunthaim’s genealogy of the Austrian ruling houses of the Babenberger and the Habsburgs (Der löblichen fürsten vnd des lands österrich altharkomen), there is an enormous number of so-called „special genealogies“ (the term „Special Genealogien” was coined by 18th-century expert Johann Ehrenfried Zschackwitz in 1724), that dealt with a single ruling house. Normally the dynasty or court in question commissioned and financed these books, turning them into official genealogical self-descriptions.

On the other hand, starting in 1563 with Heinrich Zell’s Genealogia Insignium Europae Imperatorvm, Regvm, Principvm etc., ca. 80 “universal genealogies” were published (the term „Universal=Genealogien“ was used by the leading 18th-century genealogist Johann Hübner in 1729), which comprised the genealogies of several of the most important European or German dynasties and were very often simply compiled from existing special genealogies. These works were mostly produced by private publishing houses to be sold profitably on the book market.

Though both genres figure under the overall label of genealogies, they nevertheless are strikingly different:

Firstly, the special genealogies were exclusively directed to fellow members of the society of princes or of the diverse courts, to whom they were distributed directly by the houses issuing them, while universal genealogies were accessible to anyone who could afford them and were especially meant to be consulted by newspaper readers. Therefore, each belonged to a different type of public sphere.

Secondly, the authors of special genealogies generally had a lot of space at their disposal and could thoroughly and exhaustively describe the origin and development of the respective princely house, whereas the multitude of dynasties that had to be taken into account in the universal genealogies called for a strict selection of kinship data. Therefore the latter increasingly cut off the roots and earlier stages of the family histories and confined themselves to only considering the period from 1400 onwards or even to the currently living members.

Thirdly, since financial profit was not relevant in the case of the special genealogies, these books were very often lavishly designed and used extremely large formats and plenty of illustrations. The special genealogies, in contrast, were much more sober and in fact reduced in size continuously over the course of the 17th century, down to the octavo format as a standard.

Fourthly, in the end the diverging economic conditions also influenced the very tools of visualization used within these books: The special genealogies could resort to all contemporary techniques of graphic prints without financial restrictions and even include expensive copper engravings. Thus they employed e.g. mimetic images of trees upon which kinship data was projected (“Stammbäume”). Universal genealogies, however, could almost never apply this means and rather fell back on diagrammatic representations of kinship, such as “Stammtafeln”. There is in fact just one single universal genealogy published in Germany that actually operates with “Stammbäume” (Antonio Albizzis Principvm Christianorvm Stemmata from 1608).

Finally (and an admitted exaggeration) the different traits of both, the special as well as the univeral genealogies, hint at diametrically opposed functions: Like festival books and court calendars, special genealogies serve as printed instruments designed for the representation of monarchical power and dynastic rule with respect to fellow princes. At the same time, universal genealogies supplement the contemporary news media and in that capacity act as a prerequisite for the understanding of political and dynastic matters on the part of the subjects.


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