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Whinging and Genealogy - Cahiers de doléances


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Increasingly, the websites of the various Departmental Archives are announcing the numérisation, or digitizing, and the putting on-line of their collections of cahiers de doléances. Time for us to explain just what these dandy little notebooks full of complaints are and what  fun they can be for the French genealogist.

In July of 1788, the king of France, Louis XVI, was on his way out but did not know it. He did have an inkling that something was causing discontent on an unprecedented scale and so, reluctantly, agreed to allow for a meeting of the Estates-General. (The First Estate was about ten thousand Catholic clergy; the Second Estate was about forty thousand of the nobility. These two had most of the land, money and jobs and paid no taxes. The Third Estate was everybody else; they paid taxes. Plus ça The last time there had been such a meeting was in 1614, which could go some way to explaining why French kings were so out of touch with their people.

In preparation for the meeting, the king had the bright idea of ordering the Three Estates to list their grievances. During March and April of 1789, this inept despot gave his people a voice. It was not the press and not any precursor of the internet, it was thousands of notebooks in which everyone, from priests to dukes, to merchants, to the odd literate peasant, could write what they thought was wrong with the country and its government. The king lost his nerve and unwisely cancelled the Meeting of the Three Estates; a bad move for now, everyone could read that everyone else was annoyed enough for a revolution. 

Most of the cahiers de doléances survive. They were produced by every type of group or association, of which just a few were:

  • The nobles of Paris
  • The communities of the province of Anjou
  • The representatives of the Third Estate from Lyon
  • The inhabitants of Nomain, in Douai
  • The prosecutors of Marseille
  • The inhabitants of the colony of Sénégal (presumably the colonists and not the colonized)
  • The shopkeepers of Besançon
  • The clergy of Beauvais

Many of these, along with related correspondence and documentation, are in the Archives nationales, in ninety cartons of the series BA.  Most others are in the Departmental Archives (see the list of links to the left of this page), again in series B, but also increasingly on-line.

From priests complaining that they wanted to be allowed to marry, to wayward nobles saying their families should not be allowed to banish them, to farmers complaining about the profits made on salt, the entries in the cahiers de doléances make fascinating reading. For the historian, they are a contemporary record from those whose voices were rarely heard. For the genealogist, they shed light on what is so often unobtainable: the thoughts of an ancestor. 

There are a couple of avenues of research for your ancestor's possible complaint: in the cahiers de doléances of his place of residence, in those of his profession or métier, or of the Estate in which he found himself. Keep checking the website of the Departmental Archives, as they are constantly updating. Then brush up on your French and start reading!

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy