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French Geography Before and After the Revolution - Provinces and Departments

Les Landes

A number of readers have written us about the regions and provinces of France under kings as opposed to the departments since the Revolution. Uncomfortable territory, this subject. The modern départements are clear, though they have gone through a few changes since they were created, with some disappearing and some late arrivals. It is the provinces that are tricky.

The old provinces shifted their boundaries often through the centuries. Border areas became part of France, were lost and reconquered again. Central areas lost and regained territory among one another in the same way. (Probably the most stable province, thanks to its geography, is Bretagne.) The provinces really are more akin to tribal territories that, eventually, became more or less stabilised. Even so, contrary to what many sentimental souls will write, the current twenty-two regions are not exact reflections of the old provinces, so it is not easy to make a clear correlation between an old province and a modern department. 

This means that, when those same sentimental souls wish to say they carry the blood of the inhabitants of a certain province, they can be privately stumped as to just what that province may have been. We have heard decidedly unsentimental French residents of the same village dispute its provincial character. It is not an easy subject.

The Library of Congress has placed on the World Digital Library website a pretty good map of the provinces as they were in the eighteenth century, though the resolution could be better.

France 1724

The same website has a couple of old game boards, one showing provinces and the other showing the departments. Again, the resolution is not really good enough.

Having said all of that, we give here an exceedingly approximate correlation of provinces to departments. We categorically refuse to be held accountable for this.

In central France:

  • The old province of Orléans covers roughly the departments of Loiret, Loir-et-Cher, much of Eure-et-Loire and Yonne.
  • Part of the province of Nièvre covers the department of the same name.
  • The province of Berry (also spelt Bery, Berri, Beri) is one with the more active of boundaries and covers what is now the southern half of the department of Indre and much of  Cher.
  • The province of Touraine , where one of the worst wines of France, Chinon, is produced,  covers the departments of Indre-et-Loire, part of Loir-et-Cher and part of Indre.
  • La Marche covers the departments of Creuse, a chunk of Haute-Vienne, and some towns of Vienne and Charente.
  • What was the province of Limousin is now Corrèze and another chunk of Haute-Vienne.
  • Bourbonnais covers the modern Allier and part of Cher.
  • The province of Auvergne, said by Balzac to be most notable for the miserliness of its inhabitants, is now the departments of Puy-de-Dôme, the northern half of Cantal, and part of Haute-Loire.
  • Le Lyonnais is now La Loire and a part of Rhône.

In eastern France:

  • The large province of Champagne is now the departments of Aube, Ardennes, Marne, Haut-Marne, part of Aisne, part of Seine-et-Marne, and part of Yonne.
  • Lorraine is now Meuse, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Moselle, Vosges, and part of Ardennes.
  • What was Alsace is now the Territory of Belfort and the departments of Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin.
  • Franche-Comté which, like Alsace and Lorraine, has been bounced back and forth between neighbouring powers, is now Haute-Saône, Doubs and Jura.
  • Bourgogne now covers Côte-d'Or, Saône-et-Loire, Ain, part of Yonne, part of Haute-Marne, and part of Haute-Saône.

 In southern France:

  • The old province of La Dauphiné is now the departments of Isère, Haute-Alpes and Drôme.
  • Provence, where troubadours have given way to movie stars, a sad descent, holds the departments of Bouches-du-Rhône, Var, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, part of Alpes-maritimes and part of Vaucluse.
  • Corse was divided into Haute-Corse and Corse du Sud.
  • Savoie, a late arrival, is now Savoie and Haute-Savoie.
  • Le Comté de Nice is now the part of the department of Alpes-maritimes not in Provence.
  • The papal province of Comtat Venaissin is now Vaucluse.
  • The giant Languedoc has become Ardèche, Lozère, Gard, Hèrault, Aude, Tarn, and parts of Tarn-et-Garonne, Haut-Garonne, Ariège, Pyrénées-Orientales and Haute-Loire. Whew!
  • What was Rousillon is now most of Pyrénées-Orientales.
  • Béarn is now Pyrénées-Atlantiques.
  • the little Comté de Foix is most of  Ariége.
  • Guyenne , land of the Hundred Years War, is now Gironde, Dordogne, Lot-et-Garonne, Lot, Aveyron, and parts of Tarn-et-Garonne, Landes and Tarn.
  • Gascogne, which was at times a single province with Guyenne, now covers the department of Gers and parts of Haute-Garonne, Landes, Pyrénées-Atlantiques and Haute-Pyrénées.

In western France:

  • Angoumois was what is now the central part of the department of Charente, along with dribs and drabs of Deux-Sèvres.
  • Aunis is now part of Charente-Maritime.
  • Saintonge is now the other part of Charente-Maritime.
  • Poitou, another fairly large province, is now Vendée, nearly all of Deux-Sèvres, and Vienne.
  • Anjou, is now Maine-et-Loire, part of Mayenne, and part of Sarthe, with a tad of Indre-et-Loire thrown in.
  • Maine is now most of Sarthe and Mayenne  and part of Orne.
  • Big Bretagne is become Côtes-d'Armor, Finistère, Morbihan, Ille-et-Vilaine, Loire-Atlantique and part of Mayenne.
  • Normandie, which has at times been two provinces -- Haut-Normandie and Basse-Normandie -- is now the departments of Calvados, Seine-Maritime, Manche and parts of Eure and Orne.

In northern France:

  • Ile-de-France was made into the departments of Seine, Seine-et-Oise, Seine-et-Marne, part of Oise and Aisne. More recently, this group became the departments of  Aisne, Seine-et-Marne, Hauts-de-Seine, Seine-Saint-Denis, Val-d'Oise, Oise, Essonne and Val-de-Marne. And Paris, of course.
  • The province of Picardie is now parts of Oise, Aisne and Pas-de-Calais, and all of Somme.
  • The province of Flandres was not part of France for very long before it became the department of  Nord.
  • The province of Artois is now most of Pas-de-Calais.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy