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May 2012

The Military Uniform That Is Not - the Grandes Ecoles

Polytecnicien uniform

In the course of your studying old photographs of your French ancestors, beware of those showing military uniforms, for all is not as it may seem. In the picture below, the man is wearing a military uniform; in the picture above, the men are not.  They are wearing a school uniform.

Man in uniform

The particular uniform in the top photo was of the Ecole Polytecnique, one of the first of the grandes écoles. It was created by the National Convention in 1794, along with two others, the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers. All three were royal institutions of education that were restructured after the Revolution and all three were modelled on military academies, with the students wearing military style uniforms. Even today, the Ecole Polytechnique is still under the authority of the Ministry of Defense. 

How to tell if a photo shows a soldier or a student? We have found no website or book on the uniforms of the grandes écoles, so we suggest looking for a specific facial expression or lack of it: extreme pride. The student of a grande école will have it, the poor conscript most likely will not. Every man was required to do military service, but entrance to a grande école (of which there are now at least twenty) was and still is quite difficult. There are years of preparation, there are exams, there are interviews. 

To understand the system of the grandes écoles, which are completely separate from the university system of France, is to understand how the country is run, for every senior civil servant and every corporate executive is a graduate of a grande école. Hence the pride, some say arrogance. Graduates of the grandes écoles are known by a nickname, which may appear on the back of your photo. Thus, alumni of:

  • Ecole Polytechnique are known as Xs or Polytecniciens
  • Ecole Normale Supérieure are known as Normaliens 
  • Arts et Métiers are known as Gadzarts
  • Ecole nationale d'administration are known as Enarques (and they are VERY powerful)
  • Ecole nationale des chartes are known as Chartistes

Should you find a Gadzart or a normalien among your ancestors, you could  try contacting the school for some details as to his studies there, particularly as to in which city he did his studies (most of the grandes écoles have multiple locations around France). Discovering where a man was living in his early twenties could lead to discovery of where he married. One never knows.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Sint ut sunt aut non sint

Boxer small

There has been much in the presse généalogique recently about a dust-up that ended over a year ago, with the loser returning home, presumably to engage in the French-bashing so ignominiously fashionable there. We wrote about aspects of this tussle at the time here and here on the blog. Essentially, a number of commercial genealogy companies that have large websites of data bases with good search facilities, want to gain the right to index and link to the actes d'état civil and other records held in Departmental Archives. The key players have been Notre Famille, who own, and Ancestry's French arm, each of them versus the various archives facilities in France.

Ancestry lost. It is not yet clear if Notre Famille has actually won. It may even turn out that the many Departmental Archives will gain the field. That civil servants eventually could beat out two substantial corporate entities may be incomprehensible to the Anglo mind but then, it is unfamiliar with the extraordinary bellicosity and stubbornness of French bureaucrats, who, like Ricci, would rather lose all than change a structure. In any case, the game is not quite over and we are not in the business of clairvoyance.

Of interest here are the candid revelations of Clotilde de Mersan, development director for Ancestry France, in an interview for La revue française de généalogie. When asked as to what she thought went wrong, it would seem at first like a classic old tale of the Continental preference for tradition and long lunches as opposed to the those with the philosophy that the market drives all. De Mersan's reasons for what went wrong are:

  • Ancestry's "industrial" vision and business model did not sit well with the French civil servants;
  • It was not possible to create an indexing of all of the data from all of the actes d'état civil across the country because:
    • Notre Famille got there first and had exclusive contracts with many of the associations that had done the indexing locally, and
    • many of those associations refused to work with either corporation, or with any other, on a general anti-business principle;
  • The Departmental Archives, having lost a legal battle against Notre Famille to prevent any commercial use of their records, then charged such exhorbitant fees for that use that all hope of profit was lost;
  • Finally, it was too much of a headache to have to negotiate separate contracts with each of the one hundred Departmental Archives facilities.

Ancestry may have thrown in the towel, and Mme. de Mersan states that they will not be renewing the few contracts for data base rental that they do have, but the same magazine, in a special issue on "The Best Data bases" leads off with an article on how Ancestry's French website can still be of use. They list:

  • The Paris Collection of thirteen million names, even though all of it is also available on and on the website of its source, GeneaService of Andriveau.
  • A few indices of names from some of the cercles or associations, notably Bretagne.
  • Of particular interest to people in France researching ancestors who emigrated: the North American passenger arrivals lists and census returns, which can indicate a person was French.
  • An indexing of and link to genealogical works held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France which has its own, free, website, Gallica to which the Ancestry site links anyway.

To our mind, Ancestry was defeated in France not because of a cultural clash, but for two reasons. Firstly, many Departmental Archives are staffed by people vehemently opposed to any company cashing in on their holdings; secondly, the folks at Notre Famille -- free market dynamos all the way -- would seem to have administered a more forceful coup de pied au corps.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Finding a Parish

Saint Etienne du Mont

It may be that you have traced your family and have copies of civil and parish registrations back to the eighteenth or even seventeenth century, and then are blocked because a person on, say, a marriage registration, gave his birth in another parish and you cannot locate that parish. Such is the case of our Reader,  Madame H., who wrote of an ancestor from "Saint-Mathurin-de-la-Dagueniere" in Anjou, a place that seems to be two.

Firstly, a couple of definitions. A paroisse in the French Catholic church is the territory under the spiritual jurisdiction of a curé; not to be confused with the British parish, which is an administrative division, comparable to the French commune. A diocèse encompasses many paroisses and is under the spiritual jurisdiction of a bishop or archbishop. 


Usually but not always, a parish takes its name from a local church and a diocese takes its name from the town where its cathedral is located. In small villages where the village name is a saint's name, the village may be the equivalent of the parish. Additionally, from Roman times to the Revolution, France was divided into provinces, which fluctuated somewhat.

To find a parish is no longer too much of a headache, thanks to the Internet, but it still may take some hunting and may, in the end, be found with help from many people, as we described on a similar parish hunt. Here are a number of places to look:

  • Start with a search of the parish name on Wikipedia in French. It may be the same as a town. If so, the page will give the department where the town is located and you will then be able to use the link in the left-hand column of this blog to go to website of that department's archives. In this, case La Daguenière is a town near Angers, in the department of Maine-et-Loire, which Madame H. had already discovered. Be sure to read the history of the town to see if its name was different during the century for which you are searching.
  • Find the town on Google Maps, if possible. (Be warned that Google Maps for France is not infallible. Some of the maps used date from the 1960s and much has changed since then.) 
  • Wikipedia and Google Maps have no Saint-Mathurin-de-la-Daguenière and no Saint-Mathurin near to La Daguenière. On the map can be seen that, about five or six kilometers up the river is a Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire
  • French Wikipedia has listings of every commune (city, town, or village) for every department. In the search box, just type in commune and the name of the department. The list for Maine-et-Loire has, of course, the two villages, La Daguenière and Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire. It does not have any other version with Saint-Mathurin.  
  • Wikipedia also has a list of old commune names for each department (liste des anciennes communes) and that for Maine-et-Loire shows that Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire was known as Saint-Mathurin until 1974.

It is our experience that people tended and still tend to give the name of a larger town near to their home when speaking to those who do not know the area. Knowing that near to La Daguenière was a town named Saint-Mathurin, the quickest way to determine the parish location is to go to the website of the Departmental Archives or Maine-et-Loire, which will show the parish names for the registers for each place. La Daguenière had one parish in the seventeenth century and that was named Saint-Blaise et Saint-Nicolas. Looking in the listing for registrations in Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire, called simply Saint-Mathurin in the same century, shows that the parish was also named Saint-Mathurin. Madame H. wanted to know if it would behoove her to search the registers of La Daguenière. It would not. We would like to point her in the direction of Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire, with wishes for good luck.

Where the Departmental Archives may not be online or where the parish did not keep its own registers, the hunt may be more difficult. Continuing the search with the following may be of help.

  • The Catholic church of France has a website with a map of all current dioceses of France. It is interactive, so you can click on the diocese to get its address and a link to its specific web page. Each has a link to a list of its parishes. Many parishes have their own websites as well and are often worth checking as some give the history of the parish which may have changed its name over time.
  • Check the list of pre-Revolutionary dioceses, Ancien Régime dioceses of France, (which is in English) on Wikipedia to see if the boundaries of the diocese have changed radically. 
  • It may help to also study the map on France Gen Web of French Archbishoprics and Bishoprics in 1748, again, to be certain of boundaires and hierarchies at the time. 
  • Many towns, even the smallest, have their own Wikipedia pages which may give the town's complete history, including all of its churches. 
  • In despair, one could write to the archivist of the diocese or to the archivist of the relevant Departmental Archives.

Failure is no reason to give up; only a call to be more creative.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Nobles on the Net

Noble Lioness

Not so long ago, we wrote about resources for researching your French noble ancestors. Uncannily, that was a most popular post. With a sigh, we accept that more would be appreciated and so, we introduce today the recently launched "Noble Wiki", (also calling itself "Noblepédia"), a collaborative effort to gather together the genealogical data on France's noble families. As wikis go, this one is a tot, with a mere thirty-five pages but, given the subject, sure to grow apace.

