Source Interpretation

When you find a source, you need to put your best effort into interpreting it. I know that sounds obvious, but we often miss simple information, or don’t look at it in the right way. I had a situation very recently when, out of the blue, I had an email asking me how sure I was that Constant Comfort Underwood was a girl. Simple question, but the answer turned out to be more complicated than I anticipated.

Looking at the name one might reasonably think that it’s a girl, right? I mean, we are much more familiar with the name Constance for a girl, but a couple of hundred years ago it was not uncommon for girls to be named after desirable attributes. It was less true of boys, though. Then again, even today you have names where you cannot easily tell the gender. Take Robin, for example. You can’t get much more masculine than the hero Robin Hood, and the (English) robin is a vicious bird with its sharp beak, but nowadays it is often a name given to girls, so you can’t always tell.

So, I thought that maybe this was one of those situations where I had made a superficial Constant1analysis and made a hasty assumption of the gender. This question came up because FamilySearch had a source attached to Constant Comfort Underwood that indicated this was a boy, and my correspondent wanted to know which was correct. So I had a look and realized that the source being quoted did not have an image. This meant that somebody else had transcribed the source and assigned a male gender.

I then went to the original. That didn’t help either, because it just said “Constant Constant2Comfort of Thos & Mary Underwood.” No indication whether it was a son or a daughter. Still up in the air, then. But what I was looking at was a Bishop’s Transcript. That is a record transcribed by the churchwarden from the parish register and then sent to the bishop as a kind of backup.

An even better source would be the parish register. Lo and behold, I now had my proof. Constant3She really was a girl! “Constant Comfort Dr. of Thos & Mary Underwood.”

Lessons to learn from this?

  • Try to check the best original record.
  • Draw reasonable conclusions from the document.
  • Check that anybody else’s interpretation of the record is reasonable.
  • Document, document, document.

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