On occasion, we have shared with French friends the fact that, in America, a person can move from one state to another and begin a new life with very little documentation. One can marry showing only a driver's license from another state, for example. This little detail just about always prompts the same response:
"Incroyable! If you do not check his records, a man could have many wives at the same time."
"Well, it's possible," we say slowly, "But most people do not want to do that." This invariably brings smugly arched eyebrows and an exchange of knowing nods at what simpletons Americans are about human nature. In order to marry in France, one must present a copy of the birth registration, which will show any previous marriages and divorces in the margin. One must also post banns.
Increasingly, the online subscription data bases for genealogy in France (which we have discussed in a previous post), are adding searchable collections of banns as well as of marriages. Now, we are seeing family genealogies based on research on those sites giving the date of one of the banns postings as that of a marriage, and confusing the banns with the marriage. Thus, an explanation.
The posting of marriage banns (according to French sources, the word's origin is the germanic bannjan -- a gloriously chantable word which means "proclamation"; according to English sources it comes from the Middle English word bane, meaning "summons") in France has been required since the twenty-fifth session of the Council of Trent in 1563. Banns ensure that the community be notified of a couple's intention to marry, giving anyone who opposes the marriage an opportunity to do so before the event. Originally, they had to be posted in the natal parishes of both persons of the couple. Added to this later was the requirement that they also be posted in the parishes where they lived, if different from where they were born.
The procedure was to set the date for the marriage first. Then, the banns - the proclamation of the intention to marry -- were announced at mass in the parish church on the three Sundays before the planned wedding. A notice to the same effect may also have been posted on the church door for the three previous Sundays. After the Revolution, the banns were posted at the town hall, the Mairie. According to the chatterboxes we have interviewed, the sole purpose of banns is to curtail the supposedly indubitable urge of every Frenchman to have a cross-departmental harem.
Lest we think this was archaic and no longer applies, be informed that marriage banns are still required to be posted at the town hall, though only once, not three times. As the couple are permitted to marry only in the town where at least one of them resides, the banns still perform their original function. The marriage can take place no sooner than ten days and no later than one year after the posting.
In genealogical research, banns are useful for finding the acte de mariage. They give the names of the couple and sometimes their parents' names, a date, possibly a residence. However, banns cannot be taken as proof of marriage. There could have been banns; there even could have been a marriage contract signed, and yet, for any number of reasons, the marriage might not have taken place.
©2010 Anne Morddel