Book Review - Le Guide de la Généalogie en Belgique


We have had the pleasure of the acquaintance of the highly qualified genealogist, Marie Cappart, for a few years now and enjoy meeting with her when our paths cross at genealogy fairs, congregations and other extravaganzas. She embodies a happy combination of ebullience and expertise; she is also the author of the book we review here on Belgian genealogy, Le Guide de la Généalogie en Belgique.

This is a guide that is both thorough and succinct, both complete and clear. Unlike other guides to genealogy in French, it is not padded with an excessive number of attractive but useless photographs of dolls and documents; this guide is packed with useful information and advice.

Ms. Cappart covers the basics that one would expect to find. She explains the archives facilities and how to do genealogical research in their holdings, whether that search be on site or online. The specifics of the structure and wording of Belgian parish and civil registrations are described. The chapter entitled "Les archives coloniales : un sujet délicat" is a wonder of sensitive yet straightforward discussion of the archives of the Congo an d its years under Belgian rule, a period that is probably that darkest stain on Belgium's history.

The author shows greater patience than we have with the interminable pestering by some family historians to prove a connection with royalty. You think you have connections to Belgian  nobility or are descended from Charlemagne? Ms. Cappart gives a pithy chapter to the research of each. From military records to corporate archives, all seem to have been covered in this guide. There is even a chapter explaining who the Mormons are and why they are so important to genealogy, the necessity of which we find utterly disarming.

Following the bibliography, which includes websites, the Appendices are no afterthought, but contain more useful information in list form rather than in prose. They cover:

  • A sample of a letter you may need for archives access
  • Lists of archives and research facilities, with their addresses and websites, in Belgium, France and The Netherlands, plus Great Britain and the United States
  • A trilingual list of the most common forenames
  • A lexicon to the most common terms to be found in parish and civil registrations
  • A bilingual list, French and Dutch, of the most common of those terms
  • A very useful guide showing what data may be found in each type of document or registration

 You need no other book, guide or resource than this to begin your research in Belgian genealogy.

Brava, Marie!

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Bordeaux Municipal Archives - Archives Bordeaux Métropole

Bordeaux Municipal Archives

We have been junketting again, this time to Bordeaux and that city's excellent archival and library facilities. We revisited the Departmental Archives of the Gironde. We then carried on our research in the municipal archives of Bordeaux, called the Archives Bordeaux Métropole, for their collections cover the entire metropolitan area of Bordeaux.

In truth, we recommend that researchers use the website of these archives, for getting there is rather unpleasant. The tram stop, Jardin Botanique, is quite a trek away, down dirty roads with broken paving stones, past gaping car parks and grim bungalows of a bygone era. Around a wide curve one comes to a long, weedy road parallel to and fenced off from a railway hub; this is the last stretch. In case one were not already sunk into a gloomy view of our dystopian inner cities, the wall that lines this stretch, topped with barbed wire, has been painted with a long mural that seems to depict the last moment of the dinosaurs on this planet. Dinosaur Armageddon being a parallel, of course, for the warning that this little enclave of Hell gives.


Bordeaux Dinosaurs


Dinosaurs Bordeaux


Finding Bordeaux Archives

After the last dead dinosaur, we came to the archives, not at all cheered by the prison architecture the good city fathers selected (see the top photo). One enters to find a row of lockers blocking the view of a rather nice display.


Archives security

We went through the usual routine of registering, a process that is free but is required of all users. One must show some sort of identification, such as a passport or identity card, fill out a form and then receive a user's card. When we completed this, the receptionist then put in front of us a small box of bottle caps. 

"Choose one," she said, briskly. We stared, perhaps stupidly, certainly confused. She shook the box, rattling the bottle caps. "For the locker," she added, impatiently. We really were quite lost as to how a bottle cap could possibly operate a locker. She sighed with impatience and rattled the box again until a few small, plastic tokens rose to the surface. A Wittgensteinian "Aha moment" came to us. It would appear that the receptionist's love of soda and of carefully saving the bottle caps had overshadowed her responsibility to maintain a few tokens for archives users. As the very concept of customer service is anathema to French civil servants, this indifference to users comes as no surprise. We fished out a token from the bottle cap collection and went to a locker to deposit all that is not permitted in the reading room. The receptionist smiled her approval. 

Bordeaux Archives

The prison theme continued in the reading room, but there, the staff were friendly, intelligent and helpful. Our reason for visiting had been to see the more recent civil registrations, which are not yet on the website. Nor are they on an internal website, we learned. The archivist gave us a USB key that contained the tables décennales (ten year indices) to civil registrations through 1935 and generously took the time to explain the structure of the tables and how to search them.

We spent the morning viewing the tables and listing all possible registrations that we would like to see. We returned the USB key and asked for the one holding images of the actual registers, so that we could view the registrations, but no, we were told.

"No?" Even now, we have not adjusted to the French civil servants' warrior code of "Never Explain; Never Justify". In this code, the person holding the cards of power makes every statement as if it were one of fact, not policy or opinion or anything else that can be disputed. Ask why at your peril; but we did.

"Why? The law states that birth and marriage registrations over seventy-five years old may be viewed by the public." We spoke as evenly as we could. In this sort of encounter, to show frustration is more than a sign of weakness, it is like giving the scent of blood to a hound, and the game is on. The game is an exchange of the foolish person's increasingly frustrated protests and pleadings being countered by the civil servant's shorter and blunter replies, usually resulting in a back being turned and a stroke being suffered. Our experience served us well and we avoided the trap; we smiled through our teeth and a helpful answer was received.

"They are still in the Mairie (City Hall)" we were told. "Before you took out the USB key, did you note all of the codes for each registration?" Imagine if we had not! We noted the passive-aggressive's disappointment that we had done and so did not have to go though all of our work again. He sighed. "You must have been to archives before," he said, his fun spoiled, but this brought efficiency. "Now, you go to the City Hall with your list and they will make copies for you."

Our notes in hand, token returned to the bottle cap box, we left and walked past the dinosaurs again, growing fonder of them on this second pass. 


Last dinosaur of Bordeaux


We took the tram to the Hôtel de Ville stop and entered that lovely building. 


Bordeaux Hotel de Ville

Inside, one takes a number. When it is called, one gives no code (so, we had written them for nothing and, had we not done so and had spent another hour or so finding them as the archivist instructed, it would have been for naught; see how the game works?). Only the date of the registration and the surname are required. The civil registrations clerk printed all that we requested with great speed and then asked "Any more?" By then, beaten and exhausted by the game, we gave our sweetest thanks and left, grateful to have achieved our research goals and to have survived the game one more time.

Should you be seeking twentieth century Bordeaux registrations, you now know that you must go to the Archives Bordeaux Métropole first thing in the morning in order to be able to go to the City Hall before closing time, looking at the indices in the former and getting copies of registrations from the latter. Wear comfortable shoes for this adventure and perhaps take something calming, like beta-blockers.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Photos of the French at War - and the French Photographers Who Took Them

ECPAD entry

For a couple of years, now, we have been following the near-invisible trail of a French World War Two photographer. Having exhausted just about every archive and genealogical possibility to earn more about this secretive man, we thought to try the archives of French military photography and cinematography, ECPAD (Etablissement de communication et de production audiovisuelle de la Défense), located south of Paris in the Fort d'Ivry.

Fort d'Ivry

We took line seven on the Métro to the end, then hiked fifteen minutes up the hill to the fort, a predictably grim structure, particularly on a cold, winter day. We went through the usual security of having our bags checked and of handing over our identity card for the duration of our visit. We were given a visitor's badge and told to walk around a grassy hill to find the entrance to ECPAD. Young soldiers in bold fatigues, berets and boots stood guard holding large black guns. We found our way and were surprised to discover the first French archive not to provide lockers for users. One and one's cumbersome belongings are welcome into the reading room, which is small but full of light.

ECPAD reading room

A couple of weeks earlier, we had e-mailed ECPAD, explaining our research hopes. This communication was completely ignored. Consequently, we had faint hope of much of a welcome or of ease of research. We entered and were greeted by an archivist whose warmth and smile were of the caliber of a professional at Disneyland. This is so out of character in French public servants that we were befuddled into a moment of silence, apparently one too long, for our greeter promptly turned away. We rallied, he returned, still all smiles and got down to the business of finding our elusive photographer.

The photographer database in ECPAD contains the names of all photographers and cinematographers who worked as such in the French military. For each, there are examples of his or her work. There are not, however, any biographical details. Nor are there any archives relating to the specific photography and film units (those are at the Service Historique de la Défense in Vincennes). We found our man in the list and found eight photographs of his that had been scanned, with limited descriptions. That was all.

Two more of the staff joined our original cheery helper and checked their own resources to see if they could not find more. Unfortunately, they could not. They could, however, locate many more photographs by our man that had not yet been scanned, and we were allowed to look at and copy some of those. We also looked at the impressive studies of various aspects of French war photography that have been produced by the staff. (They also have some lavish books and films for sale on their website.)

