We received the following from Monsieur G.
I have a few small questions...
1) Have you done any articles on the recording of French region names? Are there any guides that discuss the recording of place names in French genealogy?
2) I notice that many genealogy programs include region names when mapping database entries. This can be confusing, since there have been massive changes to most across the years. Many of the actual historical records only give (at most) the commune, canton, arrondissement and department. Actually; with the exception of census records, they seem most often to give only the commune and department. Now; some departments have been re-defined and renamed, but those cases are far fewer and seem to cause fewer issues. I’m considering just recording the commune, department and country, since the region seems not to add much value.Does this make sense to you?
Monsieur G. has been grappling with this issue for a long time. Some months before the above, he wrote to us with the following:
I do have one thing that still bothers me a bit... the postal code [or] the INSEE code. They are so similar that I often get them confused. Since the INSEE code is unique to a particular city and the postal code isn’t, are some genealogists now starting to append the INSEE code instead? eg. The postal codes for Royan and for St-Suplice-de-Royan are both 17200, but the INSEE code for Royan is 17308 and for St-Suplice-de-Royan it is 17408. So what I’ve seen some do is: Royan (17308).
In one particular instance that I have, the original name in the document was simply, “commune de Baume”. Today, that location is called, "Baume-les-Messieurs”, which has two postal codes; 39210 and 39670. So; I was thinking that by using the INSEE code as in, “Baume [Baume-les-Messieurs (39041)], France”, one would remove all doubt. If the old and new names had been the same, one would use the name with the INSEE code in parentheses. Does this make sense?
Ah, Monsieur G., these are not small questions at all. Dear Readers, there are times in this genealogical life when to be "on the horns of a dilemma" does not begin to describe the citation struggle; we feel it is closer to being like a live worm impaled on a fish hook. Monsieur G. brings up more than a few issues:
- The fact that nearly all place names in France, from the hamlets and parishes to the provinces and regions, went through not only the gradual changes of time, but an abrupt and radical change of names and boundaries during the Revolution, followed by a slight and selective return to old names. This has been followed by ever-more-often rationalizations and reorganizations that have seen many smaller towns being combined (giving them tediously long names) and larger cities being broken into more and more arrondissements, quarters or other such subdivisions, all of them producing official records that you may wish to cite. Most recently, in our last post, we explained the creation of the departments and the reorganized regions. How to correctly and clearly cite a place that changed its name from Saint-Port in the province of Ile-de-France before the Revolution to Seine-Port in the department of Seine-et-Marne in the region of Ile-de-France today?
- INSEE is France's National Institute of Statistic and Economic Studies. It was founded in 1946. Even before its founding, the first list of unique codes for towns, or communes, was published in 1943. There also are codes for all of the arrondissements, departments, regions, etc. The new list of codes, with all of the annual statistics for each commune, is published every year. To our knowledge, no retroactive list of codes (with or without statistics) for old town names or province names has been created. The code for the commune of Seine-Port is 77447. There was no code for the commune of Saint-Port, as that existed before 1943. So, much as we love the rationality and uniqueness of the code commune INSEE, it is not, on its own, adequate for the geographical part of a source citation for any source created before 1943.
- The fact that most creaters of genealogy programmes should be taken out to the woodshed and appropriately chastised for their appalling laziness and their unforgivable cultural and linguistic prejudices. If they are clever enough to write software, they are clever enough to read Evidence Explained and to have the programme accommodate the geographies and record creation methods of other countries.
We have debated and discussed the citation issue numerous times on this blog and elsewhere. In essence Dear Readers, you must decide the purpose of your citation.
- Will you publish your genealogical research? Will you be expecting other genealogical researchers to read it and to be able to trust your citations, to understand them, to know more about your sources because of them and be able to retrieve the same sources with confidence?
- Alternatively, will you keep your research private to your family and want them to know that your research is based on sources that they can find again, if they wish?
Elizabeth Shown Mills explains very clearly the difference in goal and purpose between source analysis and source citation here. The simplest form of source citation of books, such as we all were taught in school, is simply not adequate for the many types of historical sources used by genealogists. More, those sources often provide conflicting evidence. So, Mills concludes, each source must be analyzed and that analysis must be presented in brief form in the citation. This is absolutely necessary if your genealogical research is to be published in a peer-reviewed genealogy journal. If that is not your goal but you still wish your research to be taken seriously and to stand the test of time (look at how much we sneer at much of the early and wholly unreliable DAR research), then perhaps you will write simpler source citations and include a detailed analysis only when they are in conflict.
The complexity or simplicity of source citation insofar as one wishes to apply the style of Evidence Explained to French sources and/or enter French sources into an American genealogy programme boils down to two issues:
- Translation of the French source names in the citation, which makes it extraordinarily long
- French geography changed radically and often and, in all its forms, it has never followed American geographical customs.
Each, if you are producing your work informally, for family and friends, requires a choice that you clearly state in your work. You can choose not to translate the French in the citation, especially if all of your readers can read French. You can choose in source citation, to follow the French standards as concerns their own geography, for documents such as census returns, parish and civil register entries, etc. , and give the town name and department name or number, with a link to the page of the soucrce online. Beware to give enough information for the source to be found should the link change.
We are not very familiar with all of the many American genealogy programmes but, considering the number of times people write to us about this problem, it would seem that they all, as concerns any French geographical location, ask for the wrong data and make it difficult to enter the correct data. To be sure, that is maddening. You have no choice, Dear Readers, but to create your own manual for how to enter the data, and then be sure to adhere to your rules forever, in the name of consistency. Here are a few possibilities:
- For the regions, provinces and their many changes issue, Make a short list of those that you are citing, with dates and name changes (all of the information concerning regions and provinces can be found on the French Wikipedia page about each). It is unlikely that your ancestors lived in all of France's regions, so your list will not be that long.
- Where town names changed, dates, not INSEE commune numbers, are crucial to identifying the correct sources. You will either have to include the date, with the current name in parentheses, either in the entry. on in a compendium of some sort.
Finally, remember one important rule: never, ever change the name of a document or register or series and never, ever change the name of a place from what it was at the time the document was created. Do not "correct" or "improve" or "simplify" if it means altering the original name of the record, register or series. If you do, you are writing fiction that cannot be shown to anyone and inventing "sources" that can never be found.
Bonne chance, Monsieur G.
©2023 Anne Morddel