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October 2010

French Jewish Genealogy - Pick a Name - Le Décret de Bayonne

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The Revolution brought full citizenship to Jewish French on the 27th of September, 1791. Napoleon did not retract it (as he retracted the abolition of slavery) but he did issue an edict that has proved invaluable for genealogists (given above in the Bulletin des lois). With the Décret de Bayonne, issued on the 20th of July, 1808, he ordered that all Jewish people in France or immigrating permanently to France who did not have a fixed and hereditary surname be required to choose one.

These registres d'options de noms 1808 became a de facto census of the Jewish people of France (to be followed in some places by a real census a year later). The numbers are interesting. According to a list in the Archives nationales (code F19 11010) there were 46,054 Jewish people in France who chose permanent names. The majority were in the departments of  Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin (with some very legible examples for the city of Mulhouse), and Moselle. In each, the head of a family, usually the husband and father, gives for each family member his or her name, date and place of birth, and the surname and forenames chosen. The registrations have the appearance and structure of any other acte d'état civil in 1808.

The originals are in the communal or the departmental archives of the region where they were first recorded. Summaries and reports on these options are in the Archives nationales. As with any such documentation, not all have survived. Those in Strasbourg were burned in the bombing during the Franco-Prussian War, for example, and those of Moselle were destroyed during the Second World War.  

The excellent Cercle de Généalogie Juive offers for sale from their (bilingual!) site volumes by the late Pierre Katz, an expert on Alsatian Jewry,  of extracts of the data from the registres d'options de noms for the departments of Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin, Moselle, and Meurthe-et-Moselle. Most helpfully, they also have an alphabetical list on the website of all the surnames for Bas-Rhin, showing the villages where they were declared.

According to many, the registres d'options de noms 1808  are where French Jewish genealogy begins.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


French Officers' Pension Files

Medal pinning

The archives of the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) have almost a million pension files on officers. Finding that a French ancestor was an officer is a thrill for the genealogist for it means there will be a pension file which usually, though not always, contains masses of information. Just recently, the SHD have finished digitizing the finding aids or indices (répertoires) to these files and have put them online, with a nifty video presentation of how to use them. The pension files themselves cover the years from 1777 to 1926 and these are not online.

To find a particular person in the index, one must know roughly when he would have retired from the military and then check the particular index for those years.

  • Code 1 Yf - covers the years 1777 to 1790
  • Code 2 Yf - covers the years 1801 to 1817
  • Code 3 Yf - covers the years 1817 to 1856
  • Code 4 Yf - covers the years 1857 to 1875
  • Code 5 Yf - covers the years 1876 to 1897
  • Code 6 Yf - covers the years 1898 to 1911
  • Code 7 Yf - covers the years 1898 to 1911 for the colonial troops
  • Code 8 Yf - covers the years 1911 to 1914
  • Code 9 Yf - covers the years 1911 to 1914 for the colonial troops
  • Code 11 Yf - covers the years 1915 to 1926

For a sampling, we chose someone in the series 3 Yf, who would have retired between 1817 and 1856, François Xavier Delmart. 

Pension Index D

 Quite a lot of information is given in the index: his full name, rank, corps or regiment, date and reason he left the service, and the number of his file (dossier). At the moment, this is all that it is possible to view online. With the file number, which is added to the code from the list above to get the complete number, which is 3 Yf  73.860, one can then reserve (also online) the file for viewing at the archives.

We reserved Delmart's file online and went in to see it a week later. It contained 18 pages of forms and letters, copies of records, etc. Not only did it give his parents' names and a copy of his birth registration, it also had his widow's full name and place of birth, the date of their marriage, and the names and dates of birth of their children.

Veuve Militaire

 Of course, the file also gives Delmart's complete military service, along with his pay record.

Military service

It mentions in the file that he was awarded the Medal of the Legion of Honour.  To find out more about that, recall that we can go to the online database, Leonore, to see if his file is there (not all recipients' files have been preserved.) Oh, we are lucky today, for Delmart's file is there. Even better, it has been scanned and all six pages can be viewed online.

For those not living in Paris, it is possible to request a copy of the pension file from the SHD. It is a long process, but it does work. 


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Anonymous Parents - Accouchement sous X

Naissance sous X


From time to time, a researcher prowling through French actes de naissance, (civil birth registrations) will find a child whose parents are named simply as X, or not named at all: père non dénommé or mère non dénommée. This is no mere "brick wall";  it is a complete black hole.

Since the Revolution, a mother in France has had the right to give birth anonymously, Accouchement sous X. (The reasoning for this right is that it was thought that it would prevent child abandonment.) She can request that  her identity and her admission into a hospital or maternity home be kept secret. When she does so, she is surrendering her child for adoption or into care. There will be no record or document on which her name or the father's are mentioned.  There will be no traceable record of her having entered a hospital or maternity home.  At the place where the child is born, and if she wishes, she may, but is not required to:

  • Name the child. (If she chooses not to name the child, the law requires the civil registrations officer,  officier d'état civil, to give the child three first names, the last of which will be used as the surname.)
  • Leave information about her health and that of the father
  • Leave any other information she wishes about the circumstances of the child's birth
  • Leave her own identity, and/or the father's

This information is then put in a sealed envelope. Never will the contents of such an envelope be made without the mother's agreement. Written on the outside are the names the mother gave the child, along with the sex of the child and the date of birth. The director of the health facility is required to keep these envelopes. When grown, the child can begin to search for such an envelope to know his or her origins. If the mother chose to leave no information, then the child and any descendants will never know who the parents were. 

More recently it has become possible, if the father knows he is the father or the child knows who one or both of the parents are, for either to petition to have the birth registration altered to include that information. Since just 2009, grandparents have the right to be identified as such to a child born to anonymous parents (né sous X). In all cases, they will have to be able to prove it. If they cannot and the mother remains anonymous, there truly is no way to pierce her anonymity. 

A few days ago, we were conducting research in the Paris offices of a superb charity that has rescued children from the streets or worse for over a hundred years. Another researcher entered, a woman who had been born to anonymous parents and then had been taken in by the charity until her adoption. She had asked at every hospital in Paris and its suburbs for an envelope that might have been left by her mother. The answer was always negative. The charity was her last hope, but all they had was a copy of the civil registration of her birth, with neither parent named. The staff were as gentle and kind as possible, but they explained what she all ready knew: there was no record naming her mother or father. As it became clear to her that she would never, ever know who her parents were, she broke down and sobbed.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Huguenot Genealogy - The Protestant Registers

Huguenot Martyr

Documents and registers are going online at a snapping pace, so much so that we must revise our post of last November on Huguenot records in the archives. There are now quite a number of Departmental Archives which have, in the sections on the parish registrations, (the registres paroissiaux), the Protestant registers as well. 

One must differentiate between the Protestant churches. The Reformed Church, or Eglise réformée, was that of the Calvinists. They were the Huguenots and their church was officially banned from 1685 to 1787 throughout France and her colonies. The Lutheran Church, or la Confession d'Augsbourg, (the registers for which are usually termed registres protestants) was always legally tolerated in Alsace and their registers date back to 1525. Thus, for those genealogists who know that their ancestors were Protestant from Alsace, it is important to know whether they were Calvinist or Lutheran.

At times the registers were required by law, and at other times, when the religion was banned, so were any registrations. Only the legal registrations will be found on the websites of the Departmental Archives. They may also be held at the municipal or communal archives with a few being held at the National Archives. The timing, and what may be found as a result, are as follows:

  • From 1560 to 1685, registrations of marriages and baptisms, which gave the subjects' names, parents' names and godparents' names. The places for which the earliest registers still survive are: Caen, Loudun, Montpellier, Saint-Jean-du-Gard and Vitré. These appear as separate registers from the registres de catholicité or paroissiaux.
  • From 1579 to 1685, when the posting of banns became a legal requirement for all, the law included banns for Protestant marriages, but they had to be made via the local priest, which must have made things uncomfortable. These appear in the Catholic registers.
  • From 1684 to 1685, pastors had permission to register their church members. Most of these lists were destroyed when the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. Those that remain are better sought via the Huguenot Society or the Bibliothèque de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français.
  • From 1685 to 1782, the Catholic baptism registers might often have said if a child was born to Protestant parents or had been previously baptised as a Protestant.
  • From late 1685, Protestant deaths had to be declared by two witnesses to a local judge.
  • From 1736 to 1787, registers of Protestant burials were maintained. The archives for Caen and Montauban both have complete series for these years.
  • From 1744, and probably before, Protestant pastors kept secret registers, les registres "au Désert". Again, the information from these is better sought via the Huguenot Society or the Bibliothèque de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français.
  • From 1787 and the Edict of Toleration, things got very messy: those Protestants who all ready were married  had to declare their marriages to the local Catholic curate or to a judge. Some of these declarations may appear in the Catholic marriage registers. All future baptisms, marriages and burials also had to be declared to the curate or a judge. The curate put these into his Catholic BMS registers.
  • From 1792, the insanity ends and the civil registrations, the actes d'état civil, begin. Even so, some unofficial Protestant registrations continued until as late as 1840. Again see the publications of the Huguenot Society or the Bibliothèque de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français.

We do hope that this post's value will last longer than ten months, but if not, we will endeavor to bring things up to date.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Electoral Lists - les listes électorales

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We have been rereading Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idées reçus, which we prefer to anything else he wrote. It has all of his best traits: wit, impatience, mockery, general grouchiness, and a searing ridicule of the banal. A few of our favourites are:

  • WINDMILL - Looks well in a landscape.
  • SPLEEN - You can run faster if it has been removed. No need to know that this operation has never been practiced on man.
  • STEADY - Always followed by 'as a rock'.
  • MELODRAMAS - Less immoral than dramas.
  • LEGION OF HONOUR - Make fun of it , but covet it. When you obtain it, always say it was unsolicited.
  • DEICIDE - Wax indignant over it, even though the crime is somewhat infrequent.
  • DREAMS - Any lofty ideas one doesn't understand.

And, one that leads us to today's subject:

  • SUFFRAGE (UNIVERSAL) - The summit of political science.*

As everywhere, suffrage in France has had a chequered development, gradually going from only men of some substance having the vote to all of the adult population having it. Lists of voters were kept, and it is these that are of genealogical interest. Briefly, based upon who had the right to vote and what kind of list making was in fashion, here is what to look for during what time period:

  • From 1791 through 1847 - The electoral lists give no information other than the name, which will be only of adult men of some wealth, and not those who were  indigent, dependent upon others, insane, accused or convicted of a crime, servants or foreigners.
  • From the 5th of March, 1848 - The vote was given to all men from the age of twenty-one. The electoral lists were made annually and contain for each voter: his name, address, profession, date and place of birth and, if he moved, his new address. In Paris, the lists are alphabetical.
  • From 1946 - When women were finally allowed to vote (though the law giving them this right was passed the 21st of April, 1944), the lists will also contain their names and the same information as above. They will  ALWAYS be listed by their maiden names and, often, "wife of" will be added afterward, where relevant.
  • From 1960 -  the electoral lists are updated every three years, continuing with the same information as from 1848.

The lists are available to be seen at the Town Hall, or Mairie, by any French voter, on the presentation of his or her voter's registration card. Older lists -- which may be seen by anyone with permission to use the archives -- are held at the Departmental Archives (in series L for the Revolutionary period, and in series M afterward) or, in some cases, the Municipal or Communal Archives (in series K). To date, the only electoral lists available online that we know of are those of Nantes, and can be viewed on the website of the Archives municipales de Nantes. We expect, however, that many more will be online in the future and available on the websites of the Departmental Archives.

Their use for genealogy may seem supplementary as, to find a person in an electoral list, one must know all ready his or her name, where he or she lived and when. Yet, they can provide just what is needed to bring things together, such as a date or place of birth. We have seen some which also give parents' names, which can be hugely helpful. Thus, we recommend you keep your eyes open for newly digitised electoral lists to appear, and be ready to plunge into them.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy



*From the 1976 Penguin Classic Edition of Bouvard and Pécuchet with the Dictionary of Received Ideas, trans. by A. J. Krailsheimer.