Navigation is non-existent. Links are as yet few. The page entitled Liste des familles nobles has a nice explanation of the importance of knowing the difference between titles of the pre-Revolutionary era, the First Empire, the Restauration, and the Second Empire. It gives its sources, and then presents an alphabetical listing of names of noble families taken from those sources.

Assertions of nobility by contributors are already present and are forceful. We feel that those making such assertions might benefit from listening to the radio interview in 1976 with one of the authors of Dictionnaire de la noblesse française, Fernand de Saint Simon, a relation of the Duc de Saint Simon. For those of you descended from nobles, it will be a window on their views. De Saint Simon's nuggets in the interview include:

  • "We do not interfere with history." (When asked if he would try to reclaim the family's lost title.)
  • "Nobility is as much a service as a privilege."
  • "I have no modesty but I have great humility."

He seems never to realize or perhaps to deign to notice, that the interviewer finds him a bizarre dinosaur.

If you are seeking the genealogy of your noble ancestor, Noble Wiki is not yet big enough to be of much help. If you have completed the genealogy of your noble line, by all means, create a page there and stake out your territory.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Strike It Rich With

Rich Uncle

Today, we offer a game, a treat, a chance to hit that jackpot. In France, to have an "American uncle", oncle d'Amérique, means the same as "rich uncle" does in English. He is the distant, unknown relative who dies leaving pots of money that tumble and roll down the family line to you. There is a certain type of hunter, we will not say genealogist, who specializes in finding the heirs to such folk and demanding a cut before letting them know how and were to collect. The website we introduce has naught to do with that ilk, but it does have to do with finding heirs.

French notaires and insurers are required by law to ensure that all heirs and beneficiaries are found, which can often be quite difficult, especially when inheritance can go to distant relatives. They employ and work closely with large teams of probate genealogists and clerks, one of whom, Raphaël Bermondy, had a clever idea: put together the public's ever growing passion for genealogy with the notaire's need to find heirs, et voilà! was born. 

It looks like it was designed on a no frills, bargain basement web design package, but it gets the job done. Members of the public sign up at no cost and enter their family trees. (Do not start entering data until you have received an e-mail confirmation of your account.) You can enter previous generations back to your great-grandparents, that being the fourth degree of relation, and then as many of their descendants as you know, to the sixth degree.  Notaires, insurers and others with a professional need to know then pay for the right to search the database of names for the heirs they seek. You have a chance to inherit a French fortune, the notaires find answers fast and Monsieur Bermondy profits nicely. was greeted with dour scowls when it first went online a year ago, but it now has over ten thousand members and half a million names in its data banks. Put your French ancestors to work, we say. Enter that part of your family tree and see what happens.

©2102 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Sourcing and Annotating the French Way

Lady and globe small


We have mentioned before the definitive text for genealogists on the citing sources, Evidence Explained, by Elizabeth Shown Mills, when we proposed a way to identify locations with certainty using the codes assigned by the French department of statistics, the INSEE. No one can disupte the excellence of the methodology in Evidence Explained; but there are some difficulties for those working with original French sources. Shown Mills quite naturally assumes that most of her readers will be working with microfilms of French actes d'état civil in their local Family History Library and so, gives examples for how to cite the source in terms of FHL codes, which is of little help when one is working with the original or with other types of documents not filmed or in the FHL.

Just now, Sophie Boudarel, on her blog La Gazette des Ancêtres, is running a series of posts explaining how sourcing is done by French genealogists. It is extremely useful and we cannot improve upon it, but recommend it sincerely. 

She began with a post on how to organise one's genealogy files and notes, entitled Comment organiser ses dossiers généalogiques? In this, she discusses the SOSA system and quotes the noted genealogist, Jordi Navarro, who arranges his documentation not by individuals, but geographically.

Ms. Boudarel then discusses how to cite and organise specific documents in Comment nommer ses documents en généalogie? She proposes a system quite different from that used by most Anglophone genealogists. In the following post, Comment utiliser les sources en généalogie? she again refers to Navarro, who had commented on her previous posts. A key difference that he makes is between a source document, such as a civil register, and the contents of a page within it, such as an acte de naissance.

Whether or not one agrees with the system, we strongly recommend that anyone serious about French genealogy read these posts and others. Only by doing so will one be able to understand the French thinking behind the creation and arrangment of their own documentation. It will greatly aid researchers in finding what they seek, and in correctly identifying it afterward. 

Excellent work, Ms. Boudarel.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy