Persons in Manuscripts and Early Printed Books
Identifying persons from signatures or from scribal or printed references in early documents requires awareness of genealogy. Especially in pre-1700 England and the English colonies, families paid extraordinary attention to their lineage and recorded it in numerous ways, in part because inheritance and estate maintainence depended upon making sure of the identities of far flung ancestors and heirs. This is complicated by the fact that Early Modern and Medieval families' naming conventions tended to favor re-using the same given names in each successive generation, and sometimes used the same name for different children in the same generation. A famous example is the Paston family, whose correspondence is the oldest extensive document archive to come down to us from Medieval English times. No fewer than three "John Pastons" were alive between 1421 and 1503: Sir John, known as John I (1421-1466), John II (1442-1479), and John III (d. 1503). [Click here for a link to the Luminarium web site including links to the Google Books digital surrogate of Gairdner's 1904 print edition, The Paston Letters (1422-1509).] For this reason, places and dates and actions associated with named persons can be invaluable in sorting out which member of a numerous clan is being referred to.
Two important resources which should be consulted are The Dictionary of National Biography, and Burke's Peerage. The student-researcher who asks Google and is rewarded by a "hit" in Wikipedia is almost always reading, second-hand, entries copied (with or without attribution) from the DNB.
An improved way to use Google involves "triangulating" the document by entering (in quotation marks) the names of two or three persons named in therein. Hits can be checked against any datable information in the document, together with any internal place names, to rule out earlier or later persons with the same names, or people with the same names living in the same era in differing places. Even without datable evidence in the document, the coincidental occurrence of multiple names who also appear in historical records only at one, or a very few times in history, suggests possible dating.