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July 2011

A Force for the Archives

Archives publiques libres


We have written a few times about the battle raging in France between the major online genealogy data base companies and users of the French archives. To recap: by law, the contents of French archives belong to the French people, who may access them at no cost. Research can be arduous for genealogists, for the most coveted documents, the civil and parish registrations, are held in geographical order, then chronological order. Indexing by name has been done by volunteer enthusiasts, generally members of genealogy associations or circles.

A while back, a big company wrote to the many archives around the country a letter saying they would like to scan many documents and make them available -- for a fee -- on their website. Those of the view that this constitutes a theft of public property  are countered by those of the "you snooze, you lose" school of the free enterprise camp. The one side asserts that access to the archives at no cost is mandated by law and the public, having paid taxes for the care and maintenance of archives, should not again be charged. They find it immoral that the indexing that was done by volunteers out of goodwill would then become a product to be bought and sold. The other side says the fee would not be for access to the archives or even the indexing, but to the centralised database that would allow online searching across all dates and geographical locations. Thus, people would be paying for their software online, not its contents.

The most organised campaign for keeping the archives free in every sense is that called Archives Publiques Libres!!!!, and they have put together a very clear website indeed. Their slogan (above) reads: "My genealogy is not merchandise!" We find the logo to have rather misleadingly a look of something to do with ecology, but never mind.  The site has well-written and clear pages that explain the point of view and are entitled:

  • The public good
  • The menace
  • Ways to take action
  • Free genealogy
  • Partners
  • Campaigns
  • Politicians in support of the campaign
  • Government reports and plans for archives
  • Departmental reports and plans for archives
  • Suggestions
  • Press clippings
  • a blog
  • Links
  • Calendar
  • Visitors' Book

The ubiquitous facebook link is there as well, and there is a Yahoo Group for the organisation. Under "Contacts" can be found the biographies of the founders: Christine Iribarne-Messardier, Claude Baril and Jean Louis Darrière, all highly experienced and without doubt committed to the cause. Certainly, for all those interested in just how the battle will be fought, this is a website to watch. 

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Archives Encourage Research - Yet More!

Repertoire Insanity


Have you ever tried to find out if a particular French archive has in its collection papers on a particular subject? One can use BORA for private archives, one can Google rabidly, maniacally, wildly, desperately, and then one must trawl the repertoires (indices) and inventaires (listings). All of this can just about drive a person mad. The deep throes of true insanity come when one realises that the only possible way of perhaps finding the sought-after subject or names is to read through hundreds of pages of indices and of lists of carton and dossier titles for each archives. Observe our response above.

The Departmental Archives of Aube is piloting a way to ease this pain. Using the Wiki software - "the simplest online database that could possibly work", they  are asking visitors to the website to participate in key wording and annotating the collections, thus making them searchable at a deeper level. Users register on the MyArchive page, and can then receive instructions and get started, either doing original work or correcting and adding to that of others. The local genealogy circle has embraced this and all ready extracted over 200,000 surnames. 

The hope is to find new and better ways to navigate the archives' contents via the internet. This is a significant opening of doors and is to be applauded. Anyone may participate, if able to read and write French to a high level. This would be a fine way for those who use archives from abroad to make a contribution in return.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Archives Encourage Research - At last!

Fly With an Idea

Some people know how to let an idea take off and fly. We are enchanted to report that the Departmental Archives of Vendée  have had an idea that soars.  

Archives in France, as anywhere, can seem to be designed to discourage the non-academic researcher. The casual genealogist can be scowled out the door. This attitude is reflected in some of the websites of the various Deaprtmental Archives. Some, such as Mayenne, seem to welcome the enthusiasm of people researching their family history. Others seem to discourage them, by refusing to have an online presence, or by having one with the minimum of records digitised, or by charging fees for their use.

The Archives départementales de la Vendée have taken a big step toward encouraging, welcoming and -- most importantly -- collaborating with researchers. Following the path down which thousands of libraries have been striding, they have started a blog. Entitled L@boratoires des internautes, with a link to be found on their main page, this is their platform to reach out to and be involved with users. 

Requesting that people write in and tell of their research projects and discoveries, the archivists provide suggestions, guidance, and may write about the work in progress. There is a section entitled "entraide" where readers ask for help in identification or research. This overlaps with a section for "Identification" where readers or the archivists themselves have uploaded photographs of people and places hoping for help in identifying them. Palaeography is covered in "Transcription" where people can upload pages, following certain instructions, and ask for help in reading them. Other readers contribute to the process.

The intention is to establish a collaborative link between users and caretakers of the archives that we find to be quite creative, open and innovative. If your research takes you to the website of the archives of  Vendée, give it a go.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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

Cousinades - Genealogy Family Reunions the French Way



The era of the huge family wedding in June, lasting four or five days, being one long, languid feast at the big table out of doors as in an Eric Rohmer film are pretty much gone. Not only has life become more speedy and families more dispersed, but fewer people in France are marrying anyway, many opting for the handy PACS arrangement (the pacte civile de solidarité that was a new form of civil union intended to be for same-sex couples but which has stunned the statisticians by being embraced by all types of couples with rip-roaring enthusiasm.) 

Yet the tribal need for the occasional pow-wow seems to remain, and for some the need is satisfied by the genealogy family reunion. There are a number of websites on the subject, and has a handy 16-step explanation of how to throw such a family reunion.

