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June 2009

May 2009

Pregnancy Declarations

Three muses heads

If, in your research on your French ancestor, you find a baptism or birth record without a father named for the child, do not despair. There is another resource: the déclaration de grossesse, or the pregnancy declaration. Depending upon which historian you read, the requirement for unmarried or widowed women who fell pregnant to make a legal declaration before a notaire or judge was intended to:

  • protect girls from rape and seduction
  • combat infanticide 
  • make sure as many children as possible would be baptized as Catholic
  • reform women 
  • reduce the number of babies abandoned 

 The first law to that effect was in 1556, under Henri II and it applied to all women, married or not, though it seems that was rather difficult to enforce. Over the next three centuries, there were modifications. In 1745, judges were required to stop all pregnant women and, if they could not provide proof of having made a pregnancy declaration, take them into custody. In 1748, in order to avoid "anonymous denunciations" by snooping neighbours, women were required to make the declaration before the sixth month of gestation. This was later changed to the eighth month. Even after the Revolution, until the 1830s, pregnancy declarations in some form were required of some women. Thus, in each commune and each city quartier, when a dead baby was discovered, prosecutors had a ready list of suspects. Infanticide, from the first law of 1556 through the penal code of 1791, was considered first degree murder, punishable by death. A woman who did not register was considered to be planning to kill her child. 

The women who married, noble, rich, generally were ignored by these laws. Those who most were affected by them were servant women, for they were vulnerable at all hours to the advances of the men of the places where they worked. The declarations make sad reading at times, for they tell of rape, of humiliation, of seduction and betrayal, of prostitution. They also show that local officials were often kind and tolerant, assigning public money to support the child, prosecuting rapists when possible, promising to protect the privacy of the woman making the declaration, unless she needed the document in court.  Lots of material here for graduate theses.

The two main places to look for pregnancy declarations are the Archives Départementales, where they can be found in three different series:


  • Series B, if before 1790
  • Series L 238-406 and supplements 1 and 2 to Series L, and Series U, if from 1790-1800
  • Subseries 4 U, if from 1810- 1830


and in the archives of the Justices Seigneurials. The justice seigneurial was often the local lord acting as the justice over his tenants.  These archives are located inconsistently. In some places, they are in the archives of the commune, in others, in the departmental archives.


©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

XX Congrès National de Généalogie - 2

Aside from the exhibition hall described in the previous post, the real purpose of the Congrès has been the presentation of a number of talks and lectures. We tried a simple method of division of the lectures by general categories of our own description: those with practical advice about how to do research; those that were purely history; those that were sales pitches; and those about professional development for genealogists. 

There were 26 talks that fell into the practical research category, covering such topics as Protestant genealogy and the internet, DNA and genealogy, finding Italian ancestors, using military archives, Belgian State archives, and family associations and genealogy.  In the history category, there were 29 talks or lectures. These topics included: the bicentenary of the birth of Louis Braille, medieval fairs of Champagne and 12th century history, Noble families of Brie and the Antilles, Lorraine e and Luxembourg from the 14th to the 17th centuries, daily life of our rural ancestors of the 17th century, and rural police. There was such an emphasis on history that many of those attending the conference were not genealogists but historians.

Of the sales pitches, mercifully, there were only four. Of the talks on professional development, there was one. The single stand of professional genealogists in the exhibition hall looked neglected and lonely, one must add. The conclusion might be drawn that professional genealogy is the terrain of the notaires and their clerks sorting out inheritance questions, while popular genealogy is the turf of the passionate amateur historian. The old term used in America comes to mind, that of the "family historian". 

There was one last presentation which fell into none of our categories, yet was by far the most delightful, that of a school and its students presenting the results of their year-long programme of teaching genealogy. Used as a way to teach both history and a bit of ethnic pride, it was extremely popular with students and may be expanded in the curriculum and added to other schools. Seeing the interest and pride of the young people as they presented their beautifully drawn trees and talked of how they had gathered oral histories from their families was endearing and inspiring. 

Finally there were four workshops. By far, the most popular was that on paleography. We have a particularly tricky acte de mariage that we took along, hoping for a bit of free help on two particular words. Perhaps a dozen enthusiastic genealogists studied it and could not determine what the words were. hen they learned that the document was from 18th century Louisiana (albeit written by a French curé) they  all at the same moment relaxed and gave that uniquely French sound of dismissal, "pffft!" It was foreign, from the colonies; they were off the hook. 

Ten points to anyone out there who can decipher these two words:

Wlibert st. martin just 2 words

The Congress closed on Sunday at midday, a true success. The next one, in June, 2011, it is to be held in the north of France, in Roubaix. As quite a number of talks and attendees of this Congress were francophone Belgian, or Walloons, this location seems one aimed to please all. The theme of the 2011 Congress is to be «Nos ancêtres et le travail», "Our Ancestors and Their Work".  We will be there, for the genealogy, the history, and the cheese.

©2009, Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

XX Congrès National de Généalogie


The 20th annual National Genealogy Congress got off to a rousing start on Friday in the modern and most comfortable buildings of the university for electrical engineering. This is in the suburb of Paris, Champs-sur-Marne, about an hour out of the city on the rattling and swaying suburban train, the RER.  The exhibition halls have 184 stands and the programme has an impressive line-up of 63 speakers and four workshops.

Before we attended any of the lectures, we decided to view the stands. This was a nice entry to the world of French genealogists. Only about one quarter of the stands were vendors. The large on-line databases were represented, as were the magazines  and La librairie de la Voûte, along with a couple of other publishers. The majority of stands were of the regional genealogy associations, or Cercles généalogiques. Each of these was a jolly and efficiently helpful centre of enthusiasts. As well as offering their publications and expert advice, some had local fare on offer. We particularly enjoyed the mature Brie, which we tasted perhaps excessively. At this point a fellow in the traditional garb of the Cheesemakers' Guild (actually a fairly new organization set up in protest to attempts to ban cheese made with unpasteurized milk) arrived for a photo op. The headgear, he told us, is meant to resemble a round of Brie.


The folks from the land of Brie had also created a poster entitled, "Our Cousin, Hillary", which traced the ancestors of Hillary Clinton from Jacques Guerin, who lived in Louvres in 1440, to Robert Navarre, born in 1709 in Gressy and died in 1791 in Detroit.

At some of the stands, folk were in traditional garb, adding to the sense of being at a faire.


As the theme of the congress is the fairs of Champagne in the artisans' cities, this dressing in traditional clothing all seemed well orchestrated and very charming.

What was perhaps most noticeable at the first glance through the aisles of the stands was the number of publications about surnames and locations. They dominated the publications of the cercles généalogiques and were a large part of the publishers' fare. Titles such as Patronymes de l'Ain or Noms de Familles de la Normandie were repeated everywhere. The books are lists of surnames found in the département or region, listed, with numbers as to how often each of the names occur, and in which communes they occur. Some may also show the changes of occurrence of the names over time. This underlines the starting point of researching a person or family in French genealogy: one must know WHERE they lived, as all of the documents are held locally.

©2009, Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The French and Genealogy

Rat shop 7

In the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the  article on genealogy states that "Two forces have combined to give genealogy its importance during the period of modern history: the laws of inheritance, particularly those which govern the descent of real estate, and the desire to assert the privileges of a hereditary aristocracy." Little has changed. No one wants to be descended from the rat catcher. (See above.)

In France, where the people chopped their royals, one would expect a certain attitude of scorn toward them. Instead, genealogy here is often about proving that one is related to them. Innumerable books and CDs have been produced about the descendants of various famous, aristocratic, noble or royal persons. Genealogies of the Bourbons, the Condé princes, the kings of France, the Dukes of Bretagne, of the Louviers etc. are supplemented by genealogies of less well-known families. A recent example is a new publication of all 178,000 descendants of the ancestor of many kings of France, Hugues Capet. (The first name is pronounced "EUG" which, by the way, is what French-dubbed Indians in old American Westerns say when they hold up their hand in greeting: "EUG".)

While Americans want to know who their ancestors were and where they were from, since each generation may have relocated some distance from where born, that sort of search is generally unnecessary for the French. Every French person all ready knows who their ancestors are and where they are from because they are still there. All one needs to do is visit the grandparents' graves and the previous ten generations are probably right there next to them. This is exactly what we did in researching one Norman family that never moved. The entire family, but for one fellow who went to New York, were in the parish registers and cemeteries of a single little commune. All we had to do was go there and make copies. If anything, many French are not seeking to know their ancestral lines, but to escape being suffocated by their undying rules and traditions, though few ever do. 

It is those French who do not mind history but love it who enjoy genealogy. They can find their ancestors quickly, but then want to flesh out the details of their lives, try to place them in the history of the region and country.  This is why the genealogy books and magazines are so thick with historical detail in comparison with the practicality of North American publications. 

As for the force of the laws of inheritance, those are written in stone in France: by law, all children must inherit equal shares. No child can be disinherited, no child can be favoured. Each couple, on their marriage, is issued with a Livret de Famille. A legal document, it is a small book in which are written the details of the marriage  and the births of all children. With this and the actes de naissance, inheritance is simple, clear, and secure. 

Yet, there exists in France even today, a type of professional genealogist who makes a living out of the inheritance laws. In a quite remarkable amount of speculative work, a genealogist may ferret out the whereabouts of a wealthy old person without family. They will then do extensive research until they find a relative, and wait. It may be a long wait. When the wealthy old person dies, the genealogist will then approach the relative, who has no idea that he or she stands to inherit a fortune. The deal struck for providing the name of the deceased and the proof of relationship is usually 50/50.  "There is nothing dishonest in this," writes Pierre Durye in La Généalogie, "because they are selling a secret acquired by the means of their patient accumulation of genealogical information," without even knowing if there would be no will!

©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

French Genealogy Magazines


There are three main genealogy print magazines in France. Each is full size, glossy, from 50 to 80 pages long, full colour with lots of illustrations, and each takes advertisements.  All are available in local newsagents, though rarely at the corner kiosks, and all are national in coverage. Yet their differences are significant enough to warrant discussing each individually.


La revue française de Généalogie [& d'Histoire des familles] is the oldest, at 30 years, and its anniversary is celebrated in the most recent issue.  The founder, René-Louis Martin, had all ready started two other publications, one on coin collecting, the other a local daily newspaper in the Lorraine, when he began the revue. As his genealogy publication made no money at the beginning, he supported it with some of the profits of the other two. The magazine is now considered one of the two most important on the subject in France.


Each issue contains news of genealogy meetings and events around the country. Unlike the others, it also prints notices of family reunions, by surname. There are book reviews, website reviews, classified advertisements, etc. A regular feature of some charm is the column by Pierre-Gabriel Gonzalez, "nom de famille", in which readers send in requests to know the origin of certain surnames, such as Arluison or Beuneu. Gonzalez replies first with statistics as to how many households in France use the name, then with its history and variations. 


There are usually two or three substantial articles. The most recent issue contained a discussion of the efforts of the Archives Départementales to modernize their facilities and to digitize their collections, a subject of enormous interest and importance. (See my two previous posts.) Other articles discuss the family history of France's theatrical dynasties and some movie stars, as well as websites and Cyber-généalogie.  The reigning prince and the man who gives the magazine its flavour is not the editor, but the primary guest contributor, Jean-Louis Beaucarnot, respected author of many genealogy books.

Généalogie Magazine is not quite as glossy as the other two, being printed on recylced paper, but is just as attractive. Though there is a nice little regular page of advice for genealogy beginners, most of this publication is dedicated to book reviews and coupons for clipping and ordering said books. There are long articles on French actresses, a recent issue had one on the French ancestors of President Obama. Perhaps the most unexpected is a continuing series on the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The television show, "La petite maison dans la prairie", had an even greater success in France than it had elsewhere and interest in the author of the books on which it was based verges on the point of obsession. The article is full of details about the family and corrections of the television version of the story. Back to genealogy, there is also a discussion of heraldic devices and a regular feature dealing with the difficulties of paleography.

Votre Généalogie At 82 pages, this is the biggest of the three magazines. It opens with a few pages of news and brief announcements from "clubs", e.g. local genealogical and family associations.  There is also a lesson in deciphering old handwriting, with exercises and corrections. However, there is very good advice on the language of the old actes (birth, marriage, death registrations). Also quite useful is an article on how best to preserve old photographs.


Then the reader is plunged into six pages of a scholarly discussion of the illness, depression, throughout history. This is followed by a fairly thorough study of new internet genealogy resources. The issue is dominated by a very long article on life in the 1930s, from the historical events, to the daily activities, to a large table of population statistics. Articles on the history of seals for documents and on the craft of millinery round things off.


Somehow, of the three, I prefer this last. It is meatier. Its historical articles are to the point and would be of interest to all genealogists who pursue their research not only to trace their bloodlines but also out of a love for history. Its practical discussions are few, but very well written and actually contain some helpful pointers. It is not, however, for those who cannot stomach the tone of the snooty academic.

La revue française de Généalogie
  • Best for information on the departmental archives and internet developments. 
  • Worst on general history. 
Editorial Offices
8, rue de l'Hôpital-Saint-Louis
75010 Paris

tel: (00 33) 1 53 3846 45
fax: (00 33) 1 53 38 46 40

Subscriptions Office
10, avenue Victor-Hugo
55800 Revigny-sur-Ornain

fax: (00 33) 3 29 70 57 44

Subscription price - only the price for France is given: 39€ per year gives you 6 issues and 2 special issues. Send a query for the overseas price.


Généalogie Magazine
  • Best for book reviews.
  • Best for articles on famous people's families.
  • Worst on practical advice. 
Editorial and Subscription Offices
éditions Christian
14, rue Littré
75006 Paris
Overseas Subscriptions - 62€ per year gives you 11 issues.

Votre Généalogie 
  • Best for practical advice
  • Best for general history 
  • Worst for internet genealogy advice.
Editorial and Subscription Offices
74, rue du Gros Chêne
54410 Laneuveville

tel: (00 33) 3 83 57 91 06
fax: (00 33) 3 83 51 20 08

Subscription price - only the price for France is given: 27.50€ per year gives you 6 issues. Send a query for the overseas price. You can also buy past issues for 6€ each, or all 28 of of them on a CD for 49.95€.

©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

French WWI Soldiers Buried in Skopje

French Military Cemetery Skopje

How's your Macedonian? You might want to brush up on it if you have a French ancestor who fought and died in Skopje in the First World War. Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, who blogs as Volan, has just posted a number of photographs and videos of the French Military Cemetery in Skopje. (Then called Üsküp or Uskub.)

Almost 3000 French, Senegalese and Moroccan soldiers of the Armée d'Orient are interred there. Some died in the Fall of Serbia in October-November, 1915, wiped out by the Bulgarian, Austrian and German Armies. The Serbian Army was weak, having lost many soldiers in battles in 1914 and more to a typhus epidemic in 1915. The Central Powers' intention was to clear all of the Orient Railway to Istanbul, in order to be able to supply the Ottoman Empire. The British and French had promised help to the Serbians, who fought against terrible odds, outnumbered and outgunned, and with the local windstorm the Kossova, raging around the battle, which lasted weeks. The Allied reinforcements arrived from Salonika, too few and too late, and died with the Serbians. Only a few survived, with the remnants of the Serbian Army, beaten back across Albania to the sea. After quite a wait, the survivors were rescued and taken to Corfu. Others fell in 1918 when the city was retaken. 


Only 930 of the graves have names. Christians and Moslems, crosses and crescents are side by side.


Another source of nice photographs is 

The Fallen : a photographic journey through the war cemeteries and memorials of the Great War

Many thanks to Aleksandar Dimitrijevic for supplying his photo and more information.

©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

A Great Little Map At Généinfos

Généinfos is the blog of the Revue française de Généalogie & Histoire des familles, a magazine that used to be incredibly stuffy and all about the lineages of  aristocrats who were guillotined during the Terror. Over the past couple of years, it has modernized quite a lot and covers more of the "how to" of genealogy. (There will be a survey of genealogy magazines in a future post.) As we have written, the "how to" is heavily dependent upon the Departmental Archives, which are the repositories of pre-Revolutionary (ancien régime) parish records, as well as some actes d'état-civil. 

Less than half of the Departmental Archives have digitized their records and put them online, but it does seem to be the new wave that they are all riding. Knowing which has and which has not has always been a bit of a bore to work out. We laboriously listed them in the panel to the right. Just this week, Généinfos launched an interactive map of links to the Archives Départementales and it is a terrific little tool, letting one see immediately which départements and regions are online and which are not. As we said in that previous post, one must know the numbers of the departments to be able to use it. 


Be informed that these are websites and do not necessarily have digitized records.


This should shame some of the others that have refused to modernize and invest in their archives to get to work. Pourquoi pas?



©2009 Anne Morddel
French Genealogy

The Departments

Départements Map


There are 100 départements, grouped under 22 regions,  of France and each has its own archives, where much genealogical research is done. Thus, knowing about the départements is a key first step for hunting ancestors in France.


The current départements are always listed alphabetically and always referred to with their number, e.g.  Seine-Maritime (76) or Dordogne (24). When they were created, in 1790, the new system was supposed to be more rational and we are sure that, in terms of government, it was. This numbering is used in many aspects of administration. In post codes (the first two numbers), in the old style car license plates (the last two numbers), in each and every person's tax number (the third pair of numbers). Children memorize the département names and numbers at school and use the list all of their lives. The numbering system, however, went the way of all simplistic systems meant to be the definitive, final, last, perfect, etc. version of something, and is getting messier and messier as time goes on. 


In the beginning, there were 83 départements, in an alphabetical list. Each was numbered, beginning with 1, and leaving no gaps. To look at a map, like the one above, is to see all of France with a disarray of numbers within it. Knowing the alphabet, one can sort of fumble around and guess at the name, but it is not easy. We have not studied it, but we suspect there was a political reason behind this and that the confusion was intentional. In the unstable time just after the Revolution, there were many powerful families with a well-established network of government based in the old provinces. Such networks would have greatly helped any counter-revolutionary activities. The new system of départements effectively broke up those provinces and the power network of those families (of course, most of those people were guillotined as well and that really fixed them.)


Then, Napoleon conquered new territory and the number of départements went up to 130, but their names did not all begin with Z so, as they had to be given numbers, sequence was lost. Not to worry, as Napoleon was defeated and the number of départements went  down to a more manageable 86. A little more territory was acquired and the number went up to 89. There were reorganizations, some colonies were gained and lost, Paris kept growing and needing to be subdivided. In an effort to keep a logical sequence, numbers were reassigned at times. Today's list of 100 is still pretty much alphabetical until the last 10 or so.  


Even as we write, there is a report due out later this month with proposals to reorganize the regions and départements once again. Proposed is to reduce the number of regions to 15, with the two Normandies to be united, Picardie and Poitou-Charentes to disappear, and others to merge. There are complaints that it all is politically motivated to reduce the voting power of many left-wing local governments (Shades of Thatcher and the 1980s.)  Much debate is expected and it is unclear what the final proposals for law may be. Heaven knows what will happen to the numbering system.


For the genealogist, especially the foreign one, this is torture. To finally find the correct département of an ancestor and then find that it has disappeared is maddening. It is similar to hunting for 18th century ancestors in the ever-shifting counties of Virginia. However, in most cases, the archives are still somewhere, even if a département has disappeared. (For example, the departmental archives of  Yvelines contain those of the ex-département of Seine et Oise.) It will just require more questions and searching to find them. 


 For a full discussion of the administrative structure and history of France's départements, see the excellent Wikipedia article:

There, you will also find the complete list with numbers.


©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Using Gé

Metro mural 4

In France, to search for records on an ancestor, all is tied to where the event occurred: where the person was born, where married, where died, where buried. You need to know the commune or town for events after the Revolution, and the diocese and parish if before. Once you have the place, you can begin your research. The information will be in the Mairie (Town Hall) of the village or commune or city where the event happened. If the information is very old, it will be in the Archives Départementales of the département where the event occurred. The same holds true for old parish records, which are all held in the Archives Départementales

What if you have only a name and no place of birth in France? What can you do? It will not be easy.


1) Most definitely, comb through everything that may be in your family's possession about the person, absolutely everything, and make a list of every detail. Turns of phrase your French ancestor used can be of help if they were regional, as many expressions are. Clothes from the old country in photos may help, if any trace of a traditional regional costume appears. A book, a Bible, a sword, a medal, all could be clues. All the old stories handed down in the family need to be recorded, using the teller's wording exactly, for events in stories will turn up in history books.


2) Next, find every record in the new country relating to your ancestor and get the original copy. An index mention from Ancestry will not do. You need to see the original to glean every tiny bit of information it may contain, such as a middle initial, the name of the ship of arrival, an occupation, an earlier version of the spelling of the surname, etc.


Online, go to

          This will NOT solve your problem; it may only point you in the right direction. 


Géopatronyme is a website in French designed to help those tracing a surname or nom de famille. It has a search facility for you to type in a name. You will then get a map of France showing where the name most occurs. The data used comes from a number of sources including statistics of numbers of births per surname in a location. These come from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies  (I.N.S.E.E.) and cover those born after 1945 and still living in 1970.  
The biggest loss from this group is the 1.3 million dead of World War I and the more than half a million dead of World War II.  The data base also does not include those born in Alsace and Lorraine, nor those in France's ex-colonies or possessions. As you can see, it is not ideal, but it is all there is for the time being.  If your ancestor were a person with a unique name, you may be able to find the département from which he or she probably came. 


For example, the name Mabire reveals a map with all listings in the northwest of France, most in Manche and a good number in Seine-Maritime. So, Manche is where you would start looking, town by town, parish by parish. However, if you type in Leconte, you get occurrences in two thirds of France, with a large number again in Manche. Put a space between Le and Conte and it is quite a different picture, with Manche, Seine-Maritime and Paris having the majority of people with that name. That gives you three places where you might begin your search.


The rest of the website is a rehashing of statistics about French names based on data pulled from national statistics and old telephone directories. You can check:


  • Which names have "disappeared" in that there were in the data from 1891 to 1940 but not from 1941 to 1990. (Many of these look to have been misspellings.)
  • Unusual names, weird names, obscene names (this is a fun list to read if you know some French slang). 
  • The law concerning names (More on what I like to call the French "name police" in a future post.)
  • A list of "New names" (the reverse situation of the first bulleted point)
  • A long,  scholarly historical discussion on names in general by language and region 
  • spelling statistics (somebody was playing too long with their computer programme here) 

The site is free. It has numerous books for sale and summaries of birth and death information. It also links to, which is not free. 


All in all, Géopatronyme is not very useful, but if you have no information at all, except a name, it could get you started. As always, good luck.


©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Historic or Just Old French Newspapers

Packets of papers 1920s


Just in case someone should travel all the way to France in search of ancestors and find them, you may also want to buy a newspaper or magazine from the time during which they lived. a little shop called 
La Galcante,  near the Louvre,  is just the place. Small and musty and chock full of newspapers and magazines, it is run by a kindly and extremely helpful gentleman of a certain age.  (That age happens to men too.) Every page is perfectly organized and neatly wrapped, but one is allowed to take things out to look at them. Prices are not cheap. A copy of Illustration was €40; an art revue from 1890 was €250. 


Perhaps your love of genealogy includes a passion for history; perhaps you like the idea of reading the same newspaper headlines one of you ancestors read; perhaps your ancestor was making the headlines. In any case, should you want to take home a little something extra from your genealogical journey to France, you might find it at La Galcante.
Entrance 4
La Galcante
52, rue de l'Arbre Sec
75001 Paris


tel: 01 44 77 87 44



(N.B. Do NOT believe the photo of the shop on the website, which  makes it look triple its size; this place is tiny.)



©2009 Anne Morddel
French Genealogy