ECPAD publications

ECPAD really is exclusively an image archive. As such, it is unlikely to further your genealogical research by more than a tad, if that. However, if you are seeking an image of places where your ancestor was posted or fought, or perhaps an image of his or her unit, ECPAD could be just the place.


2-8 route du Fort

94200 Ivry-sur-Seine

tel: 01 49 60 52 00


©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy



World War One Wills - a Work in Progress

WWI Soldier

This could be remarkably helpful to some lucky soul or two. 

Archivists in the National Archives of France and in the Departmental Archives of the department of Yvelines write that they have stumbled upon bundles of more then three hundred wills written by World War One soldiers. Just last month, the National Archives launched a call for volunteers to help to transcribe these wills so that they may be scanned and indexed and put online.

The website, Testaments de Poilus, already has a bit under two hundred wills available. For each will, the record shows:

  • The man's full name
  • Date and place of his death
  • Date of the Will
  • Full code of the will
  • Image of the will
  • Transcription in French of the will's contents

These can be incredibly useful, not only to know more about those men who died, many of them so very young that one knows nothing of them, but also to discover unknown relationships. Many of our Dear Readers have written to ask about men born in the early 1890s who seem to have disappeared. Some of them may be found via these wills, and their relationships to others explained via their named heirs. Stay with this project as it grows and you may be on e of the lucky ones. 

Should you feel able to contribute to the project as a transcriber, join the project here and start work.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Just Who Benefits In This?

Langue au chat

 You may recall, Dear Readers, that the Fond Coutot, being the largest private archives in France, were the creation of a professional genealogist, Amédée Coutot. He opened up business a bit over twenty years after the fires set by the Paris Commune destroyed the parish and civil registrations of the city. A lack of any birth, death or marriage records would have made his task of finding a family's heirs most trying. Using all that he could find among the records that survived and from many other sources, he and his son after him eventually built an archive of over ten million life events. These are available to the public, for a fee, online at GeneaService.

No expense was spent at all to make this a decent website and, surely, no cost, however great, or however small, was deemed necessary to convert an antiquated index card system into a database with a clear structure and a rational search facility. But for those who have a penchant for neon lime green, no thought of design or presentation was considered necessary. Nevertheless, the data is there and you can access it, eventually.

Now, Geneaservice offers a new option to its weary and exhausted users: that of uploading their family tree on their "Ma Famille" page. Here, you are encouraged to enter details from your family tree, up to your relations of the sixth degree. The enticement is that you may be discovered as an heir to a fortune. How can that be? Because the data you enter will also be available to professional probate genealogists to view in their search for heirs to estates.

We find this to be somewhat abusive, as well as a rather feeble effort at data mining. In our last post, we pointed out that French probate genealogists are heir hunters who demand a cut of the inheritance before they will put an heir in contact with the notaire in charge of the estate. We also pointed out that many such businesses are struggling to make ends meet. What better way to reduce research costs and increase the pool of patsies than to get family historians to provide their research at no cost? And there is the chance to doubly hit the dupes by charging them a percentage of a possible inheritance based on their own research.

We are a strong supporter of the superb volunteer community of French genealogists and we encourage our readers to be aware of the enormous amount of free websites and information available thanks to these thousands of volunteers' work, and we encourage you all to repay their efforts by sharing your genealogy work in return and by joining their societies or cercles. This GeneaService caper, however, is something to avoid; as the French say, ce n'est pas correct, ce n'est pas bon.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Is French Probate Genealogy on the Skids*?

Death in France

The eminent genealogy professor, Stéphane Cosson, has written an interesting blog post about the difficulties currently being experienced by French probate genealogists. He informs us that quite a few of them are going broke and his purpose in writing is to suggest a different business model.

Companies and individuals engaging in probate genealogy, (la généalogie successorale,) have, Monsieur Cosson explains, two basic types of projects:

  1. Documenting all heirs to an estate, with appropriate birth, marriage and death registrations, as well as any other relevant documents . These projects are carried out at the request of a notaire who is handling the estate. The fees are set and are rather low. If an heir be missed out by the genealogist, his or her insurance covers the payout due to that heir. This type of project consumes about 60% of a probate genealogist's work, but brings in much less than half the income, often not even covering costs.
  2. Hunting unknown heirs to an estate, which involves finding people related to the deceased but whom no one in the family knows exists. These are the big money projects as, before the genealogist will reveal to the heir the way to collect the inheritance, he or she requires that a contractual agreement be signed, giving over a hefty percentage of the inheritance. 

We have never quite been able to work out the legality of the second type of project for, if by law an heir has a right to an inheritance, surely then anyone who knows of it has an obligation to inform him or her of that inheritance. Placing an obstacle such as a contract that must be signed in the way of that obligation to inform seems to us to be the private medicine approach to the process, or comparable to refusing to tell a person who has the right to vote where he or she may do so until a contract be signed and a fee agreed. Nevertheless, that is how things are here but now, after some two hundred years, it is no longer working so well.

We would like to propose two additional causes of the probate genealogists' troubles to add to Monsieur Cosson's list.

  1. The increasing popularity of family research as a hobby in France means that people now are much more aware of who their relatives are and of any relationship to a person who might leave a tidy sum. Though battles have been fought between knowledgeable heirs and the larger probate genealogy research companies, it seems pretty clear that family historians will probably inform one another of legal procedures to follow to ensure that they will not have to sign contracts and pay fees.
  2. With the increasing influence of North American genealogy practices and styles (note the increased presence of French genealogists at RootsTech and the increasing number of liaisons between FamilySearch and French archives) views of this somewhat parasitic form of genealogy may be changing in France. If one reads the Standards of Practice and Conduct on the website of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy, the first two points specifically prohibit the most lucrative and desirable type of research project of French probate genealogists:
    1. "Not take a forensic genealogy case on a speculative, contingent, percentage, or outcome-based fee agreement as many jurisdictions have found this constitutes a conflict of interest; 
    2. Not recruit beneficiaries or heirs for my own business, for other firms, or for attorneys..."

Because of the legal requirements concerning the distribution of an estate in France, notaires will always need probate genealogists to document fully all heirs to an estate, as in the first type of project described above. However, the second type of project may be, we posit, on its way out. Some genealogists would have to adapt to avoid suffering, but all heirs would be much better off.


©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


*For our French readers, translation websites interpret this phrase to mean "sur les patins" ("on skates"); non! non! non! non! "On the skids" translates most closely to "être sur le déclin" or "battre de l'aile".



Listen to a Radio Programme About Genealogy in Poitou

Poitou ladies

As many of our Dear Readers have ancestors who hailed from Poitou, we think you may enjoy listening to this radio programme on France Bleu about  genealogy there. 

Read our older posts about Poitou:


©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy



They're Up! Paris Bonanza on Family Search!

Paris Bookshop

No slackers on this project. Barely had we announced that the City Council of Paris had approved an agreement between FamilySearch and the Paris Archives than the project was accomplished. Really, we are rather impressed.

Recall that this concerns the roughly two million replaced parish and civil registrations (l'état civil reconstitué) of the more than eight million that were lost in the Paris Communards' incendiary rampage. (They did not only burn down the City Hall and numerous other buildings where power was centred, they placed dynamite in Notre Dame and nearly blew that up.) The period covered by these two million replacements is 1500 to 1860. (Though the fire was in 1871, register books from 1861 and later had not yet been transferred to the central registry but were still in the individual city halls of the arrondissements and so, were not burnt, except for some of the 12th arrondissement.)

The index cards have been available online for years but to see the full registrations, one had to go to the Paris Archives to view the microfilm. Now, that no longer is necessary. The presentation on FamilySearch is, to our mind, utterly baffling and with no explanation whatsoever, nor do they seem to be indexed on FamilySearch. (The negative aspect of a rushed job is a lack of planning and preparation.) Thus, one must follow exactly the procedure one had to use in the archives.

Step One: Search the index cards (fichiers alphabetiques). They are arranged first by type, e.g. baptism/birth, marriage, burial/death. Within the type, they are arranged alphabetically by surname. Within the surname, they are arranged chronologically. Thus for the birth of a Maron, you first choose births (naissances), then type in Maron and, in the results, start reading through the years. Once you have found the person you seek, note the full name and the date of birth. For example: Caroline Maron, born the 29th of September 1844.

  • Use the website of the Paris Archives or FamilySearch to look at the index cards. (We really do suggest that you check both, for there are some old mistakes that seem never to have been corrected.)

