Recognizing a Child - Reconnaissance d'enfant
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Old French in Old Documents

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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