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January 2010

Archives Communales - The Communal Archives

Metro mural 9 3

If in seeking for parish  or civil registers in the Archives départementales  you can find little or nothing, do not give up hope just yet. Many of the larger cities maintain their own archives, the Archives communales and the Archives municipales. In some cases, they have given a copy of their holdings to their Departmental Archives, but in many cases they have not done so. Thus, they may have many, many documents found nowhere else and, joy of joys, some are putting their holdings online. 

The larger and older municipalities, such as Lyon,  have quite significant archive holdings. Smaller ones may be just beginning to collect information on their local history. They tend to be more willing than the Departmental Archives to respond to a letter with a self-addressed and stamped envelope. 

The superb website, Archives de France, gives information on all of the archives in the country, as well as on their management, laws concerning archives, and training and professional development for archivists. 


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On the lower half of the page, click on Annuaire des services d'Archives, then on Index des communes in the left-hand column. 

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This brings you to a page which lists all of the communes that have archives, with the name of the person in charge and the postal address. Thus armed, you can write asking for more information or for copies of actes.

To find quickly the very few communal archives that are online, from the front page click on  Ressources en ligne at the top, then on Archives numerisées et disponibles en ligne, then on Accès par service d'archives in the column to the left. Scroll down the page to the Archives communales, click and begin hunting.

Afterward, take the time to explore the Archives de France website and learn about all of the other archives in France, their websites, and possibilities for genealogical research. 


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Huguenot Genealogy - More Recommended Sites


We are most grateful to have received in response to the series of posts on the Huguenots a selection of further websites on Huguenot  genealogy recommended by the noted scholar of French genealogy, Earl F. Charvet. We give them, with his comments, here:

In the USA:

The Huguenot Society of the Founders of Manakin in the Colony of Virginia

The history of the Manakin Colony is extremely interesting. It was settled by Huguenot refugees mostly living in London who departed for America in 1700. The Society is long established and (remarkably) owns 400 acres of the original settlement. As you may guess, the group has many enthusiastic volunteers. It has branches in several southeastern U.S. states: Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. They have quarterly meetings and annual conferences. The next is in San Antonio, Texas, in June, 2010.

The first item of he left column of their main page on their website is a link to a list of the founders of the colony ("HUGUENOT ANCESTORS") and the second item connects to a page that shows the first three generations of descendants of those founders ("Registered Lineages"). Back on the home page, further down, you will find a link to an index to all of their published articles - many on specific surnames - that may be ordered as reprints.


The Huguenot Society of South Carolina


The Huguenot Society of California


The Huguenot Historical Society of New Palz, New York

(website is temporarily down, being moved and reworked.)


In Europe:

The website of the Musée virtuel du protestantisme (English version)

The website from the Fondation Pasteur Eugène Bersier in Paris (17e) has this fine historical reference source for Huguenots, among the best.


The Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie

(Click on English in the upper right corner)

Serious Huguenot researchers say one of the best sources for research (not necessarily online, but correspondence can be successfully made) is with a division of the National Archives of the Netherlands: Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie. I believe they have the largest library in the world of Huguenot books, manuscripts, and materials, and act as a central resource for all things in this field.


Two excellent personal sites with strong Huguenot databases are:

Le Protestantisme en Bourgogne - Nouveaux convertis (French only)

For towns in the departments of Saône-et-Loire (71) and Yonne (89).

Protestantes des Cévennes (Gard)


The Centre d'analyse et de Mathématiques sociales in Paris (6e)

This is an important database containing more than 130,000 Huguenots. There is an English version. [We could not get any link to this database to work, and so expect that it is being updated. ]


Thank you, Earl!

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Pitfalls in Paris for the Genealogical Tourist

Travail or grève

Genealogy tourism is on the rise. If one's ancestors had the good sense to come from someplace lovely, visiting it in order to research them and breathe the same air they once did could be a delightful way to spend a holiday. Then again, if they had the even better sense to get out of some rat hole, best then to go to the beach and leave a local genealogist in the rat hole to do the research and send the results in the post. France, and especially Paris, has to be close to the top of the list for beautiful holiday destinations and one can praise one's ancestors for any genealogical link to the City of Light or curse them for having left it. Yet, before booking that flight to come to Paris  -- or Aix, or La Rochelle -- for research, please be aware of just what it may entail and how it may go wrong.

The Card

Every archives and library facility requires a user to have a card, which is produced on the spot. In some places the card is for French nationals only, as in certain of the Archives départementales. In some, foreigners can get a day pass to use the facility, as in the Bibliothèque nationale. In some places, the card is free of charge, as in the Archives départmentales, in some, there is a charge, as in the Archives nationales and the Bibliothèque nationale. All require a valid identity card or passport. Some require that a form be completed, as does the Service Historique de la Défense (the military archives at Vincennes, referred to as SHD), some need nothing, some require proof of address that is not older than three months and a letter from a publisher or academic institution confirming your research and its subject and proof of your professional standing, as does the Bibliothèque nationale. If all the paperwork is in order and the person at the desk likes your face, getting the card usually takes about half an hour.

Reserving the Documents

In all of the Archives départementales, the civil and parish registers are almost all scanned and available for searching on an internal computer system, so no reservation is necessary. Any other document, such as the military registrations or land records, will need to be requested, usually with delivery in about 45 minutes. In the Archives nationales and the SHD, documents and files need to be requested up to three days in advance. Sometimes, this can be done online, for both have the entire list of their holdings, with the codes, on their websites. However, sometimes, large collections do not have a fully automated index and it is necessary to go to the facility, look something up in the index books, order it, and go back again three days later to view it, as in the case of officers' files at SHD. The Bibliothèque nationale seems to require both the reservation in advance by internet and then requesting the same documents again on arrival.

However the documents may be requested,  it is important to arrive well before 11.00 in the morning. Any time from 11.30 to 14.30 (2.30 p.m.) can be lunch time for the staff and no documents will be supplied during lunch time, even though they may have been reserved and even though the facility remains open for the researchers.

If your research cannot be completed in one day, it is usually possible to request that the documents be held for another day, as in some Archives départementales,  for three days, as in the Archives nationales. Some places, such as SHD, will not hold the documents. They send them back to storage  to be requested all over again.

En grève

Finally, having done all of the homework, all of the preparation to get the card and reserve the documents, you may arrive at the archives or library and discover that it is shut down because the staff are en grève, on strike, which happens quite a lot, especially during the holiday shopping season (no one likes to use their sick days to go shopping) and just before the summer holidays (we are not sure if this is general padding or an effort to get a pay rise that will come in to effect just as the bills for the summer holiday come in.) 

Our brother in Oregon likes to say that "all French are commies", which is rather an exaggeration. In truth, we have some admiration for the way the French government handles its workers', especially the civil servants',  love of going on strike. All strikes must be booked in advance and the route of any manifestation -- demonstration -- submitted to the authorities. If not, it is an illegal strike or demonstration and will not be permitted. The public is notified in advance of the strike and told to make alternative plans. Notices are posted in the metro stations and at bus shelters informing the passengers of the marchers' route and of how the buses will travel by different streets. In this way, the strikes cause almost no real disruption. They rarely last more than two days, so no one really suffers. The whole purpose of striking in France seems to be a sort of collective letting off of steam. People get their chance to shout at television reporters and then see themselves on the evening news. They chant their impossibly long, didactic and completely unrhythmic slogans, (which take some of the marchers half the day to learn; very entertaining.) Yet if they happen to shut the archives or library for the very two or three days that the genealogical tourist had planned to use it, this can be most disappointing.

Prepare yourself!

Be warned: check the websites and the news, have the telephone numbers, and verify that the facility will be open and the trains will be running the very morning that you plan to go. Even then, be prepared to arrive to locked gates and a little troupe with signs and slogans. Always have a zen attitude and a backup plan.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French genealogy

Dowries and Marriage Contracts

Golden dowry girl

Dowries were, until quite recently, a fact of French life, with the unseemly spectacle of daughters of wealthy families being seen as golden calves. The corruption of young souls by making marriage and the building of a family a financial affair is hilariously described by Juliette Adam in her excellent and informative article of 1891,  "The Dowries of Women in France".*  Every girl knew that she had to be either rich or very pretty to be marriageable and was warned always "Don't fall foolishly in love with a poor man." When the big day came, "how many young girls go sorrowfully to marriage with the feeling -- the certainty -- that they are being married for their dowries."

The custom was not the same throughout the country, there being very different traditions in the south from those in the north. The southern part of the country followed the old Roman law, which is explained in this little passage from the great 11th Edition:

"In the earliest period of Roman law no provision for the wife was required, for she passed under manus of her husband, and became in law his daughter, entitled as such to a share in his property at his death. In course of time the plebeian form of marriage by usus, according to which the wife did not become subject to manus, ...  superseded the older form and it became necessary to make a provision for the wife by contract. Such provision from the wife's side was made by the dos, the property contributed by the wife or by someone on her behalf towards the expenses of the new household."

In France, this was called the régime dotal and was considered to be the least favourable to the husband, though it did not give the wife total freedom over her money either, (except in Normandy, where women seem to have had more rights over such things. Probably their Viking heritage).

More often found in the northern part of the country was the régime de la communauté, which gave the husband full authority over any money and property brought to the marriage by the wife.  If he did a very bad job of it, she could go to the courts and ask for the third option (which could have been the choice from the beginning) to be imposed, the régime de la séparation de biens, which separated the money and property of each. This last was considered to be the most favourable to the wife, as it gave her full control over her money and property, unless she were to give power of attorney to her husband, silly thing. 

