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