In the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the article on genealogy states that "Two forces have combined to give genealogy its importance during the period of modern history: the laws of inheritance, particularly those which govern the descent of real estate, and the desire to assert the privileges of a hereditary aristocracy." Little has changed. No one wants to be descended from the rat catcher. (See above.)
In France, where the people chopped their royals, one would expect a certain attitude of scorn toward them. Instead, genealogy here is often about proving that one is related to them. Innumerable books and CDs have been produced about the descendants of various famous, aristocratic, noble or royal persons. Genealogies of the Bourbons, the Condé princes, the kings of France, the Dukes of Bretagne, of the Louviers etc. are supplemented by genealogies of less well-known families. A recent example is a new publication of all 178,000 descendants of the ancestor of many kings of France, Hugues Capet. (The first name is pronounced "EUG" which, by the way, is what French-dubbed Indians in old American Westerns say when they hold up their hand in greeting: "EUG".)
While Americans want to know who their ancestors were and where they were from, since each generation may have relocated some distance from where born, that sort of search is generally unnecessary for the French. Every French person all ready knows who their ancestors are and where they are from because they are still there. All one needs to do is visit the grandparents' graves and the previous ten generations are probably right there next to them. This is exactly what we did in researching one Norman family that never moved. The entire family, but for one fellow who went to New York, were in the parish registers and cemeteries of a single little commune. All we had to do was go there and make copies. If anything, many French are not seeking to know their ancestral lines, but to escape being suffocated by their undying rules and traditions, though few ever do.
It is those French who do not mind history but love it who enjoy genealogy. They can find their ancestors quickly, but then want to flesh out the details of their lives, try to place them in the history of the region and country. This is why the genealogy books and magazines are so thick with historical detail in comparison with the practicality of North American publications.
As for the force of the laws of inheritance, those are written in stone in France: by law, all children must inherit equal shares. No child can be disinherited, no child can be favoured. Each couple, on their marriage, is issued with a Livret de Famille. A legal document, it is a small book in which are written the details of the marriage and the births of all children. With this and the actes de naissance, inheritance is simple, clear, and secure.
Yet, there exists in France even today, a type of professional genealogist who makes a living out of the inheritance laws. In a quite remarkable amount of speculative work, a genealogist may ferret out the whereabouts of a wealthy old person without family. They will then do extensive research until they find a relative, and wait. It may be a long wait. When the wealthy old person dies, the genealogist will then approach the relative, who has no idea that he or she stands to inherit a fortune. The deal struck for providing the name of the deceased and the proof of relationship is usually 50/50. "There is nothing dishonest in this," writes Pierre Durye in La Généalogie, "because they are selling a secret acquired by the means of their patient accumulation of genealogical information," without even knowing if there would be no will!
©2009 Anne Morddel