Each time we visit our country farmhouse, we pay a courtesy visit to our neighbour across the dale, the indomitable Clemence. It is ever a pleasure to enter her immaculate kitchen and be welcomed by her into a house full of cousins and grandchildren. Clemence and her husband run a smallholding on which they breed cattle for milk-fed veal. It is an exact science to ensure that the calves have no access to any food but their mother's milk, involving what look like muzzles on the little ones. Our family have grown accustomed to the heart-rending lowing of the mothers when the calves are sent to market.
Clemence has a macabre sense of humour, to our vegetarian mind, and she does enjoy trying to upset us. Often she has invited us round for a morning coffee but, on our arrival, she will come bursting out of her little cabin that serves as a slaughterhouse, her apron covered in blood, as will be her arms up to the elbows. "Sorry!" she will say breathlessly. "I have just been killing some geese and taking their livers for foie gras. Would you like some?" We know how to steel ourselves and smile no thank you. It was a bit more difficult the day she offered us a bowl of freshly amputated frogs' legs. When she is not chuckling at what she perceives as our foolishness about eating animals, she generously fills baskets of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables and begs us to accept this bounty from her garden.
On a recent visit, we told Clemence we were to visit the archives for our department, Dordogne. Perhaps she would like us to look up something for her? We were only being polite, but she delightedly wiped the blood from her hands and rummaged in a drawer of papers. "Please find what you can about cousin Cyprien," she asked. She cares for her elderly mother-in-law and rarely can leave the farm for even a few necessary minutes, and certainly cannot go away for hours of luxurious archival research. We took Cyprien's details and another basket of enormous fresh lettuces and promised to do our best for her.
The Departmental Archives of all departments are in or very near to the capital city of the department. Those of Dordogne are in Périgueux, and are fairly typical of them all. Modern, staffed by intelligent, well-educated archivists who are very helpful, the archives are nicely organized, easy to understand and easy to use. As ever when in France, one must follow the rules: show identification and receive yet another user's card, and arrive in good time before lunch or closing. Lockers for valuables are provided. No pens are allowed in the reading room, but cameras, pencils and notebooks are.
Clemence wanted us to find what we could about Cyprien Lachaud, who had been born around 1850 in the commune of Granges d'Ans. Recall that the civil registers are arranged by parish or commune, then chronologically. In the small communes, such as this one, a single volume, divided into sections, will have all births, deaths and marriages for two or three years. A city might go through many such books in a year.
The registers are no longer kept on shelves in the reading room, but in appropriate archival storage. Standard procedure is to use one of the many computers available to search the catalogue for the register desired and to note its reference number. In this case, we were then required to go to one of two computers used for ordering the books from storage. We had to swipe the user's card through a reader, then type the reference number into the request form on the screen. One is allowed up to three requests per hour. The wait is approximately 25 minutes. We thought we would while away the time by reading the news on the internet on one of the unused computers but from out of nowhere a firm but polite archivist popped up and told us that was a no-no.
We had requested registers from the 1850s. They arrived and we immediately opened them to read down the tables annuelles looking for a Cyprien Lachaud. These are the first place to look when seeking genealogical information in the civil registers. Each register book across the nation has had the births, deaths, and marriage listed alphabetically at the end of each year within the book. A register book for the nineteenth century may look like this:
Within it, a table annuelle may look like this:
Very quickly, we found that Cyprien had been born in 1856 and were able to turn to his birth (on the right hand page below):
As can be seen in the photograph, additional information, such as the marriage or death of the person, may be added in the margin by the birth. (Since 1897, marriages have been added to margins; since 1886, divorces have been added; since 1945, deaths have been added; since 1955, adoptions are noted.) On these pages, for example, in the upper left is a stamp for entering the death. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the margin for Cyprien. However, by guessing his probable marriage and death dates, using the tables, and given the fact that the town was so small that the search was not arduous, we were able to find those for Clemence.
Photocopying the registers is not permitted, but photographing is. A table with extra lighting is provided for this purpose. It was in use, so we just plopped the registers on the floor and snapped away. No archivist popped up at this.
Some materials may be so fragile that they are available on microfilm only. Copies of images are possible and are not expensive. Most facilities -- but not Dordogne -- have this process automated as well and the copies are purchased using a card bought from a machine for that purpose.
All departmental archives also have a collection of plans cadastraux or napoléoniens. These are often the first records to be digitized and put online. They are the equivalent of the land registry, being drawn maps of boundaries of all property, each parcel numbered. For genealogical research, they are a most valuable land record. In Dordogne, an enormous book was brought out by the archivist and spread across half a long table for us to view the numbered plots of Granges d'Ans. We may have been among the last to have this privilege, for the entire collection of Dordogne's plans napoléoniens, some 6593 sections, are now available online. In most facilities, once the digitized version is available, the original is no longer so.
We printed our photos and took them to Clemence a few days later and she was pleased. She gave us a couple of tins of homemade paté de foie gras for those non-vegetarians in the family.
Over the next five years or so, all of the Archives Départementales will probably have their tables annuelles and décennales, états civils, and plans cadastrals napoléoniens online and fully indexed, (they are listed in the panel to the left) making visits to the facilities less necessary for the average genealogical search. Until then, we hope the above explanation may serve as a general guide.
©2009 Anne Morddel
(This post and the above photos have been reviewed and their use on this blog approved by the Directrice of the Archives départementales de Dordogne, for which we are most grateful.)