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June 2010



The publishers of "Votre Généalogie" have launched this month a new magazine," Généalogique".  It is of half-size format and runs to seventy pages in full colour. Many of the names of the editorial staff also appear on the list of staff on the parent magazine. So what is the difference? In her first editorial, the editor, Emilie di Vincenzo,  announces that the aim of the new publication  is to be, above all, practical. 

Unavoidably, there is some repetition of what is found in all French genealogy magazines: news reports from the various genealogy circles and associations, dates of their conferences and events around the country, and reports on developments in the departmental archives. There is also, in this inaugural issue, a number of articles on the basics of genealogy and research:

  • how to start researching via the internet, with recommended websites
  • how to set up one's first data base, using the programme Généatique 2010
  • explanations of the national and departmental archives, their organisation and location, and the classification system of Series
  • the obligatory article on paleography
  • an introduction to family documents
  • a brief lexicon of terms
  • an article entitled "First Steps in Genealogy"

All of the above is somewhat cursory and repeats what has been published in "Votre Généalogie". More interesting is a series of articles on genealogy in Bretagne, including an intereview with Jean-François Pellan, the president of the quite large Centre Généalogique du Finistère, and an exploration of Breton clog-making down the years.

Onomastique would seem to be the study of names. The magazine has a staff member devoted exclusively to the subject -- an onomasticien? --  and promises regular articles on French naming practices and traditions. The first article is about the ten most common surnames in France.

The article on King Tut's DNA seems to wander a bit far from the subject. The article on the genealogical chart artist, Chantal Geyer, is a discovery we appreciate. The "psychogénéalogie" article on unconscious memory lost us, as did the one on "The Alzheimer Garden".

It will be interesting to see where this one goes. Oh yes.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Old French in Old Documents

Iron door small

Let it be known from the start that we do not enjoy old documents when they are illegible, any more than we enjoy attempting conversation with a person whose thoughts are incoherent. Language is about communication. When it fails, we are depressed. Puzzles are a different matter, being most intriguing, and language puzzles are quite enjoyable. Thus, in old documents, we groan at the sight of one that is nothing but a mess of scribbles and are rather excited to work with one that is legible but full of mystery.

In old French documents (here, we must qualify that "old" is really only slightly old, perhaps dating back to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, as few of us are likely to encounter anything much older in our genealogical research) there are two assaults on understanding:


  • the handwriting
  • the words

The handwriting has to be learned and that comes with practice. There are numerous books on French paleography. One in English that we have found helpful is Dawson's and Kennedy-Skipton's Elizabethan Handwriting 1500-1650. A few of the Archives départementales (see the panel to the left) offer paleography courses. The best online course we have found (in French) is that of Stéphane Pouyllau, and can be found on the website of Eric Voirin

For help with the old French words, we use Lexilogos, the ancien français section. Then, there are the abbreviations used by notaires, which make no sense at all and are not even very consistently used. Here are a few:


  • nob for noble
  • not for notre
  • estt for estant
  • led for ledit
  • par for paroisse
  • dem or demt for demeurant
  • baill for baillage
  • bo for bon 
  • cont for contre
  • deff for deffunt
  • dud for dudit
  • fe for feu
  • fre for frere
  • R for reçu
  • S for sol or sou or sous !
  • succ for successeur
  • susd for susdite
  • test for testament
  • tesm for tesmoins

There are many, many more, as well as some tricky little symbols for words. If you have traced your family far back enough to have many old documents to read, we suggest you take one of the courses.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Update: Loyal reader, Monsieur B, recommends the online paleography course of the Departmental Archives of Indre.



Bad News

Horse's ass

Truly, we had hoped never to have to award this prize (see photo), but the sad day has come and so we must. It goes to  the Commission on Access to Public Documents, or CADA, which has deemed that images taken of documents on the websites of the departmental archives may not be used on blogs or websites, for fear of privacy violations. Numbers 43-45 are the relevant pages of the lengthy report on the subject, which we give here:

Download CADA Rapport2009

The French Genealogy Blog, which we consider to be educational and not commercial, uses such images extensively, in an effort to explain to our readers how to use the archives. The current advice from the Fédération Française de Généalogie is to reproduce no images at all from the websites of the Archives départementales. Following this advice, the posts on this blog that contain such images have been taken down, temporarily, while we work on our plan to provide useful alternatives that will not violate this new edict.

The most recent meeting of the Fédération Française de Généalogie was meant to have a representative from the Archives de France speak about and explain this new policy, but no representative showed up. Instead, the meeting dissolved into a brouhaha about the fact that yet another genealogy company, Notre Famille, which owns, a messy, ad-infested, subscription site that we have never found to be particularly useful, attempted to negotiate the right to put all images of all parish and civil registrations of all departments on The negotiations failed for the moment, so Notre Famille sent very aggressive letters to each and every departmental archives, scaring the daylights out of some of the archivists, who were shocked at the plans of a "private company to use public documents for commercial gain". Recall that there is another player in the game. We suspect that it is not fear that blogs such as ours will violate the privacy of the long dead which is the reason for banning use of the images online, but the machinations of these two companies.

As for why any company would think there is profit to be had in charging for what is all ready available free, the answer is the index. There is no indexing to any of the actes of the état civil online, beyond the ten-year indices, which are at the lowest local level. The company that first provides for all actes of France the kind of search facility that is available on for US Federal censuses, e.g. by name, place, sex, age, year, etc. will strike French gold. The consequences will change French genealogy. Cercles fear they will disappear, archivists fear the corruption of venality, all those who research their family fear they would no longer be able to afford to do so.

These are interesting times in French genealogy.


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Update: the first of our efforts at giving a serviceable copy. Yawn.



Recognizing a Child - Reconnaissance d'enfant

Yes Sir that's my baby 




Time for a little bit of explanation about cultural differences, which lead to legal differences. As genealogists, we seem to be fine in accepting that people long ago, our ancestors, had different views as to right and wrong, good and bad, clean and dirty, tasty and foul. As cross-cultural genealogists, we must be able to have the same open mindedness about the customs of other cultures. Recently, that some people seem to have had slight seizures on receiving the translations of their ancestors' actes de naissances has us thinking an educational aside is in order.

The civil registration of a birth, an acte de naissance, has been explained in detail elsewhere. Over the years, there have been rules about adding marginal notes. Since 1945, the date of death has been added in the margin of the person's birth registration. Marriages were added from 1897. Adoption in 1955. Those who died in battle, mort pour la France, have had that noted since 1915. These marginal notes seem acceptable enough to non-French. What causes some confusion are the notes about the changed legal status of a child. 

Since the early nineteenth century, an illegitimate child could be recognized and so, gain some rights to inherit. The child could also be legitimated, if the parents married and both recognized the child as theirs. Below are the basic points:


  • An enfant naturel was a child born to an unmarried woman. Often, the father was simply "not named" or, occasionally stated as "unknown". The child would have had the same surname as the mother.
  • In 1804, the status of a recognized child was established. A note in the margin that says the child was recognized, reconnu, by the father means that the father went before the officer of the  état civil and swore that the child was his. This gave the child a legally recognized connection to a parent,  filiation, and some rights to inherit. 
  • If the parents of the child married, they would at the same time swear that the child was theirs and this would legitimate the child's birth. This légitimation would be noted in the margin of the child's acte de naissance, the surname would change and the child would have full legal rights in relation to both parents.

We have grown quite fond of these marginal notes, for they make a birth registration a whole life story, albeit often illegible. 


Today, French law recognizes no difference between children born to parents of different marital status, and all have equal inheritance rights. In relation to reconnaissance and légitimation, we are often asked if the French law had a way to guarantee that the man who recognized and/or legitimated a child was truly the biological father. To which we can only reply: Don't be silly.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The Pensioned Soldiers of Invalides




Most tourists who visit the Hôtel des Invalides go because Napoléon's tomb is there. They enter only the one building, whip around the rotunda, looking down at the sarcophagus, and hotfoot it to a river cruise or the Eiffel Tower. We genealogists are so much more cool. We actually go inside and look around where thousands of elderly and disabled French soldiers of the ancien régime lived out their shattered lives.


Invalides was built by Louis XIV, a man who loved waging wars to expand France's borders and who lived long enough to wage many. The man also loved grand buildings -- think of Versailles. The two loves together led to the decision to create a magnificent home for the men who had sacrificed nearly their all for him. Many were crippled or mad and were begging in the streets. This may have discouraged others from wanting to serve. The king was not unique in this charitable plan, for the Chelsea Hospital in London was built a little bit later.  Works began in 1671, just about half way through his 72-year-long reign, and became more grand as they went along. It is, indeed, grand. The great, gilded dome of the church is one of the most beautiful landmarks in Paris. 


Invalides could house up to four thousand pensioners at a time. Their lives were still regimented, but secure. They were divided into companies and spent their days in workshops "making uniforms and boots, weaving and book illustration." They had simple but comfortable rooms, wore uniforms, attended church, sang in the choir. The hundred most severely handicapped lived in the hospital on the grounds. 

Over 110,000 soldiers, of many nationalities, lived there, from 1673 to 1796. To find out who they were and to find a bit of very useful genealogical information on them, there is a searchable database of the Pensionnaires de l'Hôtel des Invalides. Typing a name in the search box will bring up a list of all pensioners' records that contain that string of letters, which is a bit messy but not too. The information comes from the entry registration forms for each pensioner and gives his:


  • name
  • age
  • date of entering Invalides
  • town of origin and nationality
  • rank
  • history of military service
  • profession or skill, métier
  • wounds and disabilities
  • marital status
  • religion
  • (eventually) date of death


 Once again, the military's mania for documentation plays into the genealogist's willing hands.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Optants Updates

Postcard Alsace small

Probably belatedly, it has come to our attention that various indices to the Optants have appeared online. These little cards are not particularly useful on their own. We  explain here how to get the best out of this new availability.

Recall, please that the Optants were those born but NOT living in the Alsace-Lorraine territory lost by France in the Franco-Prussian War who opted in 1872 to remain French. Had they done nothing, as their homeland became German, so would have done their nationality, which was the case for all who continued to reside in the region. For a native of the region to keep French nationality, he or she had to get out of the region AND file an option. The options were published in supplements of the Bulletin des Lois.


B des L Optants 


 Various organisations have made index cards from the information. The best, of course, is that made from the original forms held at the Archives nationales.  These original forms, completed by the people opting to remain French, were the source of the listing in the Bulletin des Lois. (There were also those outside the region at the time who opted to be German. There is no card index for them, but there is a 184-page list of their names on The forms themselves are fragile and access to them is strictly limited. 

The Archives' set of index cards  based on them are on microfilm that can be viewed in the Archives nationales only.  Geneaservice has another set of index cards that they made, which can be viewed on their site and which is now available on Ancestry, both charging a fee. Finally, the genealogists of Alsace and Moselle (C.O.D.A.M.) have published booklets with names of Optants, and have put more than 470,000 in a database that can be searched online. The database leads one to purchase one or more of their booklets.

In the case of Geneaservice and Ancestry, a key part of the usefulness of the information is not mentioned or available. In the Bulletin des Lois,  the family is shown together. It also gives the full name, date and place of birth, place of residence and the date of the declaration for each person. 


B des Lois Optant headings 


(Click on the image above to see the large version.) 

 N.B.: Married women will be found not with their family, but under their maiden names, with a note afterward saying "femme" (wife of) or "veuve" (widow of) . It is important to remember that, in official documentation, a married woman will always appear under her maiden name. In all other aspects of life, she will be Mme. Nom-de-son-époux.


Both sets of the index cards give the birth and locations information and refer to where in the Bulletin des Lois the entry can be found. Geneaservice and Ancestry have the cards indexed only by name, so a search by place of birth and place of residence is not possible. That seems a wasted opportunity.  Neither site presents a copy of the Optants supplements to the Bulletin des Lois, so it is not possible with their index cards alone to regroup a family.

The online site of scanned books from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, has all years of the Bulletin des Lois, but not the supplements. The C.O.D.A.M. booklets are lists of Optants taken not only from the Bulletin des Lois but supplemented with information from the Departmental Archives and the National Archives. The names are not grouped alphabetically, but by town. 

Thus, the best way to use the Optants information to its fullest is to have access to the following:

  • To find an individual: An alphabetical index, such as the microfilmed cards at the Archives nationales, or online at Geneaservice, Ancestry or, and
  • To see the individual's family (minus married women): the Optants supplements to the Bulletin des Lois or the booklets produced by C.O.D.A.M.

Someone please pester Ancestry to cross reference the Optant cards by birthplace and residence, and then to film and upload the Optants volumes of the Bulletin des Lois. Then they would be providing a great resource about a particularly mobile, emigration-oriented group of people.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy