We continue to swelter, with daily temperatures hovering at 44 degrees Celsius. Days are spent in darkened rooms, working quietly, waiting for the fiercely blazing sun to set. Evenings have been a joy of late, spent with a delightful group of you, Dear Readers, who have come all this way to our patch of the French countryside to chat late into the night about their French genealogy research and brick walls. They have shared some fascinating puzzles and challenges about which we hope to write here anon.
While in our darkened, somewhat cooler rooms, we have been carrying on with our participation after the fact in Dear Myrtle's Study Group on "Mastering Genealogical Proof" by Thomas W. Jones. We have been finding the contributions of Carol Kostakos Petranek to be particularly lucid, and her sharing of her experience in researching European records (Greek and Polish) to have some occasional relevance to French research.
Chapter Five is about using the differentiations learned in Chapter Three to analyse and correlate the information. There are recommendations as to how to do that, with some excellent charts and tables as examples for organising information. There is little in this crucial process that would be different when applied to French records.
Some of the discussion did highlight how important it is to clear one's mind of prejudices and assumptions when analysing and correlating. One must leave aside every belief, hope, fear, suspicion, prejudice, dream, assumption and so forth held about the people and lives under scrutiny. Stop suspecting pre-marital sex every time a child is born less than nine months after a marriage, stop suspecting bigamy, stop suspecting false identity, false parents and false ages, stop hoping for nobility or a connection to celebrity. While any of that may turn out to be the case later, it is catastrophic to the process to have such assumptions or suspicions in mind at the time of analysis for they will becloud vision.
One must have the clarity and observational habits of the scientific researcher who with a pure celibacy of mind sees only what is there and not what he or she desires to see. (For a most elegant example of such clarity, we recommend Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle".) One must expect nothing but note everything. Only then will rational analysis and correlation - with French information or any other -- be possible.
So much of "Mastering Genealogical Proof" and the discussion of it dwells upon the problems of American documentation of record-keeping having arrived late and of people having taken advantage of officials' somewhat minimalist approach to creating early vital records. As we have stated many times before, this is not the case with the French parish and civil registrations. From 1792, the Code Civil has outlined for all of France exactly what is to be written for each of the three civil registrations and it has varied little over the last two centuries. As the birth registration, the acte de naissance, is so important, we give here some key points from Chapter Two of the original Code Civil as to how it must be completed:
- A birth declaration must be made within three days of the birth (allowances of a day are made for Sundays and holidays) to the registrar of civil registrations (the officier d'état civil) of the place where the birth occurred AND the child must be presented to the registrar. (Article 55) Any attempt to register a birth more than three days after the child was born requires court approval from the court having jurisdiction in the place where the child was born.
- The declaration of the birth must be made by the father. If he is not present, it must be made by the person who assisted at the birth, e.g. doctor, mid-wife, health officer, etc.; AND where the birth was outside the residence of the mother, by the head of the household where she gave birth. (Article 56)
- The birth registration must be completed immediately, in the presence of two witnesses. (Article 56)
- The birth registration MUST include: the day, the hour, and the place of birth, the sex of the child, the names given to the child, the full names of the parents and their professions and address, also the full names, professions and addresses of the two witnesses. (Article 57)
This was the standard format for all nineteenth and twentieth century birth registrations in all of France and remains the same today. Variations are few and slight. Changes have been minimal and the modern code is very similar to the original. To be sure, mistakes occurred, people lied, registrars were overworked or incompetent, but on the whole, a French birth registration is a document that can be trusted. Implicitly? Of course not; no source can be trusted implicitly.
Much Study Group discussion took place concerning the alteration and/or falsification of documents or parts of documents with the conclusion being that only unaltered documents may be considered reliable. This conclusion can be applied only partially to French civil registrations. Birth and marriage registrations are not altered but do have marginal notes added at later dates and these notes become part of the official record. This is particularly true of the birth registration.
In France, the birth registration serves as an official record of the registered events in the person's life. In the margin will be added the date and place of marriages, the names of spouses, the dates and places of any divorces, and the death of the subject of the registration. This additional information is received from the registrar who recorded it and then sent it to the registrar in the the birthplace of the subject, to be added to the birth registration (making lies a bit more difficult). Unlike with American records, these alterations do not reduce but enhance the value of the record as a source.
Perhaps one of the most difficult categories explained by Dr. Jones is that of "related sources" -- those of which one is the source for the information in the other -- as opposed to "independent sources" -- those which were created without any reference to one another (page 59). Using this criterion, almost all French records would be related sources. This is because, knowing that the birth registration is so strictly created and updated, officials constantly require certified copies of it or of the portable family set of certified extracts of birth and death registrations, known as the Livret de Famille. For all of the following, one must present either one or the other:
- Identity card
- Registration in school
- Registration in the military
- To be considered for honours such as the Légion d'Honneur
- To marry
- To register to vote
- To register for the census
Thus, from 1792 onwards in France, civil registrations, military records, electoral rolls, census returns, school records, identity documents and honorary society memberships must all be considered as "related sources".
Where to look for "independent sources"? Notarial records, land records and court records would be the first places to look, but any one of these could have used one of the above "related sources" -- all of them dependent upon the birth registration -- to confirm a person's identity.
One final difference between French birth registrations and those discussed in the Study Group: in the French birth registrations there would seem to be fewer lies than in the American version for the simple reason that the French allow a person to say nothing. There are innumerable birth registrations for a child who was presented to the registrar by a midwife or doctor and whose father and sometimes mother as well were "not named". There are many, many marriage registrations in which a parent to one of the couple is termed "absent, whereabouts unknown". This may have occurred even when everyone in town knew who the child's parents were; or even if the "absent" parent were standing right there at the marriage.
Why is this so? We can only guess: lying is considered a sin but silence is not, perhaps. Or perhaps, on the assumption that people will lie, silence is offered as an option to preserve the credibility of the system? Parental anonymity certainly is seen to save unwanted babies' lives. These are only guesswork. Sadly for family genealogists, these silences are usually the thickest and most solid of brick walls.
©2013 Anne Morddel