Tag Archives: 19th century

Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?


Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses cultural labels and personal identity, and explores the ethnic history of northern Italy. Article 3 of 4 on DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity’.

In the first two articles in this 4-article series on DNA tests, we focussed on the more technical aspects of genetics, and how it relates to genealogy. If you missed those articles, you can catch up by clicking on the links below.

ARTICLE 1: In which we examined (TOPIC 1) the different kinds of DNA tests and (TOPIC 2) some basics about autosomal DNA.

MORE READING:   DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

ARTICLE 2: In which we discussed (TOPIC 3) how DNA tests can often point us in a direction, but (usually) cannot give us specific answers about our ancestry or blood relations.

MORE READING:   Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

In today’s article, we’ll be shifting focus slightly as we explore:

  • TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World
  • TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

While the subject of cultural identity might at first seem a bit off the topic of DNA tests, I believe we cannot clearly understand the findings of any DNA test without first examining who we BELIEVE we are. And, as what we think we are and can sometimes conflict with what other people think we are, knowing more about our historic and ethnic background is also crucial to being able to make sense of what we might receive from DNA testing companies.

In today’s article, I will also address the moral responsibility DNA testing companies have in putting ‘labels’ on different ethnic groups. Just HOW those DNA companies decide what to ‘label’ us will be the subject of the fourth and final article in this series.

TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

Nationality vs. Local Identity

For anyone of northern Italian descent, the whole notion of what it means to be ‘Italian’ is challenging, from both a cultural and historical perspective.

‘Italy’ as we know it today was comprised of independent pockets of cultures, republics and city-states for a lot longer than it was ever called ‘Italy’. The regions of Liguria, Lombardia, Veneto and Piemonte were not integrated into the emerging nation called ‘Italy’ until the second half of the 19th century. And the region of Trentino-Alto Adige – comprised of the two provinces of Trentino (AKA Trento) and Alto-Adige (AKA Bolzano or Bozen) was not officially integrated into Italy until 1919*, at the end of World War 1. The people of Trentino, the southern province of that region, are predominantly Italian-speaking (albeit there are many regional dialects), while the people in the province of Alto Adige are predominantly German-speaking (although most will also speak Italian today).

* Emperor Charles I of Austria relinquished his control on 11 November 1918 (what we English speakers refer to as ‘Armistice Day’), upon which Italian forces moved into Trentino-Alto Adige, but the official treaty of Saint-Germain was signed on 10 September 1919.

While independent from one another, most of these northern states were under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire for about 1,000 years, since the time of Charlemagne (ca. 800 AD). Then, after a very brief period roughly between 1790-1814 when Napoleon was busy stirring things up, these states came back under the control of the Austrian and (later) Austro-Hungarian Empires. These empires, by whatever label, were dominated by the royal Hapsburg family for many centuries.

All the regions of modern Italy have rich cultural histories that long predate the idea of a unified nation. Pick up any book on European history and you will read about the power, importance and influence of northern Italian cities – all independent – such as Genova (Genoa), Milano (Milan), Mantova (Mantua), Venezia (Venice), Verona and Padova (Padua). Even Shakespeare used many of these northern cities as the settings for his plays.

But amongst the northern provinces, Trentino, Bolzano and parts of Lombardia were somewhat different. These provinces were known as a ‘bishoprics’ (vescovile), and each was ruled by a ‘Prince Bishop’ (Principe Vescovo) until the Napoleonic era when the government was secularised. During the reign of Prince Bishop Cristoforo Madruzzo, the famous ‘Council of Trent’ (Concilio di Trento) took place in the city of Trento in the mid-1500s.

The office of the Prince Bishop was exactly what it sounds like: he was BOTH royalty AND an ordained bishop of the Catholic church. As a priest, the Bishop could not pass on his property and title to his children (as he was supposed to be celibate and childless), but we frequently see power passing from an uncle to one of his nephews, thus creating dynasties of bishops throughout history. As royalty, the Prince-Bishop was – just as the Emperor was – able to confer titles of nobility to outstanding citizens in his bishopric. Many of my own Trentino ancestors were ennobled by Prince Bishops. Such titles helped strengthen ties of loyalty between the state, the church and its people. It also helped to forge a sense of pride in – and identification with – the greater area known as ‘Trento’.

In addition, the people of Trentino (especially in rural areas) have always had their own localised cultural identities. For example, people typically think of themselves as belonging to a particular valley (Val di Non, Val di Sole, Val Giudicarie, etc.). These valleys, delineated by the glacial mountains, lakes and rivers of Trentino’s breath-taking natural terrain, embraced pockets of rural communities who spoke local dialects and had surnames often specific to a relatively tiny geographic area. In other words, it wasn’t just the bishopric creating a sense of cultural identity, but the land itself.

Given such history and geography, it is unsurprising that the people of Trentino and other provinces in northern Italy did NOT unilaterally adopt a new cultural identity of ‘being Italian’ when national boundaries and governments changed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today, many still think reject the ‘label’. Others accept it, but nearly all still tend to identify more strongly with their local culture than with their ‘nationality’. You cannot simply wipe out millennia of local, cultural identity by slapping a new label on it. This is not just true of Italy, but of ALL modern countries, everywhere on the planet.

Unfortunately, the ‘labels’ people receive from DNA tests don’t make things any easier; we’ll come back to this point later in Article 4 of this series.

The Fragile Identity of Youth

When I was 14 (now 50 years ago!), I was invited to a birthday party for one of my male classmates. Now this boy (let’s just call him ‘B’) was arguably the handsomest in our class, and I had had the fiercest crush on him for more than a year. And to be honest, I am pretty sure B had felt some puppy love for me too.

The party was in the basement at B’s house (on Long Island, where I grew up, nearly all of us had finished basements, and these were perfect party places). When the party was over, I was coming up the stairs to go home, and was greeted by B’s father.

Being the 1960s, I always dressed in the ‘mod’ fashion of the times, which meant mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, go-go boots and love beads. And, I had a head of very long, straight, dark brown hair.

As I got to the top of the stairs, B’s father decided to tease me, asking, ‘How do you get that long hair of yours so shiny, Lynn?’

My heart fluttered a bit, because B’s father obviously knew who I was, and I suspected his son had mentioned me as someone he liked.

I replied, ‘Easy. I rinse it with vinegar after I wash it.’ (Believe it or not, that was a common practice back then, especially for dark hair).

He laughed and countered, ‘Ha! Leave it to a nice Italian girl to wash her hair with salad dressing!’

Then, without even a moment’s hesitation, I replied, ‘Oh, I’m not Italian. I’m Austrian.’

He looked at me with perplexity. ‘But your name is Serafinn.’

Again, without even thinking, I said, ‘It’s an Austrian name. My father was born in Austria, but it was taken over by Italy.’

