Being Protestant in the early days was not easy and documenting the basic events in life -- a baptism, a marriage, a death -- often had to be done secretly, in hidden places,through small doors, down steep, dark stairways. As laws and freedoms changed constantly, so did the kinds of documentation. The types of documentation concerning Huguenots in France falls into four basic time periods:
The Beginning - From the first Synod to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes - 1559-1685
There are some lists of members of churches and of baptisms. Too often, in the ups and downs of persecution, these lists could be confiscated and be used to identify those to be persecuted, so there are not many. Yet, without legal documentation, even in the 16th century, one did not legally exist and could not function in society, so many little tricks were tried. Some Protestants had their children baptized in the Catholic church in order to get the necessary documentation, and then re-baptised as Protestant. Many who could afford it went outside of France to marry since foreign Protestant marriages were recognized by French law when internal ones were not. Others waited for the rare visit from an itinerant Protestant pastor. This means that it is quite difficult to find a trace of Protestants in the very early years.
The Years of Extreme Persecution -
From the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes to the Edict of Tolerance - 1685 - 1787
These were the worst years with many instances of horrific persecution. By law, Protestant children were baptized by priests and so, will appear in the parish registers in many cases. A few brave Protestant pastors kept baptism registers and a small number of those remain. Deaths of Protestants were written in the Catholic parish registers with the added note saying that they had died heretics. Those who were lucky enough to live close to the border could cross into Switzerland to marry or have a child baptized according to their Protestant faith. The notary files may have quite a lot, as people sold their property rather than have it confiscated, or arranged false sales for the same reason.
Many records that remain tend to be those that document Protestants as criminals or as forced Catholics. Lists of those who converted but whose faith was in doubt, lists of children taken from Protestant parents to be reared as Catholics, lists of confiscated goods, lists of men forced into the galleys, of women sent to prison, of fugitives.
The Years of Tolerance - From the Edict of Tolerance to the Revolution - 1787-1792
The Edict of Tolerance in 1787 decriminalized Protestantism, allowing people to profess the faith, to practice their trades, marry, have their children's births registered by a judge, and so on. It was a time of limited acceptance. Protestant registers for births, marriages and deaths were created. Special registers for legalizing the marriages and children that were all ready in existence were created, called "rehabilitation registers". As always, the notarial files can be rich with detail.
After the Revolution - post 1792
After the Revolution, Protestants, like everyone else, have their births, marriages and deaths registered in the civil registers.
This gives some idea of the hurdles to be encountered when tracing Huguenot ancestors. In the next post, we will write about where to find these records.
© 2009 Anne Morddel