Step Two: Look up the microfilm number in the catalogue. These are arranged by type (again, baptism/birth, marriage, burial/death being naissances, mariages, décès), then chronologically. Find the date span that includes yours, so, births of 29th September 1844 will be on microfilm number 5Mi 1/565. The microfilm catalogues are partially on the Paris Archives website and partially on that of FamilySearch:

Step Three: On FamilySearch, find the correct microfilm and start looking for your document. They are filmed chronologically, then by surname so, in our example, we read along to the 29th of September 1844 and then through the birth registrations arranged alphabetically by surname to Maron, Caroline. The links to the microfilm on FamilySearch are below, but now it gets annoying as some fool at FamilySearch decided to alter the system in the middle and give the titles of the rolls as dates rather than the Paris microfilm numbers (as any archivist or librarian will know, it is NOT a good idea to make partial changes to an established system) :

No, it is not a breeze, but it certainly easier than booking a voyage to the Paris Archives, superb though they may be.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


A Boost to Alsace Research

Alsace Grandfather

Recall that ancestors from Alsace were quite mobile and that this makes them difficult to research. For a long time, French genealogy societies, called cercles, have been heroically going through, town by town, all of the parish and civil registrations and extracting names and dates. It is painstaking work, as anyone who has looked through the registers on the Departmental Archives websites will know.

The extracted names then are put in alphabetical order and listed in booklets sold by the societies, by town name and type of registration, e.g. "Commune X - Naissances". Thus, one could buy a booklet for all of the births for a town dating from, for example, 1669 to 1870. It would list the names of the children, the parents, any godparents and give the date of the baptism or birth registration. Armed with that, the researcher could then find the registration at the Departmental Archives or on their website and make a copy.

Over the years, the formats changed. From booklets, the extracts, called relevés, were then put on France's early internet, Minitel, now defunct. With the demise of that, the various societies slowly set up their own websites and struggled to convert their often idiosyncratic databases and programmes to something that could be used online and that would also bring them some income. The large, commercial genealogy websites posed a very real threat with their own indexing, until the two began working together to provide quite a boost to the researcher.

Geneanet has worked extensively with the societies and has just announced that it will now have access to the extracts made by the Cercle généalogique d'Alsace (discussed here). This will be an incredible help for all of those who cannot easily read the writing or who would rather not peruse thousands of registers seeking their ancestors.

As explained on the Geneanet blog, the most direct way to search just the Alsace collection is to go to the search page entitled Genealogy Society Indexes. As their global searches produce quite messy results, this is the recommended way to conduct a focused search. You must have a "Premium" subscription to Geneanet to view the results. This costs forty euros per year, while joining the cercle costs fifty-eight euros, although you would receive their Bulletin as well.

This new avenue should be of great help to many of you, Dear Readers!

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Deeper Research via Family Chronicles - Livres de Raison

Livre de Raison

Many of you, Dear Readers, would seem to have been so successful in your French genealogy, that you have researched your families back to the beginning of parish registration and are keen to push further. We tell today of one way to do that.

In earlier days of this blog, we extolled the joys of reading local history as an aid to genealogical research and to understanding your French ancestors' lives. In the same vein, we suggest that you may be able to find more about your family, if you are very lucky, in livres de raison

These books were essentially family account books, usually of farms or businesses, but sometimes of shops. Often, they span centuries and can contain an extraordinary amount of detail, including:

  • Running accounts
  • Copies of bills paid for all sorts of items or services, including veterinaries
  • Copies of wills
  • Copies of baptism, birth, marriage, death and burial registrations
  • Lists of heirs
  • Maps of lands
  • Property ownership histories
  • Notes on local events and/or catastrophes
  • Pages from almanacs

They are highly personal, so the content of each is unique. Some go as far back as the fourteenth century. A few have been published. As they tend to be mostly agricultural, few come from the maritime departments. It seems that none from Finistère, Loire-Atlantique or Côtes d'Armor have survived, though there are some from the larger Seine-Maritime and Charente-Maritime. 

Where to find them? Some have been put online by Gallica, either as original manuscripts or published studies. (Click on Recherche avancée, type in the titre field "livre de raison" with the quotes, in Type de document click only manuscrit and monographie.)

The Archives nationales have published a comprehensive list of those held in Departmental Archives and in libraries throughout France here. Others have been microfilmed or have surfaced more recently, so check the online finding aids of the Archives nationales, SIV, as well.

Even if you do not find that your ancestor maintained a livre de raison that has survived, look at any for the location where your ancestor lived and you may find at least a mention. Your ancestor's name may appear in an invoice, as a witness at a marriage, as a godparent, as a customer of a cobbler.

Research at this level   -- far deeper than merely a list of births, marriages and deaths -- can be much more difficult and also more rewarding; and it will make your family genealogy much more informed.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy