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August 2010

Book Review - Petit Guide de Généalogie

Petit Guide cover small

 This is a livre de jeunesse, a children's book, though not for very young ones. Less than one hundred pages, including the table of contents and index, it is divided into two parts. The first is a very simple guide to genealogical research in France, a "first steps" guide. The second half is a collection of stories revealed via research. As one would expect with a children's book, there are plenty of illustrations, both drawings and photographs. The mildly technical first half is enlivened with a few cartoons, as seems de rigeur whenever formulae or procedures are to be learned. (We imagine that students by now know that a jokey cartoon immediately means a dull text and do not read either. So much for pedagogical theory.)

Why do we recommend this book to you our erudite and presumably adult readers? Because it is exclusively about Breton genealogy. Every example of a document is a Breton document, every map and address is of Bretagne, and every single one of the stories is about Bretagne:

  • Much discussion of just what defines a Breton and where the boundaries of the true Bretagne should be drawn
  • Peddlers from Auvernge who invaded Bretagne
  • Bretons in Acadia and the story of Belle-Ile
  • Spanish republican refugees in Bretagne
  • Breton emigration within France and around the world: Argentina, Canada, the United States
  • Breton schools
  • Breton soldiers

For anyone with Breton ancestors to research, we are certain that there will be in this book one or two helpful points not yet discovered. For anyone wishing to share Breton history and culture with a young person, this is  a cheery little beginning.


Petit Guide de Généalogie : une Enquête à Mener, des Histoires à Raconter

Roger Bossard and Hervé Peaudecerf

Editions Skol Vreizh

ISBN 978-2-915623-66-6


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Montmartre Cemetery

Crouching Tombs 4


Before visiting the Moulin Rouge, one can reflect on how life fleets by and how those lovely dancers' bodies will rot by going round the corner and visiting the Montmartre Cemetery, Paris's northern cemetery. Much smaller than Père Lachaise, it really is a very cramped place to spend eternity. As with the other cemeteries of Paris, it has its celebrities: Berlioz, Delibes, the Camondo family. It seems to have more cats than the others.

Tomb cats 2 small

 Where this cemetery is far superior to the others is in the helpfulness of the staff. At all of the Paris cemeteries the staff will give the coordinates of and directions to any grave if one has the correct name and date of death. Ask for anything more, however, such as the name of the person who paid for the plot or, if it is a family vault, for the names of all those interred within, and the usual response is a refusal to give out that information. At Montparnasse, one is told that it is not permitted to reveal such details and the register books are kept downstairs. At Père Lachaise, we were told that no one could ever learn those secrets; when we tried to insist, we were fed a pack of ridiculous lies. 

At Montmartre, we sought a grave and as many details as possible about it. Not only was the cat moved from the counter so we could be shown the register books, we were allowed to photograph them. Even better, we were allowed to do the same with the file on that person, which showed who else was buried there. As these other names were not on the grave marker, this generosity on the part of the very kind staff yielded valuable genealogical information about the family.

Montmartre register

We cannot say why the staff are friendlier at Montmartre; it must be the cats.

Calinette small 



©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy



The Burning of the Port of Bordeaux Archives

Small ship - U 

Some years back we had the opportunity to work a bit with the late Sean McMenamin, one of Ireland's most gifted archivists. He stunned a room full of colleagues by saying that he thought the torching of the national archives of Ireland in 1922 was the best thing that had ever happened to that country. This post is about the destruction of another collection, only a few years earlier.

On the night of the vernal equinox in 1919, boxes containing the entire history of the Port of Bordeaux went up in flames. They were held in a large warehouse belonging to the navy, along with about a million francs worth of rope, which was also lost. Not so unlike Sean, there were those who thought the loss of the rope was a greater tragedy than the loss of the archives. They were not genealogists.

The loss was calculable, for the archives had been classified and numbered some years before they burnt. They covered the activities of the port from 1726, including:

  • ministerial correspondence about all aspects of the port 
  • all maritime instructions that had any relation to Bordeaux
  • lists of and files on naval personnel, port personnel, prisoners taken from captured ships, and wounded sailors
  • records of merchant vessels and privateers
  • 62 folio volumes of all documentation relating to all ships that sailed from Bordeaux during the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, and the American Revolution
  • crew lists from before and after the French Revolution, up through the 1870s

A major swathe of the documentation of French maritime history  -- from the reign of Louis XV to the Restoration -- was lost. For those hoping to search passenger lists or crew lists from during that time, we fear that there is nothing left to search.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French genealogy

The Identity Wars - Part Seven


London fit like a glove. The genius and I lived just off of Baker Street, in a little mews flat where we poor Californians nearly died of cold and damp that first winter. At first, the best job I could find was as a shop assistant to support us both while the genius lived the life of the mind. Life was costly and my salary was laughable. Penniless in central London, our only entertainment was to walk. Every evening, we walked, the A to Z in hand, passing theatres, opera houses, and restaurants we could not afford to enter.

We were so lucky. My grandmother, who had travelled the world a couple of times over, always said : "There is no better way to learn a city than to walk it". Oh, how we learned London. We walked from the City to Bayswater, from Oval to Hampstead and everywhere in between. We became more adventurous and walked to Greenwich and back one night. We saved up to buy tickets on the last tourist boat to Hampton Court Palace and walked back. We learned hundreds of the impossible little streets, a small portion of what cab drivers spend two years of studying "the Knowledge" to know thoroughly. My first memories of London are all of the streets and buildings at night, lit by streetlamps with regular help from the moon; and one of my best-loved books is Stephen Graham's  London Nights.  

Eventually, I found a good job with a magazine company. We walked less and began to go to the theatre. Perhaps unsurprisingly but amicably, the genius and I fell out of love. London did not suit him so well. We divorced and he returned to California. I planned to return a few months later, but ended up staying in London for over nine years. During those years, I wrote for magazines, then I built a consultancy; one of my biggest clients was the government. I paid taxes, bought property, saw my doctor on the National Health. If ever I understood what it meant to be an immigrant, to struggle to learn and fit into a society and culture -- as my ancestors did -- it was in London.

Surely, part of the reason I was so content there was that, with all of the documentation episodes: visas, a divorce, tax and National Insurance numbers, bank accounts, business registration, etc., never once was my identity questioned. Never once was I required to produce more than my passport as documentation. This has probably changed in these days of terrorism, but I doubt that there has been much change in the  basic attitude that accepts that I am who I say I am and I have the right to determine who I am.

Also during those years, I met a Frenchman. It was a lackadaisical courtship, but we did finally get around to marrying. Why, oh why did we not marry in London? Why, oh why did I agree to give up my dear, adopted city to go live in Istanbul?

©2010 Anne Morddel

The Police Archives

Police photo small

 Today's excursion, dear readers, took us on the sweltering métro to the stop at  Maubert-Mutualité, in the 5th arrondissement. We were hunting the genealogy of a policeman and a suspected criminal and had high hopes that the archives of the police, which are held in the Musée des Collections Historiques de la Prefecture de Police, would have our men. One passes a police guard of two to enter the fortress and, at the mere word "archives", one is waived upstairs without question. 

On the second floor, one finds two cramped, film-noir rooms jam-packed with cartons of files and books. There are tables and ample light for visitors to work. There are forms to fill out to request anything. We found there to be almost no organisation, but the archivists were wonderfully helpful. Our policeman had lived in the early part of the twentieth century in Paris, and they produced a card on him which held just enough information to carry our research forward. 

We were sent to the second room for help on our suspected criminal. It held four huge desks in a space designed for one. Fans whirred, papers fluttered, secretaries nibbled biscuits. A wondrous young archivist, who seemed to have the most knowledge for everyone brought him their questions, listened as we described our hunt for a possible criminal. "He may have attacked a child in north Paris in the 1940s," we began.

"Oh, those files are a mess," he said. "Since no one can see them, they have not been sorted. I am not even sure where in the basement they are."  Because a child was involved the file, if there was one -- and there was no way of knowing --  would have been sealed for seventy-five years. "You haven't long to wait, now," the archivist cheerily told us. He allowed us to snap the photo above of a file on his desk.

The archives contain files on police, criminals, major crimes, various forms of punishment, prisons, police uniforms, etc. They also have a major collection of photographs. Obviously, the genealogical value of these archives is significant but for a narrowly defined group of people.

The police archives on the years of collaboration during the Second World War soon will be unsealed. Classification and digitization has all ready begun. They are expected to be made available on the internet in 2015.

On our way out, we strolled through the museum and looked at massive, iron locks in glass cases and some rather repetitious paintings of prison walls. 


Musée des Collections Historiques de la Prefecture de Police

1 bis, rue des Carmes

75005 Paris

Métro : Maubert-Mutualité

Open : Monday to Friday, 9.00 to 17.00, Saturday 10.00 to 17.00

New address:

Archives de la Préfecture de police

Le Service de la Mémoire et des Affaires Culturelles

25-27, rue Baudin

93310 Le Pré Saint-Gervais

Métro Hoche on Line 5

Monday-Friday, 9am - 5pm, without interruption


N.B. Read the update here.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Louisiana Ancestors in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal

Arsenal doc 2 small

Above is our copying of a document found in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal. Dated 1728, it is a request  for Monsieur Herault, lieutenant general of the police, to allow a captain of the King's regiment to visit the prisons of Paris (Bastille) and Bicêtre (an apparently ghastly place where the straitjacket and the guillotine were first used) to choose some men to serve the king.  

Raiding prisons for men to puff up the ranks of soldiers or sailors was an old custom that lasted well into the nineteenth century. What is interesting about the small carton of documents in l'Arsenal where this paper was found is that many of the prisoners so selected were  sent to regiments in la Louisiane. An earlier document, dated May 1719, names the following men as released with the permission of the Duc d'Orléans to go to Louisiana:

  • Louis Chinet
  • Antoine Lagasse
  • Gabriel Colpin
  • Claude Cassin
  • Louis Ranson
  • Antoine Noel
  • Adrien Masson
  • Jacques Clarir
  • Nicolas Caron
  • Estienne le Siure
  • Michel Dumas
  • François Pequeux
  • Jean Le Blastre
  • Pierre Soubout
  • Nicolas Fanereau
  • Antoine Le Roy
  • Louis Fouret
It does not name their crimes or the regiments or ships they joined, merely that they went. They may have completed a formulaire d'engagement, a form that gave the man's name, the names of his parents, the parish of his birth and his physical description. There are very few of these in the carton.

We receive regular requests from readers struggling to find more about the early French arrivals in Louisiana. Clearly, not all soldiers who went to les isles de la Louisiane will have had military records; some will have had criminal records, and the place to look for them will not be the Service Historique de la Défense at Vincennes, but the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Genealogy at the Arsenal library - la Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal

Arsenal entry 1 small

In spite of the burning of the Hotêl de Ville and its eight million records on the inhabitants of Paris, some Parisian genealogical information has survived. Scattered among the library collections of manuscripts throughout Paris are parish registers and other documents covering the years from 1500 to 1791. The Arsenal library has records dating back to 1300.

Now part of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the library's collection is massive and fabulous: medieval illuminated manuscripts, literature, theatre, prints, and archives. These are currently accessed in one of those dreamy reading rooms designed in the days when scholars were to be encouraged rather than processed. To spend a winter's day of research in this room is one of the great pleasures of French genealogy.

Arsenal interior smaller 


There are two collections at l'Arsenal of importance for the genealogist:


  • The archives of the Célestins. These are the papers for the years 1300 to 1636 on the religious order which was granted permission by Charles V of France to build a convent just outside the old walls of Paris.  A hundred years later, they had taken over the street that still bears the name of their order: le Quai des Célestins, with some very grand houses indeed. They also owned other properties and fields which they rented out.* Their wealth grew, they were befriended by kings, and then all their property was destroyed in the Revolution. A celibate order, many of its members should have had no descendants, but there were those who joined later in life, after having had children.


  • The archives of the Bastille. These are the files on the management of the prison and on every one of its prisoners. When the Bastille was stormed, the archives were hardly considered worth preserving. Armloads of papers were dumped into the moat during the general mêlée of destruction. Presumably, that became boring to the rioters, for thousands of files survived. They reside at l'Arsenal, not very far from their original home. Some of them were organised and reproduced in the multi-volume work, Archives de la Bastille, document inédits, recueillis par François Ravaisson-Mollien et publié par Louis Ravaisson-Mollien, Règne Louis XV (1757 à 1767), which can be seen on both Gallica and the Internet Archive. Much more than is in this volume is available in the library and more on that in the next post. All sorts of people ended up in the bastille as prisoners -- Huguenots, debtors, true criminals -- and the prisoner files that have survived can be of  excellent genealogical value.

Access to the library is a bit complicated, involving forms, interviews and cash. There are two types of cards: a day card and an annual card. With good preparation in advance, using the online catalogue, and booking documents in advance, a visit can be efficiently achieved.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

* Guerber, Estelle. Le quartier del'hôtel de Saint-Paul à Paris (1360-1550) : Etude topographique, économique et sociale. Thèse soutenue en 2001. Thèses de l'école des chartes. 23 June, 2010.

The Departmental Archives of Pas-de-Calais

Ad Pas de Calais 4

To many non-French, the name of the town, Arras, recalls the stories of the terrible battles there in 1914 and 1917 and the large Arras cemetery of World War I dead. As is often the case when horrors were too close, the French never easily mention the trenches, but will instead say something blandly cheerful along the lines of "Ah the north coast!" Speak of Arras to a Parisian, and he will look puzzled. "Arras? Where is that?"

Arras is less than an hour from Paris by train from the Gare du Nord and it is there that the Departmental Archives of Pas-de-Calais are located. In truth, there are two locations, for Pas-de-Calais is the first departmental archives we have encountered that has divided their holdings into two groups: those records most often requested for genealogy, and those most often requested by those researching other aspects of the department's history. Microfilms of all parish and civil registers, census records online, and  military registers are all at the location in the centre of town at the Centre Georges-Besniers (the photo above). Outside of town, at the Centre Mahaut-d'Artois in Dainville, are all other records. Whether this division was intentional, as it seems, or has more to do with space issues, it works extremely well. The staff at the facility in Arras, unlike in so many other departmental archives, are expert at genealogical research and quite willing to be of help to their many patrons, both hobbyists or professional, since that is the exclusive function of their branch.

Historically, the economy of Pas-de-Calais was based on mining, a notoriously hard and short life for its labourers. Many emigrated, often from one of the department's ports, usually Calais or Boulogne-sur-Mer. Thus, the archives are the focus of research for many descended from those emigrants. Currently, the department's website has the ten-year indices online but not yet the images of the parish and civil registers, some of the military recruitment records, but not the early ones, and land records. Until more is available online, for complete research on a family, one must go there.


For research to find the grave of an ancestor who fought in Pas-de-Calais in the Great War:


  • The website of The Long, Long Trail lists the divisions that fought there in 1917
  • The website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists Commonwealth soldiers buried there, or whose names are among the 35,000 on the Arras Memorial
  • The website of the military historian, Paul Reed, Battlefields1418, has a significant amount of information on Arras during World War I.
  • For excellent links to information on all the wartime cemeteries in the department of Pas-de-Calais, the website Memoire de Pierre is highly recommended.


Les Archives du Pas-de-Calais

Centre Georges-Besnier

12 place de la Préfecture

62000 Arras

tel: (+33) 3 21 21 61 90


Centre Mahaut-d'Artois

1 rue du 19 mars 1962

62000 Dainville

tel: (+33) 3 21 71 10 90

.Read all of our posts about Departmental Archives here.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy