Once you have traced a French ancestor back to the Revolution, to carry on back to further generations, you will need to research in the parish registers. Since 1539, when the law known as the ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts (the town, by the by, where Alexandre Dumas was born), it was required for curés, (parish priests), to record all baptisms, marriages and burials within their parishes. Before that law, some registrations were made and kept, but they were on loose paper, not in register books. The earliest known parish register is claimed to be that of Roz-Landrieux, in Ile-et-Vilaine, begun in 1451*. The French genealogists say that these registrations were made to "ensure the catholicity" of each citizen.
Louis XIV then increased the paperwork (happy genealogists!) by requiring that duplicates of all registrations be sent to administrative centres. Thus, the church had one copy and the government another. With the Revolution, the parish registers were abolished. Though the church continued them, and still does so, they now serve only to ensure that catholicity, and are not legal documents. In their place, the government created the état-civil, or civil status, which is documented by actes of birth, marriage and death. All of the parish registers came under government authority and, once the departmental archives were established , were deposited there. Thus within each of the Archives Départementales, in Series E, will be registers going back at least four hundred years.
In the argot of French genealogists, they are referred to as the BMS (Baptêmes, Mariages, Sépultures, baptisms, marriages, and burials, even though S will often be replaced by E for enterrement, which also means burial). The picture above gives a partial copy of a nice example (originals not being permitted). Often, edges are torn or burned, ink blobs obscure the writing, and the semi-literate curés used inexplicable and indecipherable spelling.
Some of the departmental archives have their registers online and searchable. None that we have used, however, has an index of all names. Once again, (location, location!) it is imperative to know the name of the parish and to have an approximate date of the event before the search begins. Unless, that is, you do not mind reading through the wonderful old entries and learning odd personal details.
In the next post will be examples of entries.
*Many French genealogists and publications will say that the oldest preserved register is that of Givry, dating back to 1334, which it is, but it is not a parish, or ecclesiastical, registration. Pierre Durye, in Genealogy : an Introduction to Continental Concepts, points out that the Givry registration was "no doubt, of private initiative, for the first ecclesiastical rulings prescribing the keeping of these registers are the synodical statutes of Henri le Barbu, bishop of Nantes in 1406, and the most ancient documents reaching us are the baptisms of Roz-Landrieux." (p. 81)
©2009, Anne Morddel