It is becoming pretty popular here in France as well, and is called a cousinade, perhaps inspired by the exquisite film of the 1970s, Cousin, Cousine, or perhaps wanting to give it a sort of home-cooked feel, as in pimentade, olivade or limonade. (The French comic, Florence Foresti, in her Brigitte character joked in her skit on genealogy that, having but one cousin, Pierre, they held a Pierrade.) 

A few years ago, Jacqueline Missoffe published a little how-to book, Organiser une cousinade, which covers the basic points of organisation not much differently from the e-how article. Christian Ferru runs a small cousinade planner -- conseiller sur les cousinades --  business from his family genealogy website. There are many who do the same but we rather think he takes the cake having planned one for 2500 cousins. 

In a recent issue of Généalogie Magazine, the publisher, Francis Christian, contributed an article on the subject, and we find his point of view to be revelatory. One would expect some differences between cultures, e.g. the e-how article devotes the first four steps to organising the reunion committee while one of Mr. Ferru's competitors devotes five of his twelve steps to the pleasurable aspects of the event: food, lodging, games, souvenirs.

Mr. Christian, however, is concerned with such finer points as that the organiser must take into consideration the class differences of the cousins. He advises also that one cannot simply invite one's favourite relatives. One must have true genealogical criteria and one absolutely must invite all who qualify. Additionally, one may NOT invite:

  • mixed groups of paternal and maternal cousins, even if they are friends with one another
  • friends of the children, even best friends

He recommends the cousinade not be held during the winter, for there are fewer outdoor activities possible. Nor should it be in the summer, as everyone is away on holiday. He proposes May, June and September as the best months for the event. We like that he suggests a visit to the village where the family originated, and his astute direction that the mayor of the village must be warned before the multitudinous family swarms into town. He has a deft budgetary rule of thumb: thirty euros per adult and fifteen euros per child, and a safety measure: make sure there is a doctor in the house.

Like Mr. Ferru, Mr. Christian discusses selling souvenirs that might help defray some of the costs:

  • a biography of a notable ancestor
  • a history of a familial manse, cottage, farm, etc.
  • portraits of all the family
  • the ubiquitous T-shirts, key-chains and stickers

Everyone agrees that the event is to be followed up with a commemorative book or newsletter about it. 

Increasingly, notices of upcoming cousinades are appearing in the backs of genealogy magazines and so, dear readers, you may find your cousins en masse and break your French genealogy walls that way.


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Was Your French Ancestor Actually French?



As soon as the Napoleonic Wars ended and The Corsican was back in his box, large numbers of people from the French Empire decided to leave, and many were determined to get to l'Amérique. Those of us who were reared and educated in said El Dorado were taught that these people awoke one day with a dream to be free and, standing tall (they were always tall) and proud, they strode heroically to the coast, where they met up with the alternative emigrant cliché of the huddled masses, and took ship to New York. There were to be sure some emigrants from Europe whose stories were like that, but there were many thousands for whom the process was quite different.

One must go to Le Havre, a major port and ship building centre. War was good for the ship builders, and the wars had ended. Worse, the empire was grievously shrunk and the market for French warships was firmly closed. Other shipping, ship building and works on expansion of the port were still permitted.  The ship builders of Le Havre, having all ready a major port of embarkation for l'Amérique, saw a way to capitalise on this asset. From as early as 1817, they employed what were essentially emigrant recruiters to go to to the east, to Alsace and Lorraine, and into the German-speaking duchies, such as Baden-Baden, to recruit emigrants to the New World, leaving from Le Havre, of course. 

The emigrants were nearly always the poor or those who had been ruined by the wars or by the peace. The recruiters gave them some money to help them get across France, usually by way of Paris and Rouen.  Before the building of the railways, the journey was by cart, on horseback, or on foot and could take weeks. All of the stopping places along the way charged for meals and nights at inns, naturally. Many of the emigrants were reduced to begging along the way, or to settling in shanty towns at the edges of Le Havre. If the ships were not ready to depart, the wait at Le Havre could deplete the last of their funds.  

Each passenger somehow had to pay the passage, and each had to pass a medical exam, required by the United States government, if l'Amérique was their destination. Those who failed the exam either chose other countries, often in South America, or stayed in the shanty towns until the citizens of Le Havre, pitying them, took up a collection to pay their way to a country that would accept them.

No one seems to have criticised this large-scale enterprise in human trafficking. However, the French government was alarmed at the exodus of labour and at the local and national level attempted to slow it. To be granted a passport, emigrants had to show that they had adequate funds for the journey. To be granted a passport in France, they had to show that they were French. Parasitic frauds began to overbreed at the borders. There were those who would loan funds to be shown to the authorities and to be repaid, with interest, immediately after the interview. There was a bang-up business in false French passports for those crossing France from the duchies in Prussia and Bavaria, and from the Swiss cantons. Some of those territories having been part of the French Empire only a few years earlier added to the opportunities to confuse nationalities.

Thus, when researching your French ancestors, bear in mind that they may not have been French. They may have been from what is now Germany and said they were French in order to be able to get a passport. If their names seem more Germanic or Swiss; if they spoke German, then dig deeper in the documentation. Passengers lists on arrival may say a family was French but from Baden-Baden. Passenger lists from Le Havre may reveal more about the place of origin, taking your research down a different path all together.

A fine book on this subject, and one of the sources of information for this post is: En route pour l'Amérique : L'odysée des émigrants en France au XIXe siècle by Camille Maire.


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy