In French genealogy, the actes d'état civil -- the birth, marriage and death records -- are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to finding out about ancestors. Once those have been found, the next area of research might well be the notarial records. For a few centuries, most French documents with any sort of contractual function will have been created by a notaire, but what is a notaire?
A notaire is not the equivalent of a notary public, though the service of verifying a signature is one of the many things a notaire will do. Neither is a notaire a type of lawyer or barrister though, because they must advise on the law, they also study it. The sign in the photo above is the standard notaire's shingle, the sight of which brings a sense of security to most French people, while the thought of a lawyer brings fear and suspicion.
Briefly, since Napoleon's Code Civil went into effect in 1804, a notaire is a public official appointed by the Ministry of Justice, but with his or her own practice. A modern notaire is required by law to give advice as to the law and the consequences of any document or transaction his or her clients are considering. The documents drawn up by a notaire are official; they have probative force; they are enforceable; they can have the state seal. (Hence the sense of security in dealing with one. Gazumping by one's own notaire does not happen in France.) In Europe, this is known as the "Latin-style notaire".
Notaires existed prior to the Code Civil and served much the same function of drawing up and authenticating documents. Quite often their practices, called études (as they still are), and their authority, were hereditary. In the past, many were itinerant, each wandering his territory and visiting huts, hovels and manor houses, writing out marriage contracts, wills and deeds. Do not think, however, that his lifestyle indicates a profession like that of some grubby little épistolier on the road. A notaire had robes of officialdom; even now, a notaire is always addressed as "Maître" (Master). To learn more about modern notaires, visit the site of the top training institution for notaires in France: the Centre de Formation Professionnelle Notariale de Paris.
Notaires have always kept copies of the documents they draw up, called les minutes or sometimes, les actes, in their études. Forever. Through the usual little catastrophes that occur in this world, some have been destroyed, but thousands remain. Since 1979, the études have been required by law to turn over any of these copies more than 125 years old to the departmental archives. Some complied; some did not.
Until recently, the only way to see notarial records was to visit the Departmental Archives, but more and more of the Archives départementales are filming the records and putting them on their websites. (Some of those that have all ready done so are Drôme, Hérault, Loire-Atlantique, Haute-Marne, Puy-de-Dôme, Seine-et-Marne, Var, Vendée, and Val-d'Oise.)
The study of notarial records covers a vast array of subjects, especially terminology, paleography, and law, none of which we intend to pursue here. (We get bored with terminology unless it rhymes. We go blind with paleography. Law intimidates us.) We will, however, over the next couple of posts, give some basic information which we hope will allow those interested to make a beginning.
©2010 Anne Morddel
For a nice, clear description of a notaire's duties, look here.