We do feel that it is time for some reminders to those of you researching your French ancestors, for we have been contacted by people hell-bent on thundering down the wrong track. When we have refused to join you on this wild rush, it is not from indifference, secrecy or a desire to obstruct your one and only chance to find your French forebear. No, it is because we dread seeing you spend so much money, time and energy pursuing what can only be called a Lucky Dip approach to genealogy that is almost certain to bring no result other than one that you will have to fabricate. We dread seeing you work so hard to write up a family history that contains no history at all and probably very little of your family and that will require you to write many paragraphs along the lines of "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!", and will result in you becoming a humbug. Thus:
- "Top down" genealogy is that form of research in which you have decided that some person who lived many generations ago is your ancestor. You have no proof, no documentation, no clear genetic link, not even a rumour, but you are certain. Spending a fortune to research that person's descendants, you find yourself respelling names, altering birth and death dates, fabricating twins, telling yourself "It must be so" when you know it isn't, and soldiering on to the bitter, utterly falsified end. There is a reason that this form of genealogical research is frowned upon by serious genealogists and family historians, and that is that it produces not family history but fiction.The first rule of genealogical research -- start with yourself and work backwards in time -- applies to French genealogy as well. Follow it.
- We have often encouraged you, Dear Readers, to learn as much as possible about French history. It is quite a tale and quite complicated. However, a little history can, with some, go down the wrong way. Knowing that an event occurred while your French ancestor lived is no reason to place him or her, like a French Forest Gump, at the centre of that and every other event. If your ancestor emigrated in 1830, that does not necessarily make him or her an intriguer in the July Revolution. The voyage may have been planned for months; someone may have suddenly fallen in love with a foreigner; a man may have been in the merchant marine and simply got fed up in the port of the moment. Knowledge of French history should inform your research but not redirect it.
- Genealogy Tourism is booming, and we enjoy meeting with those of you who pass through France and wish to discuss your genealogy. However, it really can be quite disappointing to book a stay in a village that you think is the ancestral seat only to find no trace of your family there. Genealogical research takes time; family stories cannot be taken at face value but must be confirmed by research and documentation. Even then, the best documented research can all be disproven by DNA testing, as an English aristocrat recently discovered. Tour various parts of France, by all means, but do not hope to find the town of your ancestors simply by arriving someplace and asking folks.
- Do not jump to conclusions based on photographs of your ancestors or Bibles that they possessed. A photograph of your ancestor in Paris can only mean that she was there at some point. Without more information, it cannot prove that she was born there. A French Bible -- without anything written within -- handed down from an ancestor means absolutely nothing except that she had a French Bible. Without more information, it does not prove that she was French, that she ever set foot in France, that she could read it, or even that she bought it. It may not even have been hers but something a friend asked her to keep safe and then never retrieved (in the same fashion, we still have the school certificates and diplomas of a friend who left them with us for safe-keeping when he moved house forty years ago; we would find it hilarious if our great-great-grandchildren were to imagine they held genealogical significance to our family).
So, please, please, put the horse in front of the cart, do the work first, and then reap the pleasure of having discovered and knowing your French roots.
©2016 Anne Morddel