At times, the dowry was so large that the wife's family had to pay it in land, or in installments, usually at Michaelmas, after the autumn harvest would have provided some cash or cows. There would have been a meeting for the payment and the notaire would have issued a quittance de dot, a receipt for payment of the dowry.  The marriage contract would also mention biens immobiliers (real estate),  maisons (houses), terrain (land), the trousseau (household linens and clothing, often described in great detail, down to the quality of the fabric) and, very rarely, bijoux (jewels). 

Quite a lot of squabbling went on about these contracts. As Madame Adam wrote: "Then comes the drawing up of the marriage contract, which is of so much importance to the relatives," so much so that it was often they alone who negotiated the contract, afterward merely informing the prospective bride and groom of its details. "Very often, thanks to their youth, they are offended...But if they venture an indignant remark, some one answers...."Love dies and money remains." We have often noted this view of the French toward marriage, even today and, in striving to explain it to Americans, have come up with our own epigram:

As the Americans are about business, so the French are about marriage; as the French are about business, so the Americans are about marriage. 


One or the other of these three forms of dowry management governed French marriages of all but the very poorest classes for hundreds of years, providing notaires with plenty of work negotiating and drawing up the contracts, and genealogists with mountains of revealing documentation.  The marriage contract may be quite hard to find, however, for it will be in the notarial records held in the Departmental Archives. Notarial records are almost never microfilmed. One must determine which notaire wrote the contract. Then, one simply has to plough through all the notarial files and hope to come across the contract  one is seeking, but if one does, it is genealogical pay dirt. 


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

*North American Review, vol. 152, issue 410, January, 1891, pp.37-47, on the Cornell University digital Library/Making of America

More on French Prisoners

In researching prisoners for genealogy, we were happy to find these fine articles about French prisons. We pass them on to our readers on the sad chance that they may need these resources to discover more about the residence of an incarcerated ancestor:

We had thought to go on to list ten, but in pursuing this subject we have now made ourselves so thoroughly unhappy, we stop here. 


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Of Recipes and Regions

Boulangerie 2 


As we have so often chanted, one must know where a French ancestor originated in order to trace back further. Yet, for most people tracing their French lineage, that seems a rather useless joke since, if they knew where, they would not be struggling so to do the research. We have suggested a few ways to try to find where an ancestor's home was, such as using to see if the name is unique to a specific part of France, or verifying whether a skill or profession of an ancestor was not from a certain region. Now, in the holiday spirit, we would like to point out that food's well-known regional differences can help the genealogist in France.

Many families have traditional recipes and many of those recipes come from immigrant ancestors. On occasion, those recipes may indicate a region or an even smaller area in France. One must have a light touch in this research. The standard, well known recipes of some regions, such as boeuf bourguignon or tarte tatin or clafouti, have been in every cookery book  and so, every French household for years. These cook's warhorses are useless in trying to pinpoint a location.

If, on the other hand, there is a special family recipe for fondue, and a special way of stirring the cheese as it melts, a good place to start looking for ancestors might be Haute Savoie. If there are tales of a great-grandmother who threw apples and apple cider into everything she cooked, from rice pudding to duck, one might well begin the search in Normandy. 

We recently helped someone whose grandmother could recall her French grandmother lamenting at how she missed what sounded like"pre-salted lamb". What actually was passed down was the belief that she had a malady causing her to crave salt, the poor misunderstood dear. Gigot de pré salé means lamb from the salty meadow, or salt marsh lamb. The meat has a very distinctive taste and tenderness from the salty grasses the lamb has eaten. It is prepared exactly as ordinary leg of lamb:


Prick the meat all over with garlic, then smear it with butter

Add salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary and onion

Roast it, basting occasionally.

When the meat is golden, add a glass of water to give enough sauce when done.


Gigot de pré salé is associated with just one region in France: Bretagne, and especially with the area around Mont-St.-Michel. Our acquaintance began searching her great-great-grandmother's origins there and, by cracky, she found the family.

Sometimes, it may be simply a usage of food words that will reveal a location. For example, in all of France, a little bundle of herbs tied and put in a pot with cooking food is called a bouquet garni, but if your family calls it the augoûts, they may have come from the  Saône-et-Loire region. If you have in your family jargon something like bibichiolo, meaning any food that causes thirst, your French ancestor may have come from Languedoc. Finally, we give our favourite, a word used in Lyon for that most disgusting of vegetables, salsify: doigts de morts, or fingers of death. Quite right.

So, if all else has failed and you still have no idea where in all of France your immigrant ancestor came from , start interviewing the family cooks, dig out old cookery notes and recipe cards and maybe, just maybe, you will get lucky.

Bonne année

Happy New Year

©2010 Anne Morddel