15th August 2012
Looking for Melanchthon
If every moment is a fractal pregnant with possibilities, how do you discern the seed-moments that birth new worlds? Which chance-met person will become a lifelong friend? Which book, among hundreds on the library-shelf, will midwife new galaxies that feel astonishingly like home? The ancient Greeks had a lovely concept of kairos, the split-second when a weaver shoots a shuttle laden with new colour into the warp; when Time intersects time.
I’m learning to recognise and trust that kairotic ‘blip’, that spontaneous, potent upwelling of instinct and intuition; it’s like a compass homing to true south, or a musician tuning to perfect pitch. My household calls these moments elf-stones, after an episode in Lord of the Rings; the hobbits and Aragorn, pursued by the Nine Riders, reach a bridge that is almost certainly ambushed. Aragorn rides onto the bridge and finds an elf-stone in the mud; he takes it as a sign that they can cross the river in safety. Against all odds, all reason, they do.
One such seed-moment happened when I encountered the Genographic Project, which is collecting DNA to map human migrations out of Africa. Sixty thousand years ago, we were all African. Now we’ve colonised a planet – on foot. All humankind traces descent from one woman, who lived in East Africa one hundred and sixty million years ago, and one man who lived in the same region seventy thousand years ago.
The concept didn’t just fascinate me in passing; it kept nagging till I acted, and sent away for a kit which would analyse my mitochondrial DNA, passed in perpetuity from mother to daughter. I was thrilled to be able to map my foremothers’ journey out of Africa, through Arabia into the Caucasus, where they survived an Ice Age by hunting woolly mammoths. As the glaciers retreated, they moved through Russia, Poland, Germany and finally reached England. My sense of recognition and validation was so deep that I started nagging my male relatives; the Y chromosome, transmitted from father to son, and unencumbered by babies and cooking-pots, had travelled much further west, almost to the Himalayas, before looping back to Europe.
When my brother’s results came through, we were gobsmacked. My father’s staid and respectable family, the Bucklands, who we’d assumed had been millennially digging turnips in Surrey, were of Middle Eastern origin. We speculated madly. Our jaws dropped even further when a genetic genealogist, Debra Katz, who shares this lineage and is passionately researching it, told us that our forebears were Sephardic Jews, refugees from the Inquisition, and kohanim or members of the hereditary priesthood who claim descent from Aaron, brother of Miriam and Moses. She’d traced our haplogroup J2a4 back to a kohen working in the Second Temple in post-exilic Jerusalem in 300BC, whose current descendants, my cousins, include Sephardic and Ashkenazy Jews, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, Hindua, Coptic Christians, Catholics and Lutherans.
I’m still reeling, still radically re-imagining who I think I am across all indices; racial, cultural, spiritual, political. A whole swag of history has suddenly become personal. Judaism is no longer outside but inside. So is Spain, where we spent the centuries of the Convivencia – Jews, Muslims and Christians in peaceable co-existence. So are Palestine and the Old Testament. What role did my forebears play in the powerful, mythic, ferociously muddled, often violent pilgrimage of the Children of Israel? In the ethnically cleansing, ecocidal, brutally misogynist virulence of temple politics? I’m fascinated, too, by Jewish culture, especially Yiddish, and feast – often painfully – on films like Sarah’s Key, The Pianist, Rosenstrasse, Aimée and Jaguar and The Reader.
The concept of ancestral memory has long intrigued me. Are resonances of our past carried deep within our DNA, akin to the way a human embryo mirrors evolutionary stages – reptile, frog, fish, bird – as it gestates? Is this where my love for Semitic languages comes from? Aramaic was lingua franca in post-exilic Jerusalem. Many Jews in Spain spoke Arabic, which I’ve been learning very slowly for twenty-five years. I’m compelled and awed by the priesthood, and have felt wounded to the soul that as a Catholic woman, I’m excluded from this sacrament.
Roman Catholicism, to which I’m a radically amazed convert, drew me ineluctably to itself fifteen years ago. I’m still as in love with the sacramental Church as I am at war with the institution. I’m also responsible for its karma, for its multitudinous sins of omission and commission. By what crazy paradox – what Hinduism calls lila or ‘divine play’ – do I now belong to the selfsame Church that burnt millions of my sisters at the stake, colluded in the Holocaust, fuelled pogroms and massacres of Jews during the Crusades, and spawned the Inquisition which exiled my father’s family from Spain?
Which brings me to Melanchthon. I’ve been researching the Bucklands who suddenly turned up in Horne and Nutfield, just outside Reigate in Surrey, in the early 1700’s. I haven’t got very far. It’s a head-spinning tangle of endlessly proliferating Sarahs, Anns, Georges and Williams. I keep plugging away, hoping that one day the threads will come clear.
There seemed little chance of finding out what had happened in the two hundred years between Spain and Surrey, until I stumbled across a splendid synapse – dead-end or elf-stone? Melanchthon Balcomb, aka Melanchthon Buckland, son of James Balcomb and Mary Buckland of Horne, was transported to NSW in 1837 for ‘feloniously stealing a bullock-hide’. Then I discovered that Mary had a brother, Melanchthon Buckland. It’s such an unusual name that I went haring off after it. I’m still boggling over what I’ve discovered. ‘Melanchthon’ is a genealogist’s dream, because it’s a one-off surname, invented by Phillip Schwarzerdt in Germany in the early sixteenth century; he simply translated Schwarzerdt – black earth – into Greek. Then he moved to Wittenberg where he became a close colleague of Martin Luther and co-founder of the Reformation.
Could it be that my forebears, having seen the horrors of the Inquisition at first-hand, chose to flee to Wittenberg and take up arms against the Catholic Church? If it’s true, I’m awed to tears by their courage. It’s hard see why the sons of poor agricultural labourers would bear a name like Melanchthon unless there was a treasured connection.
Perhaps the oddest, most goosebumping thing is that this hypothesis, if it’s true, names me. In an a-religious family, I’ve always been both deeply religious and heretical. My current task is deconstructing the Vatican. Heresy in the DNA?
So now I’m looking for Melanchthon; a treasure-hunt, a wildgoose chase…In the vast data-bank of humankind, mediated by the internet, does anyone have another clue to this riddle ?
Melanchthon Buckland b. 1792 Horne; Melanchthon Balcomb b.1815 Horne; Melanchthon Buckley b.1792 Horne; Melanchthon Leigh b.1778; Melanchthon Hedger m.1844 Reigate; Melanchthon Lucken m.1822 Nutfield