It is well known that many surnames are words that mean a skill or someone who does a certain type of work. An ancestor was such a worker, became known by that word, as did the children to whom he passed on the skills and business. A cooper was a barrel maker, for example, and a smith was a blacksmith, etc. It is the same in France, where skills have become such names as Charpentier (roofer), Bûcheron (lumberjack), and so on.
However, knowing the work of an ancestor, which may or may not appear as a name, can yield more information. Perhaps you cannot find where in France your ancestor originated, but you may have on a document, an immigration record, for example, what his or her work - métier* - was. Knowing the skill could actually help in locating the place of origin. This is because many skills are traditionally associated with specific regions in France.
While much of the country is incredibly fertile and families long ago could support themselves with farming, this is not true of every region. In the mountains, for example, people could barely raise enough food for themselves during the short growing season, and certainly not enough to sell. Some regions have terrible soil or a terrible climate, forcing people to find other livelihoods than or in addition to farming. Over time, regions or towns became known for a specific skill or craft. Here is a by no means complete list:
- The Alps - mountain guide, herbalist, horse trader (this last in French - maquignon - also means someone who is a bit of a shady dealer, though we are not sure if that meaning is associated with the region too.)
- Alsace - bell-maker, makers of huge barrels, brass worker
- Bourgogne - ironworker, vintner
- Lyon - armourer, silk weaver
- Touraine - basket maker, silk weaver, linen weaver
- Nord and Pas-de-Calais - lace maker, weaver
- Normandy - sailor, weaver, wool worker (carding, spinning, weaving, knitting)
- Provence - perfumer, maker of stringed instruments (Ah! Provence!)
One of the most well known is the masonry of Limousin, the region around Limoges and a poor one. Since the twelfth century, people have been leaving the region to seek work. Even today, the region is known as one of the poorest, agriculturally speaking, in France. It is damp, the soil is not very good and full of stones, the weather is grim (and yes, that is where we cleverly bought our farm). With all that stone and plenty of water, it was perhaps inevitable that stonecutting and masonry would develop as a specialization that continues to this day.**
Indeed, little has changed. Our neighbour of the region was unwilling to take on his father's small dairy farm, knowing that it would not bring in even enough money for his computer game passion. There were two alternatives: migrate out of the region and away from his family and friends, or apprentice with the stonemason in the village (who, in his spare time, is a superb sculptor). He chose the latter and learned all of the traditional as well as modern methods. He now makes an extremely good living refurbishing old houses and chateaux of the region. He also redid the mortar on our barn (above), which was crumbling away to such an extent that the whole building was about to tumble. Nice job:
Because of this association of skills to regions, the study of métiers is part of a French genealogist's interest, even passion for some. We have added to the list of books in the panel to the right a couple of books on the subject. A large part of one of them can be read online at www.genealogie.com
where an alphabetical list of métiers is given, with descriptions of the work, the tools, the traditions, etc.
Many, many books have been written about the métiers of a particular region. The simplest way to find some is to go to www.amazon.fr and in the search box type the name of the region and the word métiers.
Once you think you have the skill and the right location for your ancestor, if that skill was one of those requiring registration, it is worth searching the relevant Archives Départementales. Series 4M lists names of traveling musicians, organ players, dentists, street acrobats, and such like. Series 8M has names of moneychangers, traveling salesmen, and other business information. Series 9M will have the archives of local workshops and studios, apprentices' contracts, workers' employment books, the records of guilds and professional societies.
There are dozens of villages around the country which, along the lines of Williamsburg in the U.S., have people re-enacting the old skills, wearing traditional dress and explaining to tourists how the work is done. A very good website of one of these is Les Vieux Métiers.
To see some old tools, machines, videos of them being used, etc. in a more scholarly presentation, see the wonderful site of the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. It has a small amount of the site translated into English, but not much.
*Métier is translated as craft but, as that now contains an implication of hobby rather than livelihood, we had thought to use the term skills.
** The region of Limousin was also famous in the days of horse-drawn carts for the particularly large local version that they made, known around the country as a limousin. The word was later applied to long automobiles: limousines.
©2009 Anne Morddel