The many interesting types of notarial records include marriage contracts, wills, guardianship arrangements, apprenticeship contracts, sales contracts, deeds, estate inventories, and records of payments linked to any of these. In them, individuals will be named, their appearances occasionally detailed, their relationships with others -- sometimes salaciously -- described, their disputes outlined, their accumulated belongings catalogued, their successes and failures clinically displayed. It cannot be denied; this is a bonanza.
The most genealogically useful of the standard notarial records are:
- Marriage Contracts, for they give a great deal of information about both families of the couple: full names of the couple, their ages (or at least a statement as to whether they had reached the age of majority), date and place of birth, current residence, whether either were widowed or divorced and the name of the previous spouse. There should also be the full names, professions and the residence of the parents and the witnesses. The dowry (see the recent post on dowries) will be detailed, along with precisely how and when it was to be paid.
- Wills, for they name children, spouses, and sometimes other relatives, and give an indication of wealth. Wills were very common at all levels of society before the Revolution. With the implementation of the Napoleonic Code, the number of wills written dropped dramatically. Probably, this is one of the biggest differences in documentation between French genealogy and others, for in the U.S. or Britain, wills continue to be left by most people, while in post-Revolutionary France, they are not. The reason for this is that Napoleon detailed and made law so precisely as to how estates were to be divided that writing a will became pointless. Only the tiniest changes have occurred in that law so it remains pretty close to what it was over 200 years ago. Essentially (and this chills the hearts of all the British retirees in France, in spite of a recent modification) the entire estate had to be divided equally between the deceased's children. No child could be disinherited. No child could receive more or less than another. There are dozens of points which prevent any sneaking around this and there are dozens more which detail -- to the sixth degree of relation -- who inherits what if there are no children or if they predecease. The point here is that the law was so clear that people just stopped leaving wills.
- Estate Inventories, or inventories after death, however, continued as before and became even more detailed after the Napoleonic Code. Since each child had to receive an inheritance of exactly the same value, there was an enormous amount of bickering about the value of every little thing. It is not at all uncommon for a family to dispute so much that the notaires will divide all of the deceased's belongings, all the contents of the house or farm, into heaps of equal value and tell the heirs to draw lots. The inventory will contain the name of the deceased, age at the time of death, place and date of death, and marital status. It will give the names and ages of the surviving spouse and of all children, with their professions. It may also have attached to it all previous marriage contracts and payment documents to clarify the property ownership. The inventory itself is, of course, a fascinating insight into the possessions of long ago.
It requires doggedness to do so, but try to get the notarial records for each generation, for then it is possible to create quite a detailed history of the experience of the family, its economic ups and downs, many of its traditions, its little prides and great tragedies.
©2010 Anne Morddel