We have been junketing again, this time to the Departmental Archives of Charente-Maritime, in charming La Rochelle. As is the custom with nearly all of the Departmental Archives in France, they are in an ugly building far from the centre of town. There is no hotel nearby and no one would want to stay in that suburban wasteland anyway. Only occasional buses go there, so one must rent a car or take a cab, and be prepared to pay.
With empty pockets and many notes, we entered the drab building to arrive in a lovely reading room, staffed by truly cheerful and helpful archivists.
Using the archive's website, we had done a significant amount of preparation for our research. We had truly laboured, and combed through the Inventaires online, so that we could arrive with a list of codes ready for the requesting. All went smoothly; the staff seemed to find our organisation and diligence quite the joke. They were so kind and jolly that we made the mistake one morning of slipping into the informal."Bonjour", the man in charge of pushing the trolley full of cartons and register books said to us amiably. "Bonjour", we chirpily responded, and then blundered. "Comment allez-vous?" He stopped and scowled, then said, in French: "Here, we say only hello. To add anything more is quite astonishing and is not done." Chastened and sobered, we went back to our table most meekly.
On the whole, the Departmental Archives of Charente-Maritime are brilliant.
- They have nearly all parish and civil registrations available online.
- They have begun to digitise and put online judicial and notarial records
- The first 150 contracts of men who signed on to ships (they are called engagés) from 1606 to 1758. There are thousands, but this is a beginning
- A very close cooperation with Archives Canada France, which has digitized more of their records
- A rather secretly kept data base, the Base des Engagés, has the names of four thousand people who signed on as crew members on ships sailing from La Rochelle and Rochefort during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; this is not available online and is pretty awkward to use in the archives, but is brilliant
- A growing database about all of those ships, using the information taken from the Admiralty of La Rochelle records; this too, is mighty hard to find
There is one flaw that we find serious and baffling. Nearly all Departmental Archives have a precious card index to the pre-Revolutionary records.
Many of these old documents require a gifted paleographer to decipher the writing.
The card index, called the fichier, is an alphabetical listing of all occurrences of a family name, with the code, page and column in which it appears. Without this almost no one would be able to read those pages to find anything at all.
As we were noting down codes for one of the families we were researching, one of the archivists tiptoed to us and whispered that they had been rendered partially useless. We were suitably stunned. He explained that they could still be used for judicial records but not for notarial records. Those had all been renumbered and there was no key showing old numbers with new. We were horrified. This is something we have not before encountered and hope never to do so again. We can only hope that the culprit was removed, to prevent further harm, and that enough shreds of information remain for a key to be made one day. Catastrophe!
Archives départementales de la Charente-Maritime
35, rue François de-Vaux-de-Foletier
17 042 La Rochelle cedex 1
Tél. 05 46 45 17 77
Fax. 05 46 45 65 11
©2013 Anne Morddel