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April 2013

The Departmental Archives of Haute-Vienne


AD - HV 1

Junket time of year is upon us again. We took the train to Limoges, land of painted porcelain, to do a bit of research in the Departmental Archives of Haute-Vienne. The planning of the journey brought rather tiresome and repetitive comments from friends and acquaintances.

Since the First World War, Limoges has entered French slang in an unfortunate way. Marshal Joffre disciplined a dozen or so officers by demoting them and sending them to useless desk jobs in Limoges. Thus, in parlance, to be sent to Limoges or just "limoged", se faire limoger, is to be stripped of responsibility and authority and packed off to somewhere remote to rot. Tell anyone today that you are off to Limoges and there is bound to be some joke along the lines of "Oh, you've been limoged, eh?" accompanied by a guffaw. We really must upgrade some of our friendships.

The Departmental Archives of Haute-Vienne are like so many in the less-than-wealthy regions. The building is a bit tired. It has an interior garden that screams "Water me! Please!". They reportedly have a serious problem with fungus destroying documents. Procedures are similar to those of other Departmental Archives around the country: a first-time user must present a piece of identification which has a photograph, fill out a form and receive a user's card. It reminds us of the simple days of going to the town library as a child.

Normally, there is then a lecture and tour explaining the archives collections and how to use them. Here, we were given our card and waved toward the finding aids on the other side of the sunlit room. Good enough; we have no problem with independence. To request a file of register, one fills out a slip of paper and hands it to the fellow at the desk. After we did so, we watched the clock. Our register was in our hands less than six minutes after we had turned in the request slip. We think this may be some kind of a retrieval record. Though the staff may not force themselves upon one, ask a question and they suddenly bubble with helpfulness.

Genealogists are welcomed at the Departmental Archives of Haute-Vienne. Their website has a page of advice for people researching their family. It is brief but thorough. They also work closely with the genealogy associations of the region, including:

Both have published a number of surname studies and village histories. Both cover a much larger area than just Limousin, indicating that people from the area moved around it a fair bit. Both contribute to the palaeography classes given by the Departmental Archives. These classes are at three levels:

  • Initiation
  • Perfectionnement
  • Méthodologie

During our visit, members of the Le Cercle Généalogique, Historique et Héraldique de la Marche et du Limousin were present and they were keen to help us in our research. Thanks to them and to the archivists, it was a successful day.

The archivists also have produced some very good, one-page research guides, entitled Pistes de recherches:

  • Etangs et moulins (this is in Aquitaine, so ponds and watermills are many)
  • Le Cadastre - how to use the land registry
  • L'organisation de la justice - understanding the court structure in order to understand court records

We can warmly recommend that you pay a call with confidence to the Departmental Archives of Haute-Vienne, should your research needs lead you in that direction. For those who cannot make such a felicitous voyage, we suggest writing with queries to or using the search engines on the websites of the two associations and/or sending an e-mail, or courriel as it is here, to the Departmental Archives to request copies of specific documents. After a minor windstorm of courriels and some money changing hands, you will have a very nice copy of the record you seek.

Nice place, Limoges and its Departmental Archives. We suspect those exiled officers did not complain too much.


Archives Départementales de la Haute-Vienne

1 allée Alfred Leroux

87032 Limoges Cedex

tel: (+33) 05 55 50 97 60

Hours:  Monday to Wednesday and Friday: 8.30 to 17.00; Thursday: 9.00 to 17.00

 Read all of our posts about Departmental Archives here.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Genealogy Bloggers in France - The A to Z Challenge



For the past few weeks, most of those who blog on genealogy in France have been participating in a little challenge, inaugurated by Sophie Boudarel, who took inspiration from those "Anglo-Saxons, who are fond of writing contests". It is a game, really, the point of which has been to write blog posts on subjects that begin with each letter of the alphabet. To those utterly new to our blog, we explain that we have not been participating, not because we disdain or disapprove, but because our poor brain does not function in that manner.

Over fifty bloggers are participating, including a couple in Canada. While some have gone through the alphabet by writing about their family, others have made quite interesting contributions to and illuminations of French genealogy. Certain letters brought the same responses from almost everyone: archives for A; femmes, women, or famille, family for F; G was for Gallica; J was for jumeaux, twins; H went to hasard, or the serendipitous discovery; notaires for N. Here are some of those we think are more original:

  • B comme Bibliothèque by Elise at Auprès de nos Racines explains how many of France's major libraries contain archives and original manuscripts of genealogical interest.
  • Maïwenn Bourdic wrote on Délibérations municipales for D, a topic we covered once.
  • Familypuzzle gave a good discussion of how surnames can vary in N comme nom de famille.
  • We are not sure if Geneajunkie's discussion of the Quevilly family's signatures is part of the challenge for Q or for S or if he is even playing the game at all, but it is an excellent analysis of eighteenth century handwriting and signatures.
  • Généalogieblog gives an unusual account of the sensual and spiritual experience of archives research in Viscéralité des archives for V. It called to mind our days as a library school student at Berkeley, when we once came upon a man in a remote region of the stacks, reclining on one of the shelves, most thoroughly unclad.
  • The extremely unconventional Lulu Sorciére Archives covered infanticide for I.
  • Aide généalogie gives a fine discussion of the administrative structure of the realm in R comme Royaume

Good reading.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Our Fourth Birthday - Notre Quatrième Anniversaire


4th anniversary red

Well, the French Genealogy Blog is now four years old and has over 350 posts under its belt. Are we a tad weary? Not in the least. We have dozens of ideas to pursue here and many more French genealogy events on which to report. We hope that you, Dear and Loyal Readers, will stay with us. 

We celebrate our blog’s birthday this year with two events: 


French Genealogy From Afar


Firstly, a publication: French Genealogy From Afar. As so many of you have written to tell us that you are struggling to print off and tidily store our posts, we deemed a book to be in order. It is a guide – built on numerous posts from this blog -- that has as its focus the very first steps of research into French ancestry, mostly via the Internet. The Section Headings are :  

  •  Getting Ready
  •  History and Geography
  •  Location! Location!
  •  Departmental and Communal Archives
  •  Researching on the Departmental Archives’ Websites
  •  A Bit of Military History
  •  Military Records Online
  •  The National Archives Databases
  •  The Genealogy Community and Commercial Databases

Giving historical insights, keys to unlocking the French archives system, invaluable French websites, ways to develop a research methodology, problem solving advice, French Genealogy From Afar is also, of course, in our usual, pert style.

This fine paperback book of 185 pages is immediately available -- from us only -- and will be shipped directly from the printer. The price, including postage, is $26 / £18 / €22 per copy. Should you wish to purchase a copy, please send an e-mail to us at amerigen AT yahoo DOT com and we will explain the procedures.

Cottage 1 small

Secondly, we have communicated at length with so many of you, Dear Readers, that we think it might be nice to meet you. Should you plan a trip to France, we hope that you might wish to add the French Genealogy Blog's rustic stone cottage in Dordogne to your itinerary. Bookings may be via or directly with us at the e-mail above. 

One last thing: we have listened to your requests (annoyed sarcasm?) and have made our photographs available in a simple format, without borders or our own sweet words. If you do not see one that you know from the blog and that  you would like, write to us and we will add it.

In closing, une coupe de champagne, Veuve of course, with many thanks, for you all!

Right, that’s it for the festivities. Back to work.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Upper Alsace and an Index to the Census of 1836


Little Alsatian girl

In earlier posts, we have explained the French census, or recensement, which began for the most part in 1836. As  is the case elsewhere, census returns in France can be wonderful for genealogical discoveries. There is but one caveat: if indexed. French census returns have no index, not at the local level nor the departmental level, and certainly not at the national level. In the United States, the recent, uncontrolled enthusiasm with which volunteers raced to index the 1940 census is explained by the need to turn a confusing heap of information into an efficiently accessible tool. This is not the case in France. Hence, les recensements are a brilliant genealogical resource that it is mighty hard to use, being still at the confusing heap stage. Except for those of Upper Alsace.

Upper Alsace corresponds roughly to the department of Lower Rhine (Bas-Rhin), "upper" in the former referring to its being further north than Lower Alsace while "lower" in the latter referring to its being further down the Rhine than Upper Rhine (Haut-Rhin). Isn't geography a delight?

The 1836 census returns for Bas-Rhin are all freely available on the website of the Departmental Archives of Bas-Rhin. Unusually, there is also an index to this particular census, but it is not with the Departmental Archives. The ever-busy volunteers of the Centre Départemental d'Histoire des Familles (CDHF), one of the best and most productive genealogy associations in France (these are the same people who have made the  Optants booklets and website), have created an excellent index, which can be searched by:

  • Surname
  • Forename(s)
  • Civil status
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Profession
  • Family relationship
  • Age
  • Village name
  • Census-taker's comments

Along with doing superb work, the folk at CDHF are no fools when it comes to making a sou or two. The index cannot be viewed or fully searched online. It is for sale on six separate CDs, ranging in price from US $ 55 to US $ 85. Knowing their market, CDHF have made a set in English and the website also has English pages. The search programme is compatible with Windows ONLY, Mac users please note. 

Being so costly, this index will be best appreciated by those who have many ancestors from the region. For those who think their ancestors are from "someplace in Alsace-Lorraine", but are not sure of where, or who have only Macs, we think you might as well save your money and spend the rest of your life trawling the free censuses on the website of the Departmental Archives of Bas-Rhin.

Think about it.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy



Nourrices or Nourrissons Among Your Ancestors?

Unwell Baby
A nourrice is a wet-nurse; a nourrisson is a suckling child; a nourrice mercenaire is a woman who suckles another woman's child for money, and it was a major form of employment of poor French women for centuries. Working women in the cities struggled to place and pay for their children with wet-nurses in the country. Those who rescued foundlings and ran orphanages employed wet-nurses to feed newborn babies. Wealthy women in the city paid for the wet-nurses to come from villages in the country to their homes (leaving their own babies behind with relatives or neighbours) to be dedicated full-time to their children. The historian George D. Sussman entitled his book on this subject "Selling Mother's Milk : the Wet-Nursing Business in France, 1715-1914".
As might be expected, it was a racket, in which the most vulnerable, babies and the poor women, were often brutally exploited. The Bureau du Direction des Nourrices attempted to regulate the business. It was based in Paris and charge with ensuring that wet-nurses had regular health checks. It also tried to replace the horrid recruitment agents. Most writers say that it was socio-economic change that brought about the end of the custom, but surely, there were two other contributing factors: pasteurisation of cow's milk and the invention of the baby bottle?
Thousands of babies died. So many died that later historians suspected that mothers sent their children to wet-nurses in order to get rid of them. In the 1897 guide for new mothers, Le Livre des Jeunes Mères : La Nourrice et le Nourrisson, the authors assert that "the wet-nurses of the countryside had no supervision, were poor and often unintelligent and took children to nurse for money. It often was of no benefit to them, for they had to continue their work in the fields and to suckle their own babies..." (pp 143-144). Thus, unless the parents paid extra and visited often (which they rarely could afford to do), the babies placed with country wet-nurses were often severely neglected. The babies of  those wealthy families who brought the wet-nurse into their homes fared much better. However, the wet-nurse sacrificed  any relationship with her own child, left back at home. 
Perhaps in your French genealogy research, a baby disappeared? Or perhaps a mother did so, soon after childbirth. Perhaps you have a photograph of a relative as a baby being held by an unknown woman in a strange outfit including an odd cap and a cape? Or perhaps it is your ancestor in the cap holding an unknown baby?
  • If your ancestors were artisans, such as weavers, potters, painters, then chances are that both man and woman had to work and they would have needed to put any child out to a wet-nurse. Without letters, photographs or other such documentation, the only way to find such a child may be if it died. Search the death listings for the surname during the relevant years on a large database, such as Bigenet or Geneabank. Unless it is a hopelessly common name, such as Martin, it is worth checking the child's death registration on the Departmental Archives website. Check for towns as far as a one hundred kilometer radius from where the parents lived. Towns in Oise and in Seine-et-Marne were popular places with Parisian parents.
  • Certain places were considered to produce women excellent for the occupation, among them the Morvan (a mountainous region in eastern France) and Dordogne (in the southwest). The genealogy and history societies and the Departmental Archives of these places have a number of articles, lists and archives on wet-nurses from their areas:
It is not always easy to find babies who were put out to wet-nurses or the wet-nurses themselves. It often involves long hours of reading birth and death registrations. Still, you might get lucky and make a breakthrough discovery.
©2013 Anne Morddel
French Genealogy

Jewish Genealogy in Alsace and Lorraine


Mortes en deportation en 1944

This year, the Day of Remembrance of the victims of the Shoah, Yom HaShoah, falls on the 8th of April. As before, at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, the names of all French Jewish victims will be read aloud.  The abomination that is human brutality when expressed as genocide is chilling and, it seems, will not go away any time soon.

All that any of us can do in the face of evil is good. There are times when we think that the search for our ancestors, and our need to find them and remember them, springs from not only obsessive research, but from a deep feeling of sympathy with and for those who are gone and cannot ever again speak for themselves. To be sure, genealogy is not charity but perhaps thoughts of kindness for the dead do lead to acts of kindness for the living.

One of the most important websites dedicated to the preservation of the culture and memory of France's Jewish people is the site du Judaïsme d'Alsace et de Lorraine. It began as a website only, and not as the Internet presence of an association (though it now has such an association of supporters) in 1998 and very quickly grew to be the centrepiece of research and historic preservation of the Jewish people of Alsace and Lorraine. Founded by Michel Rothé, one of the co-authors of the seminal book "The Synagogues of Alsace and Their History", the site is dense with information.

  • Scholarly articles on many aspects of the communities and their history
  • Memorials of those from the region who died in the Holocaust
  • Much about the local customs, traditions, cookery and clothing of the Jewish communities of the region
  • Oral histories
  • Biographies of the well-known
  • a section on genealogy, including a beginner's guide and two discussions of marriage contracts, along with notices placed by people seeking genealogical data and/or connections

It is a very well constructed site and could well lead you to some research success. For those of you who may have photographs, postcards, or any documents relating to the pre-war history of the Jewish communities of Alsace and Lorraine, sharing copies via this site would be of help to all.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy