If, in your research on your French ancestor, you find a baptism or birth record without a father named for the child, do not despair. There is another resource: the déclaration de grossesse, or the pregnancy declaration. Depending upon which historian you read, the requirement for unmarried or widowed women who fell pregnant to make a legal declaration before a notaire or judge was intended to:
- protect girls from rape and seduction
- combat infanticide
- make sure as many children as possible would be baptized as Catholic
- reform women
- reduce the number of babies abandoned
The first law to that effect was in 1556, under Henri II and it applied to all women, married or not, though it seems that was rather difficult to enforce. Over the next three centuries, there were modifications. In 1745, judges were required to stop all pregnant women and, if they could not provide proof of having made a pregnancy declaration, take them into custody. In 1748, in order to avoid "anonymous denunciations" by snooping neighbours, women were required to make the declaration before the sixth month of gestation. This was later changed to the eighth month. Even after the Revolution, until the 1830s, pregnancy declarations in some form were required of some women. Thus, in each commune and each city quartier, when a dead baby was discovered, prosecutors had a ready list of suspects. Infanticide, from the first law of 1556 through the penal code of 1791, was considered first degree murder, punishable by death. A woman who did not register was considered to be planning to kill her child.
The women who married, noble, rich, generally were ignored by these laws. Those who most were affected by them were servant women, for they were vulnerable at all hours to the advances of the men of the places where they worked. The declarations make sad reading at times, for they tell of rape, of humiliation, of seduction and betrayal, of prostitution. They also show that local officials were often kind and tolerant, assigning public money to support the child, prosecuting rapists when possible, promising to protect the privacy of the woman making the declaration, unless she needed the document in court. Lots of material here for graduate theses.
The two main places to look for pregnancy declarations are the Archives Départementales, where they can be found in three different series:
- Series B, if before 1790
- Series L 238-406 and supplements 1 and 2 to Series L, and Series U, if from 1790-1800
- Subseries 4 U, if from 1810- 1830
and in the archives of the Justices Seigneurials. The justice seigneurial was often the local lord acting as the justice over his tenants. These archives are located inconsistently. In some places, they are in the archives of the commune, in others, in the departmental archives.
©2009 Anne Morddel