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February 2010

Wonders Never Cease Department

Wonders Never Cease Dept.

Interesting developments indeed. The February-March issue of La revue française de Généalogie (no. 186) reports in an article entitled "Les mormons prêts à négocier" that discussions are under way to put all of the filmed French états civils on FamilySearch. The article is an interview with Dominique Calmels, president of the LDS in France, and Jean-Pierre Massela, director of FamilySearch France.

Up to now, the agreement between the French and the LDS has restricted use of the films (and over 80%  of the country's états civils have been filmed by the church) to within the library in Salt Lake City. What is at issue here?

If one uses any of the websites of the Archives départementales that have their états civils online, one can see that every one of the films was made by the LDS.  Most of those sites are free. It is law in France that access to the nation's history - governmental, cultural, administrative, etc. - be free to all citizens. Perhaps there was a concern in the past that there would be a fee charged by the LDS? Perhaps accusations could be made that France was selling her patrimoine? Perhaps it is more a question of timing, e.g. the états civils should not be made available via a foreign source until they are all available via French sources, until all departmental archives have a chance to put their états civils online? 

Perhaps, of course, there is some pecuniary aspect. Or, perhaps the resistance has to do with language, an issue extremely close to the French heart. Currently, one can access from a French site, but very soon, the screens revert to English. If the only place some French citizens could search their country's parish and civil registrations were on an Anglophone website, this would cause not a little outrage. Yet that very point, access to the états civils via an Anglophone website, would help most of our readers immensely, and presumably most of the users of FamilySearch, like most of our readers, are English speakers.

From all of the suppositions above, it is clear that we are not privy to inside information; we can only say that something very interesting is afoot. The article contains a comment by one of the interviewees to the effect that their budget allocated for France is "under-utilized". We have a suggestion for where to spend a few hundred: how about sprucing up the Paris Family History Centre, perhaps buy a functioning microfilm reader, perhaps one with a printer?

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

What Is A Notaire?

Notaire sign

In French genealogy, the actes d'état civil -- the birth, marriage and death records -- are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to finding out about ancestors. Once those have been found, the next area of research might well be the notarial records.  For a few centuries, most French documents with any sort of contractual function will have been created by a notaire, but what is a notaire?

A notaire is not the equivalent of a notary public, though the service of verifying a signature is one of the many things a notaire will do. Neither is a notaire a type of lawyer or barrister though, because they must advise on the law, they also study it. The sign in the photo above is the standard notaire's shingle, the sight of which brings a sense of security to most French people, while the thought of a lawyer brings fear and suspicion. 

Briefly, since Napoleon's Code Civil went into effect in 1804, a notaire is a public official appointed by the Ministry of Justice, but with his or her own practice.  A modern notaire is required by law to give advice as to the law and the consequences of any document or transaction his or her clients are considering. The documents drawn up by a notaire are official; they have probative force; they are enforceable; they can have the state seal. (Hence the sense of security in dealing with one. Gazumping by one's own notaire does not happen in France.) In Europe, this is known as the "Latin-style notaire". 

Notaires existed prior to the Code Civil and served much the same function of drawing up and authenticating documents. Quite often their practices, called études (as they still are), and their authority, were hereditary. In the past, many were itinerant, each wandering his territory and visiting huts, hovels and manor houses, writing out marriage contracts, wills and deeds. Do not think, however, that his lifestyle indicates a profession like that of some grubby little épistolier on the road. A notaire had robes of officialdom; even now, a notaire is always addressed as "Maître" (Master). To learn more about modern notaires, visit the site of the top training institution for notaires in France: the Centre de Formation Professionnelle Notariale de Paris.

Notaires have always kept copies of the documents they draw up, called les minutes or sometimes, les actes, in their études. Forever. Through the usual little catastrophes that occur in this world, some have been destroyed, but thousands remain. Since 1979, the études have been required by law to turn over any of these copies more than 125 years old to the departmental archives.  Some complied; some did not.   

Until recently, the only way to see notarial records was to visit the Departmental Archives, but more and more of the Archives départementales are filming the records and putting them on their websites. (Some of those that have all ready done so are Drôme, Hérault, Loire-Atlantique, Haute-Marne, Puy-de-Dôme, Seine-et-Marne, Var, Vendée, and Val-d'Oise.) 

The study of notarial records covers a vast array of subjects, especially terminology, paleography, and law, none of which we intend to pursue here. (We get bored with terminology unless it rhymes. We go blind with paleography. Law intimidates us.) We will, however, over the next couple of posts, give some basic information which we hope will allow those interested to make a beginning.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

For a nice, clear description of a notaire's duties, look here.

The Bulletin des lois

Bulletin des Lois small

The Bulletin des lois was the official publication of all laws and decrees of the government of France from 1818 to 1919.  The supplement, published at the same time,  covered a wide range of government activities and notices, from the granting of pensions to government employees to applications for patents. Both sections were published every six months, making for four volumes a year for a century. (There they all are, in the photo above.) The laws and decrees make heavy reading, of course, but the supplements can provide the genealogist with a few good nuggets.

Pension Lists

The pension lists include all government employees - the postman, customs officers, teachers, various inspectors, and the military -- and gives the following about each person:


  • full name
  • date and place of birth and, if foreign-born, whether the parents were French
  • pay grade, with the number of years, months and days worked
  • the amount of the pension
  • if the person were deceased and the pension was to go to the widow, there will also be:
    • the date of marriage
    • the widow's date and place of birth
    • her place of residence
  •  if the pensioner were widowed and died leaving minor children, the pension reverted to them, so they are named and their dates of birth given

It is rather like finding Grandpa's entire personnel file in the Congressional Record. 


Anyone who chose to become French is listed in the naturalisations, with their name, date and place of birth, the names of their parents and their nationality. Probably the best source for this information.

Patent Applications

There is not so much to be found here, just the name of the inventor and his invention. As always with patents, this makes for a humourous read.

Name Changes

All name changes were published, with the date the decree was granted, the old name, the new name, and the date and place of birth. (A much better place, for it  is a much easier tool to use, to find this information is the Dictionnaire des changements des noms by "Jérôme l'archiviste"  for the years 1803-1962.)

Nominations to the Légion d'Honneur

With name and the date of acceptance. Again, as we wrote in a previous post, there is now a much better place to find this information: LEONORE.

The Optants - the nationality options of the people of Alsace-Lorraine after the annexation

Found in the volumes for the year of 1872, in 15,000 pages of names (with an alphabetical index), giving the name of the spouse, date and place of birth, place of residence, and date and place of the option. Yet again, as we wrote in our post on the Optants, this information can be more easily accessed via


There is no single index to the entire series, but there are indices every ten years, the Tables alphabétiques. Even so, the standard estimate for a genealogical search in the Bulletin des lois is "It takes a week."

B des Lois Table Alpha small


The Bulletin des lois can be found in most large libraries in France and in many national libraries around the world. Odd volumes are available for download on the Internet Archive. The best way to access it is via the Bibliothèque nationale de France's website, Gallica, where the entire series is online and searchable. (As always, with scanned pages, the search function is not too reliable, though better than nothing. If you are serious, use the indices.)

Forget Truffaut, Godard, Balzac, and Hugo; this is what one reads to understand the French mind.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy



On Nationality



 We have been remiss. Some time back, we received a question from loyal reader Monsieur B. about citizenship and nationality. He wrote that his ancestor:



"was born in the province of Torino, Italy. The family moved to Marseille in about 1869 when he was 20 then to Toulon a few years later. He emigrated in 1876 and became an American citizen in the 1880s, renouncing his allegiance to France, not Italy.....Did European countries, or at least France, have laws regarding who was and who wasn't a citizen in the mid to late 19th century?"

This is a most timely question, for the press these days is full of pontifications about what it means to be French, what is Frenchness, asking "is there a French identity crisis?" and so on. The French bureaucrats continue to grant citizenship according to the bizarre and highly personal  criteria we described in our post Trying Hard Enough and Time/CNN recently printed an article on others who had experienced tribulations similar to our own. Just in case one is inclined to think that it is only the French who make the acquisition of citizenship a visit to the world of Kafka, read this lengthy summary of the intricacies of acquiring US citizenship for a child born outside of the US and with an American parent. (Here, we must point out that the existence of even these intricacies is due entirely to the work of one exceedingly determined lady, Phyllis Michaux who fought to change the law denying such children US citizenship. We, and our children, are grateful.)

Monsieur B.'s question however, and our interest here, is how to understand French citizenship for genealogical purposes. His ancestor almost certainly would have been French and not a citizen of Torino (or of Italy, which did not exist yet). It is confusing to Americans, as is the American concept of nationality to most Europeans. Long ago (our apologies, for we can no longer find the quote) we read a succinct clarification of the difference in the column of William Pfaff that used to appear in the International Herald Tribune. He wrote , essentially, that in the New World countries, nationality is a matter of political borders, while in Europe, nationality is a matter of race.

New World countries, such as the United States or Brazil, automatically grant citizenship to anyone born within their borders. European countries do not. To be born in France or Britain, for example, is not enough, on its own, to make one a citizen of that country. In Europe, one must prove that one is of what is tacitly considered to be the race of that country to acquire citizenship. Hence, in France, the demand for the documents of the parents and grandparents to prove Frenchness (and hence, obviously, the identity crisis.)

By the same token, a European does not lose citizenship merely for having been born outside the  country. Thus, the ancestor of Monsieur B. , if one parent was French, would have been unquestionably French and, unless the other parent were from Torino,  would have had no claim to citizenship of that province or, later, of Italy. We encountered an extreme form of this racial concept of citizenship when living in Istanbul. There, we were introduced to a family that considered itself French. They were descended from French merchants who had gone to the Ottoman Empire more than 200 years ago. Few in the family spoke French and many had never been to France. Yet, every generation had retained French nationality and French passports.

In genealogical research of French ancestors, bear all of this in mind:

  • birth in France does not make a person French
  • French parents make a person French
  • nationality can, of course be taken, and there are good records in the Bulletin des lois of those who did take nationality
  • birth outside of France does not automatically deprive a person of French nationality; as seen above it can continue for generations, so it is worth checking the birth registrations at French consulates in the Archives Diplomatiques if there is reason to think an ancestor's parents would have preserved the French nationality
  • finally, many, many French ancestors could have had dual or even triple nationality. 

All clear?

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy