As most of our Dear Readers in the United States will already know, the genealogy community there is abuzz with discussions of the recent publication, "Mastering Genealogical Proof", by Thomas W. Jones, published by the National Genealogical Society. This is the latest publication in a long and laudable effort begun some years ago by Elizabeth Shown Mills and others to raise the standards of genealogical research in that country from the erratic to the reliable and even scholarly.
On the grounds that one can never study too often or learn too much, we bought the book and planned to read it diligently. On the grounds that isolated study produces a lunatic solopsist, we sought a study group online and found two people offering such, though there may be more, Angela McGhie and Pat Richley-Erickson, of "Dear Myrtle" renown. On the grounds of the insurmountability of sleepiness and failure of concentration due to time differences between continents, we chose the latter, which records the discussions on YouTube and to which we listen during civilized hours. Finally, on the grounds that the principles described and recommended in "Mastering Genealogical Proof" may present a conundrum or two when applied to French genealogical documentation and research, we thought that we might share our more lucid thoughts and ever strong opinions on those conundrums (oh, do read that link, please) with you, Dear Readers, as we follow the online meetings of this study group.
The first meeting was merely the nuts and bolts of "orientation" and a discussion of the author's Preface; the second began the study with Chapter One. That chapter gives definitions: of genealogy and of the proof standard, as codified by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. The five elements of the proof standard are:
- Reasonably exhaustive search
- Complete and accurate citation of sources
- Analysis and correlation of the collected information
- Resolution of conflicting evidence.
- Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.
The discussion included the somewhat flabbergasting question "Does the pursuit of genealogy (or family history) for pleasure obviate the need for accuracy?" To us, and we were relieved to see that to most others, accurate genealogy presents facts, possibly even truth, while inaccurate genealogy presents not fiction, for fiction is clearly identified as an imagined account, but falseness as it is presented as factual when it is not. We were most staggered to hear that some of the participants felt that the fun of genealogical research would be lost if accuracy were required.
This little part of the discussion sheds light not only on the urgent need for this textbook, but on one of the essential differences between the historical practice of genealogy in France versus that in the United States. In the United States, genealogy began as something of a hobby, and became more popular with the creation of lineage societies. As Ms. Richley-Erickson stated during the discussion, she had once known someone who had said something along the lines of: "I don't care who my ancestors really were, I just want to get into the DAR." For some, it is also an aspect of the practice of their religion. Loosely quoting Ms. Richley-Erikson again: "As a good Mormon girl, I did genealogy." While genealogy continues to be a pastime for most, the quality of the research and reports is being held to ever higher standards of accuracy.
In France, however, genealogy as a pastime is a recent development, though genealogical research has existed for centuries. Before the Revolution, being able to prove one's lineage was not only for the aristocracy but could be vital in matters of inheritance and tax relief. While one now rarely can hope for tax relief because of one's ancestors, genealogy is still quite relevant to inheritance. There are, today, two types of genealogical research recognized in France:
- généalogie successorale - this is similar to probate genealogy in that some of the focus is on finding heirs, but it extends much further into identifying ancestors as well because for over two hundred years French law has required that heirs of up to the sixth degree of kinship must be sought. The généalogiste successoral is not trained in the profession at any university but goes through training on the job in an office of professional genealogists, who are quite competetive and who have large genealogical indices of their own. Additionally the professional genealogist researching an heir has access to the more recent civil registrations and census returns, which the family genealogist does not. Such genealogists work not only with notaires but with insurers and the land registry; and their research and reports must be able to stand up in a court of law. He or she tends to sneer at the family historian, who may merely be seeking more attendees for the family reunion, or cousinade.
- généalogie familiale - is the practice of researching one's family history to discover one's ancestors and to learn more about their lives. In France, this is a relatively new phenomenon which became exraordinarily popular in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Thus, the practice of genealogy in France has been held to rigorous standards from its inception. To be sure, frauds have existed, but sloppiness and inaccuracy have never been the norm. That there are now considered to be two pursuits with the same name is something that has caused great annoyance to those in the first category. However, those in the second category most certainly emulate the high standards of généalogie successorale.
We will be continuing to follow this fine study group and to share our reflections on it and on "Mastering Genealogical Proof " in relation to French Genealogy.
©2013 Anne Morddel