Further to our last on the Municipal Archives of Brive-la-Gaillarde, we report today on another treasure found therein: le certificat de bonne vie et moeurs, a certificate confirming that a person is of good morals and behaviour. This is, essentially, a character reference. Today, a document of the same title is issued in Belgium by the local administration where a person lives. In France, the modern equivalent is the extrait de casier judiciaire, the copy of one's criminal record or, what is to be preferred, the proof that one does not have a criminal record.
In the past, a potential employer or spouse or business partner would write to a previous employer and/or to the mayor of the town where the person in question was born or lived. Quite a few mairies, (town halls), kept the requests they received for a certificat de bonne vie et moeurs and copies of their replies, along with those they received in response to their own requests. The Municipal Archives of Brive-la-Gaillarde have a small collection of these.
They vary greatly in the amount of genealogical information that they contain, but generally, a certificat de bonne vie et moeurs will give the following:
- The full name of the person in question
- His or her age
- His or her profession and/or place of employment
- The names of his or her parents and whether or not they were married
- The parents' address
- A statement as to whether or not the person in question is of good character
- A complete physical description of the person
One written in 1848 for a university professor named Jean Victor Delbos is given below:
As these could have been requested any number of times during a person's life, there may be many opportunities to find one written for your French ancestor. If you know the name of the town where your ancestor was born, or if you know of a town where your ancestor lived and worked, you might check their municipal archives for such a collection to see if the mayor requested or wrote such a reference about your ancestor.
Should your ancestor have been a wastrel or worse, or merely on someone's wrong side, then prepare yourself for unpleasantness, for you may find a letter of refusal to give a certificat de bonne vie et moeurs with plenty of detail as to bad behaviour. We came across a pair of letters, written as late as 1936, in which a sad tale is told. The first was written by Josephine, a single mother of a toddler, who claimed to have been abandoned by her husband and who asked the mayor to write a certificat de bonne vie et moeurs to be sent to a person who had agreed to employ her. The reply came from the police inspector and stated that she was a divorcée; it also claimed that she had abandoned her child at her mother's house, that the mother complained about it constantly and that Josephine was of very low morals indeed. Neither gave any details of use to the genealogist researching the fallen Josephine.
Gossip? Back-scratching exchange of favours? A true account of a person's moral standing? Whatever relation to the truth such character references had, they are certainly interesting and may also be informative.
©2014 Anne Morddel