(Side note: When I was 14, I didn’t know that Trentino had already become part of Italy when my dad was born there in 1919).

B’s father looked at me oddly. At the time, I thought it was just confusion over what I had just said. But years later, I realise I was probably insulting him. You see, B’s father was a first-generation Italian-American (their surname was most likely Calabrian).

I hadn’t intended to insult him. I was making no judgment or political statement about Italy. I was simply parroting what my father and my grandparents had programmed me to say since I was a child.

But now, half a century later, I realise that in replying to him the way I did, I was actually distancing myself from him. Not only was a drawing a line of distinction between us, I was probably sending out a subtle vibe that I was rejecting Italy and the idea of being Italian.

B’s father made no reply to me after that, but my words had definitely made some sort of impact on him. After that, his son no longer seemed to be interested in me, and I soon learned he had found a ‘nice Italian girl’ as his girlfriend.

My first case of teenage puppy love ended in heartbreak over a case of cultural identity.

Fuzzy Labels. Fuzzy Sense of Self.

Most of us of Trentino descent who were raised in America referred to ourselves as ‘Tyroleans’. I never even HEARD the word ‘Trentino’ until decades later.

I’m pretty sure my dad had originally told me I was ‘Austrian’ when I was little because it was easier for ‘outside’ people to understand than the more perplexing label of ‘Tyrolean’. Other Americans really had no idea what we meant by ‘Tyrolean’, and it always required some explaining – a skill I learned only as I got older.

Even after I started referring to myself this way, I wasn’t really quite sure what the heck I meant by ‘Tyrolean’. Although my dad had been born in the ‘old country’ and spoke dialect fluently, he had come to America when he was very young and didn’t remember much about his homeland.

When I asked him where he came from, he merely said, ‘Near Trento’.  When I asked him if he could be more specific, he said the village he came from was so small, you wouldn’t even find it on a map (perhaps true back then, but that was before Google maps!).

Despite such fuzziness, when I was growing up, my father’s culture was unavoidable. I constantly heard my father speaking dialect with members of his family, as he called them on the phone just about every night after work. And whenever we visited my grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone spoke dialect. I got used to sitting in a roomful of adults speaking a language I couldn’t speak myself, while somehow following the gist of what was being said.

When I asked my dad the name of the language he spoke, he said ‘Tyrolean’. In my teens, I was a classical musician and an opera singer, so I had become familiar with many Italian words. Eventually, I realised the dialect my father spoke (which I now know was Giudicaresi) had a lot of similarities with Italian. But I was told unequivocally it had nothing to do with Italian. It’s Tyrolean. Period.

When I asked him to teach my how to speak ‘Tyrolean’, he refused, saying he only spoke it, but didn’t know how to explain it. Besides, he argued, why would I need it? He wanted me to ‘be American’. Better to speak English.

So, while I inherited a strong sense of being ‘Tyrolean’, I was also being discouraged from trying to ‘go backwards’ to my ancestral roots. The ‘old country’ was in the past. It was almost like those things were ‘dead’ and gone, and I wasn’t allowed to touch them. I strongly feel this kind of mixed message was one of the strongest factors in my DELAYING my ancestral journey or visiting my father’s homeland until after he passed away.

But what my grandparents and father did not (and probably could not) understand at the time was how this severing of ties with the past would leave me with a very hazy and tenuous sense of self.

Much as they wanted me to feel ‘American’, I didn’t.

Much as I wanted to feel ‘Tyrolean’, it was too vague for me to understand in any satisfactory way.

And ‘Italian’? Are you kidding? Just the idea of such a notion seemed completely taboo.

And now, after working with dozens of genealogy clients over the years – all descended from immigrant families – and have seen this same sense of haziness over and over. It’s heart-breaking to watch.

Losing A Surname – The Cruellest Cut of All

Perhaps the biggest vagary in my cultural upbringing – which, sadly, I now realise was a deliberate lie – had to do with our surname.

Back at the birthday party, I had told B’s father that my surname ‘Serafinn’ was Austrian. This belief was forged by my father, who told me the surname ‘Serafinn’ with two ‘ns’ was specifically a ‘Tyrolean’ name. I remember him telling me, ‘If you ever meet anyone with that name, they are related to you.’

Well, he was partially right. If I ever meet anyone with the surname ‘Serafinn’ with two ‘ns’ they ARE indeed related to me. But it’s not because it’s a Tyrolean name. It’s because my grandfather made it up. Historically, there IS no such surname as ‘Serafinn’. The only people called ‘Serafinn’ were my grandparents, my father, his siblings and their children. Other than us, the surname doesn’t exist.

I found out decades later – well after my father and all his siblings had died – that my father’s surname was ‘Serafini’, not ‘Serafinn’. At first, I rejected the idea my father might have deliberately misled me. I theorised that perhaps he hadn’t known Serafini was the family surname, and that he had grown up thinking ‘Serafinn’ was his real name, just as I had. But then, when I started to dig more deeply, I discovered documents listing my dad as ‘Serafini’ through his teens. While I am not sure of the precise date, the official change seems to have been made sometime in the late 1930s, not long before my dad enlisted in the US Army.

Thus, there was no way my dad and his siblings could have been unaware of our original surname. Yet, all of us kids – me, my sister and my cousins – were never told this when we were growing up. Obviously, it had been a family decision to ‘break’ us from the past.

And because the change of surname was one of those proverbial ‘family secrets’ that died along with my father’s family, the actual reasons for the change can only be hypothesised. Was it simply a matter of simplifying the name for Americans, without changing it altogether? Was it an attempt to make the surname look less Italian and more ‘Austrian’ (which, as we saw in the story with B’s father, didn’t exactly work)? Perhaps it was a bit of both, but we’ll never know for sure.

I must confess, when I first discovered my grandfather had changed our surname, I felt a combination of anger and grief. I was angry for being lied to. But I was also deeply aggrieved for having LOST my ‘true’ surname. Even today, I still find myself having to explain my surname to people, especially when I am in Trentino. Sometimes I just say my name is ‘Serafini’ to make it clearer.

Similarly, I have worked with many genealogy clients whose families changed their surnames after emigrating to the Americas. Sometimes the changes are minor – like a change in spelling to make it easier for people in their adopted country to pronounce the name. But the surnames of many of my clients have been radically changed, sometimes with no rhyme or reason as to how they are connected to the original name. Naturally, they ask many of the same questions and go through the same roller coaster of emotions as I did when I discovered my father’s original surname.

For any of us who have experienced a ‘loss’ of name, finding out about our ancestors is often an integral part of healing that wound. Now, after many years of ‘speaking to my ancestors’ through genealogy, I have finally embraced this change of surname to ‘Serafinn’ as a crucial part of my own cultural identity. It is a poignant and important chapter in our family’s history – the story of what happened to us after we left our ancestral homeland.

Austrian, Tyrolean, Italian?

Something I found remarkable when I started digging into my father’s US documentation after he died was his own sense of confusion about what to call himself.

In many documents he says he was born in Austria. However, technically, this isn’t true. He was born in Trentino in October 1919, after the province had become part of Italy. In one US census, it says he was born in Italy and that his elder sister was born in Austria. Now, technically, this IS true; however, the fact is they were actually born in the same HOUSE (my cousins still own it) in Val Giudicarie. What I found even odder, though, was that in his military registration, he cites his place of birth as ‘Tyrol’ – which isn’t a country at all. In fact, trying to define ‘Tyrol’ is kind of like trying to define the molecules of water in a flowing stream.

If my father, who was BORN in Trentino, had so much difficulty deciding how to describe where he came from, what chance did I have of being any clearer about my ethnicity when I was growing up? And what chance of clarity can there be for grandchildren or great-grandchildren of Trentini emigrants who were not exposed to their ancestral culture in childhood as I had been?

I want to address this label ‘Tyrolean’ because I believe it’s crucial to this whole topic of cultural identity when we are talking about people who came from Trentino-Alto Adige. Tyrol (Tirol or Tirolo) was originally a county, headed by the ‘Counts of Tirol’. When the original dynasty of counts died out in 1363, control of the Tyrol was taken over by the royal Habsburgs. In fact, from that point, the title of the ‘Count of Tirol’ was sometimes assumed by the Holy Roman Emperor himself.

Over time, ‘Tyrol’ no longer referred to a single county, but to a much wider collective, whose connection was often more ideological than administrative. On one of my recent trips to Trento, my friend and colleague Daiana Boller – an historian and local politician – showed me this beautiful painting  entitled ‘Aquila Tirolensis’ by 17th-century Austrian historian and cartographer, Matthias Burglechner. First printed in 1609, this version is dated 1620 in the lower right-hand corner. A highly stylised map, it contains the ‘Aquila’ (eagle) of Tyrol – its stemma, or coat-of-armsand all the key places considered part of it at that time:
1620 painting of Aquila Tirolesi and the provinces of Tyrol in the 17th century.

If you look closely at the borders of this picture, you can see ‘Trient’ (Trento) and ‘Bozen’ (Bolzano), as well as many other familiar places such as ‘Brixen’ (Bressanone), ‘Arch’ (Arco), ‘Clauzen’ (Chiusa), ‘Meran’ (Merano), ‘Rofriet’ (Rovereto), as well as parts of present-day Austria, such as ‘Insbrugg’ (Innsbruck).

This stunning image gives us an historical snapshot not only of the official designation of ‘Tyrol’ during this era, but also of the diverse cultural identity of the people who thought of themselves as ‘Tirolesi’.

However, let us bear in mind that this painting is 400 years old, and what it depicts is not necessarily what people meant by ‘Tirol’ when our ancestors left the province, nor indeed what most people mean by the term today.

The fact is, the ‘official’ boundaries of Tirol were constantly changing. Frankly, if I try to figure it all out, it just makes my head spin. Rather than attempt to explain it, I refer you to this website with maps showing how these designations shifted after this painting was make, between 1766 and the present day: http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/germany/tyroladm.html.

But while official boundaries of any administrative entity come and go like tides, the cultural identity of the people from these entities are far more resistant to change.

How Cultural Identities Get ‘Frozen’ in Time

Most descendants of Trentino ancestors know that their ancestral homeland was once under Austrian rule and was incorporated into Italy after World War 1. But, in my observation, fewer of them seem to know that, while the province of Bolzano is still known as ‘South Tyrol’ (Sud Tirol), the province of Trentino hasn’t been known by the term ‘Tirol’ for the past 100 years.

These days, if you say ‘Tyrolean’ to anyone living anywhere in Europe, they always take it to mean Bolzano and/or Austria. And this INCLUDES the Trentini themselves. I have yet to meet a living native Trentino who refers to him/herself as ‘Tirolesi’. In fact, the first time I visited the province and used the word ‘Tyrolean’, people looked at me with bewilderment, if not a bit of amusement.

‘No, Trentino is not Tirol,’ they said. ‘You are confusing it with Bolzano’.

One person who had family abroad said to me, ‘No, we do not call ourselves Tirolesi. But I’ve heard there are some Americans who think like that.’

So, at the risk of ruffling a few of my readers’ feathers, I have to say that all my experiences and observations have led me to conclude that:

The ONLY people today who use the term ‘Tyrolean’ to describe someone from Trentino are descendants of 19th and 20th century emigrants.

In fact, in 1923, an organisation called the ‘Legione Trentina’ actually made it ILLEGAL to use the word like ‘Tirol’ and its variants (Tyrol, Tyrol, Tiroler, Südtirol etc.) to refer to the land now known as Trentino and its people. One leaflet says that by 1931, fines were issued of ‘up to 2,000 lire (about three average monthly salaries) and three months in prison’ for anyone who used these terms. 

After all, when most of our ancestors came from Trentino, the  province was either still under Austrian rule, or had only just become part of Italy. When they migrated to their new, adopted homelands, the culture – and cultural identity – they brought with them was from THAT era. We, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, inherited all those things.

BUT the thing is:

When cultures become displaced, the old traditions and ways of thinking do not evolve the same way they would have if they had stayed in their native homeland.

In fact, if anything, they tend to get ‘frozen’ in time. I believe this happens because people who live in places far removed from their ancestral homelands desperately need to feel a connection to their past. And, as they don’t always have any living, breathing connection to those homelands, they will hold onto whatever they’ve got like a life raft.

Moreover, to relinquish that label or change the way of thinking brought across the sea by their emigrant ancestors is seen as a kind of disloyalty – or even betrayal. For this reason, thousands of descendants of Trentino emigrants around the world staunchly retain the a ‘Tyrolean’ (if not ‘Austrian’) cultural identity, despite the fact the label is no longer used by most present-day Trentini.

And no ‘official’ change in nomenclature is going to nullify those powerful feelings.

So, does that mean it’s ‘wrong’ to think of yourself as ‘Tyrolean’? Of course not. Just as my surname ‘Serafinn’ has its own cultural significance, the label ‘Tyrolean’ has its OWN meaning and cultural significance. It doesn’t need to mean what it means in Trentino today or even what it used to mean to our ancestors. It stands on its own as what it is.

For myself, I prefer to use the label ‘Trentina’. And that doesn’t make me ‘wrong’ either. I prefer this term because I have lived in Europe for 20 years, and I go to Trentino frequently. People understand what I MEAN when I use it. So, that designation makes more sense in my situation. But for me, it also carries great meaning. To me, the word represents the thing that makes me feel most connected to my ancestors – the land itself. When I say I am ‘Trentina’, I become part of those glacial mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Through that word, I feel connected to every ancestor and blood relation whose very existence was owed to that majestic land.

But that is simply MY cultural label. It has meaning for me, but perhaps not for you. Never EVER in my life would I ever suggest that someone should reject or change the word they use to identify themselves if that word fills them with joy and makes them feel alive.

Schisms Triggered by Cultural Identity

Challenging another person’s chosen cultural designation is, in fact, a sure-fire way to get yourself into an argument.

One such argument within my own family sticks clearly in my mind even after nearly half a century. I was in my teens visiting at the home of one of my father’s sisters, when an argument broke out between my aunt and her cousin (son of my grandmother’s brother, with the surname Onorati).

Our cousin was complaining that he was tired of having to explain to people that he was ‘Tyrolean’, and that now he just told people he was ‘Italian’.

He argued, ‘I look Italian. I have an Italian name. I’m Italian. What’s the big deal?’

At this point, my aunt entirely lost it. She flew into a rage and shoved our cousin against the wall. She started pounding her fists on his chest and screaming, ‘How could you possibly betray our family by saying such things?’

In hindsight, what is most interesting to me about this incident is the fact that this aunt (my dad’s youngest sister) was actually born in America (in Brandy Camp, Pennsylvania) after my grandparents had emigrated with my dad and two other sisters. At the time of this incident, she was in her mid-40s, and had never even been to her parents’ homeland. In fact, she was apparently confused about where they actually came from, as evidenced by a story she wrote about her parents’ mythical home in Merano (in the province of Bolzano) – a place where they never lived.

I bring this up not to criticise my late aunt (I actually adored her), but to underscore how cultural identity has nothing whatsoever to do with cultural awareness. It lives and breathes in complete independence from historical or geographical accuracy.

One of my father’s 1st cousins (whom, unfortunately, I never met) was the late author Marion Benasutti, who wrote a book called No Steady Job for Papa. Marketed as a ‘novel’, it really is a memoire of her experiences growing up in a Trentini immigrant family in the early 20th century (the family emigrated before World War 1). A strong, recurring theme in that book is the ‘Austrian/Tyrolean’ versus ‘Italian’ cultural identity, and how her father used to argue with friends and family members over their chosen designations.

Lest you think these schisms were limited to first-generation Americans, this ideological divide is still very much alive amongst Trentini descendants today. For example, I recently received this message from a prospective member of my Trentino Genealogy Facebook group:

‘I am 100% Tirolean-American. I am interested in tracing our roots back to the days before the Fascist Italianization of our land when it was Austria-Hungary, of which my grandparents were citizens.’

While Austria-Hungary died 100 years ago, and Mussolini died over 60 years ago, the passion contained within these words is still palpable. You can certainly feel how this person would find it challenging – if not impossible – to think of himself as ‘Italian’. To expect (or force) him to do so would not only be highly insensitive, but utterly futile.

Arguably one of the strongest spokespeople for ‘Tyrolean’ cultural identity is Lou Brunelli, founder and editor of Filò: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans. In his editor’s introduction to volume 20 of that magazine (January 2019) he says just as ‘the one and only Tyrol… was ‘usurped’ and ‘annexed to Italy’, the magazine therefore:

‘…usurps the authentic right and privilege to ignore the line and draw a circle embracing, engaging and uniting us to what we were as affirmed by our emigrants who, over and over, declared themselves Tirolesi, Tyroleans and, for us, Tyrolean Americans.’

As you can see, the debate over the cultural identity of Trentino is far from ‘settled’ even after a century has passed.

An Unaddressed Moral Responsibility

I’ve taken this time to talk about cultural identity because I think it has tremendous implications for companies who offer DNA tests.

Whether or not we choose a specific cultural ‘label’, we cannot simply dismiss or ignore them. In my work as a genealogist, most of my clients come from the US, with a handful from South American, Australia and New Zealand. Many of them come to me with a feeling of longing or even emptiness. They are searching for a missing piece of themselves and are often (quite understandably) confused about where their ancestors came from.

Most of the people I know who have taken a DNA test did not embark on their genetic journey just for ‘fun’, but to find answers to deeply personal questions that have been challenging their happiness and/or sense of belonging – sometimes for their entire lifetime.

And, as we’ve just seen, cultural ‘labels’ can often have a powerful – if not EXPLOSIVE – impact on people. You cannot just call people something and expect them to embrace it (or even accept it).

This is something I believe the big companies who handle DNA tests have yet to understand. Knowing how delicate and emotionally charged cultural identities can be, companies who provide DNA ethnicity reports have a HUGE moral responsibility. You cannot play with people’s sense of self – especially not for profit. The labels these companies choose to put on people in their ethnicity reports can sometimes only INTENSIFY the confusion people had that led them to take the DNA test in the first place. 

I will be returning to this point in the final article in this series, but for now I want to suggest three crucial shifts that need to occur if we are to increase the value – an minimise the damage – of ethnicity reports offered by DNA testing companies:

  1. Testing companies need to become more educated about cultural identities around the world, so they can create profiles that are more sensitive and relevant to their customers.
  2. There need to be greater numbers of DNA test-takers in under-represented cultural groups.
  3. DNA  test-takers need to be more educated about the  wider story of the ethnic history of their ancestral homelands.

Only when all three of these things are met can DNA testing truly serve the purpose for which so many people turn to them.

PART 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

Building upon what we’ve discussed so far, the next crucial question we need to ask is:

Does our CULTURAL IDENTITY as ‘northern Italians’, ‘Trentini’ or ‘Tyroleans’ (or whatever) have any foundation in GENETICS?

In other words, are the people from northern Italy genetically ‘different’ from other people, including those from the more southern regions of the Italian peninsula? Or are all these designations simply things we’ve ‘made up’ in order to feel a sense of belonging? Do the DNA tests currently on the market support what northern and southern Italians believe about themselves? Moreover, are their findings consistent from company to company?

We’ll look at the last of those questions in Article 4, when we look at DNA ethnicity reports. But in order to understand what we’ll discuss in that article, let’s first consider northern Italian ethnicity through an historical lens.

Just who were the people who populated Trentino and other parts of northern Italy over the centuries? Below is a short, whistle-stop tour through the millennia.

The Rhaeti and the Celts

About 2,600 years ago, and through the first centuries of the Common Era (A.D.), much of northern Italy was inhabited by Rhaetian and central European Celtic tribes.

Once hypothesised to be related to the Etruscans (ancient people of present-day Tuscany), many scholars today believe the Rhaeti were indigenous Alpine tribes (‘indigenous’ itself being an admittedly vague term). The precise origins of the Celts is much less clear to historians, and many preconceptions about who they were and where they came from are being challenged (although they are most widely believed to have from somewhere in central Europe).

Languages in Iron Age Italy, ca. 6th c. BC
Languages in Iron Age Italy, ca. 6th c. BC By Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3336779

Above is a map showing which languages were spoken around the Italian peninsula circa 600 B.C.

Notice ‘Raetic’ in the orange area at the top, which overlaps with the modern provinces of Trentino and Veneto. The term ‘Gaulish’ in the upper left is another term for Celtic languages. Later, some Rhaeti in south Tyrol (Alto-Adige), Trentino and Veneto, as said to have adopted the Celtic language, at least in part.

Some scholars say that the Alpine language Ladin (NOT the same as ‘Latin’) which is still spoken by an estimated 30,000-60,000 people today (mostly in South Tyrol, Trentino, Belluno and Friuli) is has roots in both Rhaeti and Celtic.

The Romans

Between around 100 B.C. and 400 A.D., Romans were certainly present in places like the city of Trento. There are, in fact, the remains of the old Roman city beneath Trento, but some historians suggest Trento was kind of a ‘holiday spot’ for the Romans rather than a true settlement. Thus, some historians believe the Romans may not have played a huge part on changing the ethnicity of the area, although others dispute this theory.

What is indisputable, however, is that they brought the Latin language, permanently changing the linguistic landscape of northern Italy. The majority of Trentini speak dialects and have names based on Latin roots.

The Longobards (Lombards)

After the fall of Roman (ca. 400 A.D.), we start to see invasions (and settlement) from Germanic and/or Scandinavian tribes. The most notable of these were the Longobards (called ‘Lombards’ in English), from which the northern region of ‘Lombardia’ (or ‘Lombardy’, in English), gets its name. Today, most scholars believe they originated from somewhere in Scandinavia.

circa 700 AD, the Longobards (Lombards) in Italy
Aistulf’s Italy-it.svg: Castagnaderivative work: InvaderCito [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Above is a map showing the Longobard Kingdom (in blue) when it was at its peak in the mid-700s. Although defeated as a political force by Charlemagne around 800 A.D., their nobles lasted in some parts of southern Italy until the 11th century.

A formidable political force, they also influenced many other Germanic tribes – including the Saxons – to settle in Italian lands during their reign. Note: Many people associate the word ‘Saxon’ with England, but they originally came from central Europe; the Germany state of Saxony was once their settlement, before they were defeated by Charlemagne.

The Cimbri and Other Germanic Tribes

During the middle ages (1,000-1,200 A.D.), new waves of Germanic tribes, such as the Cimbri people, migrated and created communities in various parts of Trentino and Veneto. My great-grandmother’s parish of Badia Calavena in the province of Verona is a known Cimbri settlement and, until recently, the people there spoke Cimbro, which, while a distinctly Germanic dialect, also sounds like ENGLISH to my ears. One Veronesi historian I know says he believes this is because Cimbro is related to Old English as spoken by the Saxons. Linguistic connections do not always indicate a genetic connection, but sometimes they might.

What I find so interesting about my great-grandmother’s ancestry, however, is that so many of their surnames – even back to the 1500s – are of Latin/Italian origin, despite their being German speakers. I suppose this is evidence of how long they had lived in that valley, and how thoroughly they had become assimilated into the local culture over the centuries, but again this is pure speculation.

Later Germanic Migrations

Much later, when under Austrian rule in the 1700s-1800s, you will see other scattered Germanic surnames appearing in the church records of the northern provinces, but in a more organic (and less invasive) fashion. As these migrations are relatively recent, you can more easily identify Germanic ‘blood’ through these lines through genealogy alone.

The Ethnic ‘Soup’ of Northern Italy

So, based on what we know about the history of northern Italy, what conclusions can we draw about northern Italian ethnicity?

The truth is, nobody seems to agree.

For example, some historians believe the Longobards, (who comprised an estimated 10% of the population of northern Italy at their peak) had minimal impact the genetic profile of northern Italy because they chose to breed amongst themselves without mixing with other ethnic groups present in the region at the time.

But I’m not so sure. I don’t see how any culture can be in a region for half a millennium and create no impact on the genetic landscape. The Longobards were known to have adopted Roman customs and dress and, although they were always at loggerheads with the Pope, the did actually convert to Christianity.

Given that the Longobards had assimilated, at least in part, to local culture, it seems implausible to me that there was NO inter-breeding between cultures over all that time. My logical brain says at least SOME of that Scandinavian Longobard DNA (and that of all the other ‘imported’ peoples) surely must have mingled – at least to some degree – with that in other ethnic groups in the region.

Moreover, while Charlemagne conquered the Longobard leaders in northern Italy, I cannot imagine they simply ‘vanished’ as an ethnic group. I have seen dozens of Longobard artefacts in many churches and museums in in Trentino. Even the church of my father’s parish in Santa Croce del Bleggio (Val Giudicarie) was built upon the ruins of an old Longobard church.

Even after a political coup, if people have lived in an area for a long time, they tend to stay put, unless they are forced to leave by economic, environmental or political circumstances. And while Charlemagne ousted the Longobard leaders, I have read nothing about any kind of wholesale exodus of the Longobard people from Italy.

At this point, it seems to me the next logical question must surely be:

Can DNA testing shed light on how – or IF – these medieval tribes intermingled?

And if it can…

Will our that DNA profile look different from those of other Italians?

And finally…

What kind of ‘labels’ will DNA testing companies like Ancestry DNA slap on people like us in their ethnicity reports?

Coming Up Next Time…

Those are the questions we’ll address in fourth and final article in the series on DNA tests.

In that article, we will finally look in depth at ethnicity reports – how they come up with their data, what the data means, and how we genealogists – from ALL ethnic backgrounds – can help improve the future of DNA research.

I will also share examples from my own reports, so you can see how data can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in context.

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online, you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming SOON 18 February 2019 through 14 March 2019). If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from
Trentino Genealogy!

Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form
at the right side at the top of your screen
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Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

View my family tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/110809816/family

What Our Ancestors’ Deaths Can Teach Us About Their Lives

What Our Ancestors’ Deaths Can Teach Us About Their LivesLynn Serafinn explains the importance and challenges of including death information in your family tree, and discusses 10 causes of death in 19th century.

When I was a child, my Trentino-born father frequently used to say,

‘Never forget, Lynn: our ancestors were survivors. You come from a long line of survivors. We ARE survivors.’

He said this so often, and with such conviction that, now in my 60s, I can still hear his voice and see his face as he is saying it. The idea of our family surviving against all odds was a powerful, driving force for him – one that was fundamental to his identity. He saw his heritage as a part of the choreography of the ‘natural order’ of life, where only those who are strongest will survive and thrive. Certainly, his worldview played a role in shaping my own way of seeing the world – and myself – as I grew up.

While, I admit, there is something seductively romantic about the idea that I have inherited the strength of my ‘survivor’ ancestors, my work in genealogy has caused me to reformulate my ideas on what exactly ‘survival’ means.  We might imagine it means being able to withstand disease, overcome hardships, raise lots of children, and live to a ripe old age amongst our grandchildren or even great-grandchildren. But the reality of ‘survival’ of our Trentini ancestors often meant that they made it to adulthood at all. While it’s natural to imagine our great-great-great-grandparents as being wise, elderly people, the truth is, I am probably older right now than 95% of my ancestors were when they died. In fact, many of them died when they were younger than my 33-year-old daughter.

How does this information reshape the way we see our ancestors – and ourselves? Moreover, what else can death and dying tell us about who we are, as a people? Those are some of the questions I hope to address in this article, where we’ll be taking a short tour of DEATH as part of LIFE in Trentino in the past.

We’ll look at:

  • The importance of including death information in your family tree, and how it brings depth to our understanding.
  • The challenges of using death records for information, and how to glean information from other sources if death records are unavailable or incomplete.
  • Some common causes of death in 19th century parish records, and translations of some of the Italian terminology you might encounter.

The Importance of ‘Killing Off’ Your Ancestors

A couple of years ago, I was reading a book called Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records by Celia Heritage (http://amzn.to/2hb1HJm), when a particularly memorable quote leapt out from the page:

‘If you are serious about your family history, then ‘killing off’ your ancestors is mandatory.’

When we research our personal genealogy, it can be all too tempting (if not ‘addictive’) to go for quantity over quality. We love the feeling of discovering one more person to add to our tree. Perhaps we’ve finally found the marriage record revealing the name of our great-great-great-grandmother, or we’ve unexpectedly come face-to-face with our 12x great-grandfather in a 16th century land agreement. It’s exciting – even emotionally stirring – when we make such wonderful discoveries.

But Celia Heritage’s point is this: while birth and marriage information is certainly fundamental to our genealogical research, until we know something about our ancestors’ deaths, we cannot get a truly accurate picture of their lives. If we really want to know where we come from, it is crucial for us to get into the practice of ‘killing off’ our ancestors, by discovering as much as possible about when, where and (hopefully) how they died.

Learning about our ancestors’ deaths can often tell us more about them than anything else. After all, when we are born, we are simply a name and a hope for the future. But when we die, our lives have already happened. All that we have done and experienced precedes us. We have left an imprint upon our families and communities, and they upon us. We have formed relationships, and we have left people behind who are affected by our lives – and by our deaths.

I would also add that it is just as important to research the deaths of ALL the members of your ancestors’ families, not merely those of your direct ancestors. Every death – even that of a new-born infant – has a physical, emotional and sometimes financial impact on a family. A single death can be the trigger that causes people to marry, remarry or even move locations. I doubt, for example, my Serafini ancestors would have moved from the parish of Ragoli to Bleggio in 1658, had not the older brother of my 6x great-grandmother Pasqua died, leaving her the only child to inherit.

The Challenges of Researching Death Information

Many of us from America and Britain are accustomed to looking for death information amongst the civil records. But in Trentino, civil registration only began in 1820. Prior to that, the primary record-keepers were Catholic priests in the local parish churches.

As mentioned in a previous article on this site, while the keeping of parish records was first mandated by Catholic Church at the Council of Trento in 1563, it took a while for it to become regular practice throughout the Church. Moreover, the practice of recording deaths tended to show up significantly later than the keeping of records of births and marriages. In my father’s home parish, for example, birth and marriage records begin in 1565, but death records begin more than 80 years later, in 1638. Some Trentino parishes did not start keeping death records until the middle of the 18th century.

Even when death records are available for a specific parish, the system for recording information is often erratic, until the middle of the 19th century, when it becomes more codified. While some records will tell you the age of people when they died, and some details about their familial lineage (e.g. ‘Giovanni Malacarne, son of Antonio of Sesto’ or ‘Marianna, born Gusmerotti, widow of Valentino Martini’), others will simply list the name and date of death.

Moreover, before it became standard practice to include the deceased date of birth in the record, the cited age at the time of death is often just an estimate. Priests often rounded the number up or down to the nearest decade. Alternatively, a member of the family of the deceased may simply have guessed their loved one’s age when the priest asked them. When such vagaries arise in the absence of any other information, you might be able to go back to the birth or marriage records and confirm you’re matching the right record to the right person. But sometimes, you’re not so lucky, and the scanty and conflicting information on the death record will simply leave you scratching your head.

Gleaning Death Information from Baptismal and Marriage Records

If death records are missing altogether for the ancestor or period you are researching, there are other ways you can at least narrow down the range of dates before/ after/ between which your ancestors died. The best way to do this is to look for clues in baptismal and marriage records.

When a child is born, his parents (especially the father) are typically cited in the baptismal record by referring to the child as ‘Giovanni, son of Paolo’, or ‘Cattarina, daughter of Giuseppe and Maria’ or something along those lines. Thus, in many records prior to the mid-19th century, we will see at least the paternal grandfather’s name in addition to the father’s (and, hopefully, the mother’s). As we progress towards the second half of the 19th century, we will start to see not only both grandfathers, but both grandmothers as well. The same is true for marriage records.

To find clues about a person’s death, we reading any parish record, look carefully and take note of any of these notations before any of the parents’ names, as they are all indications that a person (or persons) is deceased:

  • qm or f.q.
  • gm or f.g.
  • fu
  • furono

The first two are Latin abbreviations. The first is shorthand for ‘figlio (or figlia) quondam’, which means son (or daughter) of the ‘once’ so-and-so (e.g. ‘Antonio, son of the once Giovanni who is no longer with us’). The second is shorthand for ‘figlio/figlia gigantum’, meaning ‘son/daughter of the deceased’ so-and-so. Occasionally you will also see words like obit or defuntus, but these are less common in birth records.

The last two are Italian, and appear more commonly from the 19th century onwards. Fu is the third-person, singular, past tense of the verb essere, which means ‘to be’. Thus, fu means ‘he/she was’ (in other words, this person’s ‘being’ is now in the past). Furono is from the same verb, but in plural form; in other words, it indicates the record referring to more than one deceased person. For example:

  • Giovanni di Antonio e fu Domenica, would mean Giovanni’s father Antonio was still alive, but his mother Domenica had passed away.
  • Giovanni di fu Antonio e Domenica (or ‘vivente Domenica’), would mean his father was deceased, but his mother was still alive.
  • Giovanni di furono Antonio e Domenica, would mean that both of Giovanni’s parents were deceased.

TIP: When reading baptismal and marriage records, don’t forget to check the godparents and witnesses, as these will also often have references to deceased fathers and husbands. If you look diligently enough, you will probably find some unexpected clues about an ancestor’s death date.

The Importance of Keeping Track of Estimated Deaths

I believe it’s important to keep a log of ANY clues you might discover for a person’s death, even if you don’t know precisely when it occurred. For example:

  • If I am looking at a marriage dated 5 May 1742, and the husband is cited as ‘Giovanni di fu Antonio’, I will go to the death date for Antonio, and enter the words ‘Before 5 May 1742’.
  • Then, in the description field or notes for his death (I use Family Tree Maker for this), I put something like: ‘Cited as deceased in the marriage record of his son Giovanni on 5 May 1742’.
  • Finally, I cite the SOURCE of the record. For example: ‘Santa Croce parish records, marriages. LDS film 1448051, part 9, page 108’. As I get many of my digital images directly from the Archdiocese of Trento, I also enter the number of the file in the Trento system.
  • Suppose, a few months later, I happen to stumble across a baptismal record dated 10 April 1737, where Antonio is cited as being the godfather of one of his neighbour’s children. This new information gives me a lower boundary for Antonio’s death (i.e., he had to have died after 10 April 1737). Now, I can go back to my record for him, and alter the estimated death date to ‘Between 10 April 1737 and 5 May 1742’, narrowing it to a 6-year window.

Keeping a careful log of all the clues you stumble upon in your research helps make finding death records easier later, and helps fill in the gaps if the original death records happen to be missing.

The Case of the Posthumous Father

Sometimes, a man will have died shortly before the birth of one of his children. In this case, his name is often prefixed by the word ‘posthumous’ rather than fu in his child’s baptismal record. Here is the birth record (7 May 1750) for my 4x great-grandfather, Giovanni Antonio Caresani, whose father Antonio Felice is cited as ‘posthumous’:

(Click the image to see it larger)

1750 baptismal record for Giovanni Antonio Caresani
1750 baptismal record for Giovanni Antonio Caresani, whose deceased father Antonio is referred to as ‘posthumous’. Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records.

Knowing Antonio had to have died no more than 9 months prior to the birth of his son Giovanni Antonio, I could now narrow down his date of death to somewhere between September 1749 and May 1750. This enabled me locate his death record within a few minutes when I was in Trento. The actual date was 21 Feb 1750:

(Click the image to see it larger)

1750 death record of Antonio Caresani of Madice
1750 death record of Antonio Caresani of Madice, who died at the age of 33. Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records.

Note the death record says Antonio Caresani died at the age of 30. In this case, I already had Antonio’s birth information, but if I hadn’t, this information could have helped me locate his baptismal record. As I mentioned earlier, however, the given age on death records is OFTEN imprecise. In this case, the priest is off by three years, as Antonio was actually 33 years old, not 30, when he passed away.

Sadly, as is often the case with pre-19th century records, the record provides us with no cause of death. We can only wonder why a young man in the prime of his life died, leaving behind a young wife and at least two living children, who would later become my direct ancestors.

Infant Mortality and Early Childhood Deaths

In an earlier article on this blog I wrote about using the Nati in Trentino website for genealogical research. That site contains a searchable database of Trentini births/baptismal by the Catholic church between the years of 1815 and 1923.

While it contains a wealth of information, Nati in Trentino has many significant limitations, as this next example will demonstrate. Here’s a snapshot of the birth dates as they appear on Nati in Trentino for the children of a man named Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, who goes by the name ‘Domenico’. For now, I only want to show you the left side of the screen (you’ll see why in a minute):

(Click the image to see it larger)

Births of the 10 children of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei
Births of the 10 children of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, between 1861 and 1875.

The first two children are via Domenico’s first wife, Angela, who died from tuberculosis in 1863, less than 3 months after the birth of her daughter, Ernesta. The other 8 children are via Domenico’s second wife, Filomena, whom you’ll meet in a minute.

Have a look at the twin girls Neonata1 and Neonata2 born in 1866, and the boy Neonato born in 1875. The terms neonato (for a boy) and neonata (for a girl) are NOT names; they simply mean ‘new-born’, and are used to indicate an unnamed, stillborn child, or one that died before it could be baptised (which was often on the same day). Another frequently appearing term in the parish records is innominato or innominata (‘unnamed male’ or ‘unnamed female’, respectively), which conveys the same meaning.

Based on Nati in Trentino’s information alone, we would be led to believe that three of Vincenzo’s 10 children died, and the other seven survived. But a direct examination of the baptismal records themselves will tell a different story altogether:

(Click the image to see it larger)

Family of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, including births and deaths of his children
Family of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, including births and deaths of his children

Have a look at the right-hand column underneath the word ‘death’. I obtained the death dates for ALL these children (except Alfonso’s) from their baptismal records. Many 19th century priests (at least in Santa Croce) would make notations about a persons’ death – and sometimes marriage – into that person’s baptismal record, even if it occurred years after the fact. Although death dates rarely appear in baptismal records before the 19th century, priests will often infer that a child died young, by putting a cross (+) next to the infant’s name in the record. While inconsistently used, you can find evidence of this practice even in very early records.

Shockingly, the notations in the baptismal records reveal that all but one of Domenico’s 10 children died under the age of 4. One little boy, Maradio born in 1867, managed to be baptised, but died later the same day. The only child to survive to adulthood is Alfonso, born 1870 – who ended up becoming the great-grandfather of one of my 9th cousins, who lives in the US.

The REAL story of this family is:

  • Within a span of 14 years, Domenico saw the death of NINE children and a wife.
  • Within the span of a decade Filomena gave birth to 8 children, only one of whom outlived her.
  • Alfonso lost his father Domenico when he is 15 years old, leaving him to care for his widowed mother.

It simply boggles the mind, and changes our perspective of this family completely.

10 Causes of Death in 19th Century Italian Parish Records

Bearing in mind that it was not the standard practice to cite the cause of death until printed columns were introduced into the parish records around 1815, I’d like to round off this article by sharing some of the terminology you might see cited as ’cause of death’ in the mid-to-late 19th century.

I have two reasons for including this topic in this article:

  1. A few of my readers ASKED me to do it. 😉
  2. I believe seeing all these maladies lined up one after the other can really make the weight of our ancestors’ lives sink in. In fact, it kind of hits you like a brick.

It would be impossible to talk about all the possible causes of death in a single blog article. Really, it would take a book (and a LOT of research). So for now, I’m going to limit my discussion to 10 terms that might be more cryptic or less familiar to English speakers in the 21st century. The reason why they may be less familiar is partially because some of these diseases are not as common today as they were in the past, and partially because the terms themselves have changed over the past two centuries.

I’ve broken these 10 common causes into two categories: those that mostly affect infants and young children, and those that mostly affect adults, including the elderly.

I’ll warn you in advance, you may feel like crying.

