Middle Ages: Problems Tracing Ancestors
1538, when Anglican parish registers were really first kept, is a watershed date for all genealogists. After that, however murky it might seem at times, there was at least a system in place to record births, marriages and deaths that can hopefully be traced. But going back before that date is rather like venturing into a dark old forest with no paths, unsure if you can find your way through. Not many genealogists have managed to break the 1538 barrier.
Problems Finding Records from Middles AgesThe single biggest problem is the lack of written records. Many just haven't survived, of course. But even if most of them had, the majority of the population wouldn't have been named in them; they weren't deemed important enough. For the rich, of course, it was different - position and inheritance relied in part on written records. Criminals, too, would have their names recorded. The poor but honest - in other words, most people - would remain anonymous.
Translating Records from Middle English, Latin or FrenchWhere you can locate documents, they can be difficult to both translate and interpret. Depending on the period, they could be in Middle English, Latin or French, and the social customs and terminology were vastly different at times to what we understand today. Dates, for example, were usually expressed through the regnal calendar (based on the reign of the monarch). In other words, simply understanding what's in front of you requires additional research and learning.
There's very little guidance on how to investigate the period. However, there's one consolation - most of the records are held at the National Archives, and they do have a pamphlet that offers some tips to help you. Most people, though, are happy if they can simply go as far back as Elizabethan times.
Surnames from the Middle AgesYou might imagine the idea of surnames or family names has always been around. After all, it's a good way to distinguish one family from another. But that's not the case. If you go back to the 1300s and early 1400s, inherited surnames simply didn't exist. That's going to make your job almost impossible - establishing links when there's no common surname is a complex task, and depends on the assembly of other evidence to make it provable, evidence that, for the most part, doesn't exist.
You're actually going to have the most success where a surname is based on a place name, the rarer the better. Those based on nicknames, occupations, or even topographical features (Hill) are going to find much harder going. Those based on place names, or locatives as they're known, stand a greater (but still limited) chance of success. The rarity of a locative can be measured, but it refers to the number of places bearing the name, rather than the amount of people. The more geographically limited the distribution of a name also helps your chances.