Infants and Young Children

Tosse, pertosse, canine pertosse

These are all Italian terms for ‘pertussis’, more commonly known today as whooping cough. Whooping cough is a highly contagious, airborne, bacterial disease causing violent coughing fits, often leading to fatal complications. New-borns and babies under the age of one year are most at risk. Although doctors today use vaccines and antibiotics to prevent/treat the disease, it still claims the lives of many infants every year, even in ‘developed’ countries.

In one record, I also saw the term catarro soffocato. As ‘catarrh’ (catarro) refers to thick phlegm in the respiratory tract, this term means the baby suffocated on his/her own phlegm. My guess is that this might also indicate the child had whooping cough.

Grippe

This is the old Italian term for influenza or flu. The same term was used in English in the past, and the word grippe still means influenza in modern French. Historically, flu epidemics have claimed the lives of millions of people over the centuries, as the virus continually mutates as humans adapt to it. While adults often succumb to more virulent forms of influenza, babies and infants are often cited to have died from the more common winter strain of it throughout the 19th century.

For further reading, an interesting book on the so-called ‘Spanish Influenza’ of 1918 is Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata (http://amzn.to/2haAUge). While not about Trentino, it gives terrific insight into the nature of epidemic diseases, and the challenges of protecting ourselves from them.

Disenteria

The literal translation is ‘dysentery’, which, technically, refers to an aggressive attack of parasites in the digestive track. Dysentery can cause high fever, diarrhoea and vomiting. In the case of infants (especially those still being breast-fed), I feel the term disenteria may more likely indicate they were suffering from chronic diarrhoea rather than actual parasites, eventually dying from dehydration.

Today, few of us think of diarrhoea as a lethal threat, but back then many babies and children died from it, all over the world.

Vermazione

Worms! I had never heard this term before working with the Trentini death records, but apparently, the term ‘vermination’ was also used in 19th century English medical texts. Vermination is any kind of worm infestation in the intestinal tract. In babies, vermination can also cause painful convulsions.

Believe it or not, I found a book from 1836 on Google Books with the somewhat catchy title of Medical commentaries on puerperal fever, vermination, and water in the head by a medical doctor named John Alexander. Dr. Alexander confesses that (at least at that time) doctors simply didn’t KNOW what causes babies to get worms.

Incompleto sviluppo

Literally ‘incomplete development’, this refers to a premature baby. Back then, if a baby was born prematurely, there was little hope for survival. We I first started working with death records, I was shocked to see how many infant deaths in the 19th century were actually due to premature births. My only guess for these high numbers is that perhaps a great many pregnancies failed to go full-term due to poor nutrition and lack of pre-natal care.

Adults and Elderly

Pellagra

Called the same in English, pellagra is an insidious lethal disease caused by a chronic deficiency of niacin (vitamin B6) in the diet. It is most commonly seen in populations where their diet consists mainly of corn (as in polenta), with few other sources of nutrition. This is because corn that has not been cured with lime can leech niacin from the body, unless there is ample supply of the nutrient from other food sources. During the 19th century, when many contadini in Trentino suffered economic hardship, diversity of diet was difficult. Although often fatal, pellagra is easily curable in all but the most advanced cases through dietary and nutritional changes. But unfortunately for many of our ancestors, niacin and its role in the disease was not discovered until the 1930s.

If you are interested in reading more about pellagra, I highly recommend the book A Plague Of Corn: A Social History Of Pellagra by Daphne Roe (http://amzn.to/2hk0HW9). Extremely well-written and insightful, she also includes one chapter where she talks about how the ‘polenta eaters’ in places like Trentino were impacted by this horrible disease.

Tisi, tisi polmonare; consunzione polmonare

These are all terms for pulmonary tuberculosis, commonly called ‘consumption’ in the 19th century. Tuberculosis was so endemic in Europe in the 19th century (and even to the early decades of the 20th century), that it forms the backdrop for many novels, plays and operas of those times. Attacking the lungs, it frequently struck down young adults in the prime of their lives. Some pages in the death records will have many tisi deaths, one after the other, all people in their 20s and 30s.

Tifo (tiffo)

Typhus, a bacterial disease often equated with wartime, it can be transmitted by lice, ticks, mites or fleas when people live in cramped quarters, and have insufficient hygienic facilities. Once it takes hold in a community, it can spread virulently. Thus, if you see one case of tifo, you’re bound to see many others within a short time span.

Apoplessia

The literal translation is ‘apoplexy’, an English which today refers to a stroke. However, in the past, the word apoplexy was used to refer to any kind of sudden death (often preceded by unconsciousness), including stroke, heart attack and aneurysms.

Marasma

Literally ‘decay’, this term was used to refer to dying of ‘old age’ rather than any specified disease or condition. You will only see it used with people of advanced age (usually 70 or older), and refers to the decline in bodily functions, muscle mass, bones, etc.  Occasionally, you will see the term marasma senile, which is used where there is extreme wasting/weight-loss. Most of the sources I have read do not necessarily tie it to the word ‘senility’ or dementia, but it is possible these ailments would also fall under this ‘catch-all’ term.

Closing Thoughts

There is so much more we could discuss when it comes to talking about how our ancestors died. We could talk about ‘La Peste’ of 1630, which wiped entire villages off the map. We could talk about the world-wide cholera epidemic of 1855, which took its toll on Trentino. We could talk about the thousands of men and women who died between 1914 and 1918, during the First World War. Throughout history, the Trentini people have experienced it all – famines and floods, plagues and epidemics, war and economic hardships.

And while these things certainly took their toll on individuals and families, we – as a people – have survived. We identify with our culture; we recognise it as fundamental to who we are. Even those of us who are the children (or grandchildren) of those who emigrated to other lands, are still Trentini.

As my father said:

‘We are survivors.’

I hope this article has inspired you to become as curious about learning about your ancestors’ deaths, as you are about their births, marriages, and other life events. I also hope it has given you some useful tips and information to help you in your research. I would welcome any comments or questions on this, or any other topic to do with Trentino Genealogy. Please feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment in the box below, or drop me a line using the contact form on this site.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S.: I am going back to Trento to do research in January 2017. If you would like me to try to look for something while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. I look forward to hearing from you!

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

View family tree on Ancestry:
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Lynn Serafinn
Lynn Serafinn

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author, online marketing consultant and genealogist specialising in the families of the Giudicarie, where her father was born. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

Through extensive research, she has already linked together thousands of Trentini in an extended family tree.  Her current research project is called ‘One Tree, One Family, One Humanity,’ the goal of which is create a genealogical ‘map’ of everyone either born in Bleggio, or whose ancestors came from there, from the 1400s to the current era, to serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

CLICK HERE to read about Lynn’s genealogical research project:
“One Tree. One Family. One Humanity”.

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES
currently being researched in the “One Tree” project.

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