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August 2011

French Genealogy and the World Wide Phenomenon on WDYTYA


We recently learned from our children about another of the many thousands of differences in the lives and imaginations of modern children -- from Canada to Fiji to China to Malawi -- from what people of earlier generations experienced. They all now, as their eleventh birthday draws near, desperately hope for "the letter".

Our son had just turned eleven when we bought him a recently published book to read on the overnight train to Scotland. He liked it very much and said "If another one is written, please get it." Others were and we did, joining the rest of humanity in the appreciation of the world wide phenomenon that the series and its author became. We as a parent, will forever be grateful to the person who gave something more to the generation that was blighted on the brink of awareness by the nightmare imagery of airplanes flying into buildings. She gave them respect, fun, and an example of good triumphing over evil, all packaged in a terrific ride that is shared - via the books or the films -- by just about every child on the planet.

J.K. Rowling, it turns out, has French roots, and the BBC television show "Who Do You Think You Are?" explored them for her. The show can be seen on the internet by those in Britain here. We are indebted to Monsieur C for the link to the same show on YouTube here. All of the archives visited, resources used and subjects discussed have been covered by The French Genealogy Blog:

  • The Archives nationales  in Paris - Rowling goes in the museum entrance as an honoured guest, rather than by the researcher's entrance, round the corner. As she enters, it is possible to see the signs of protest that archives space is to be sacrificed for a new museum of French history, a protest for which the previous archivist was fired (that story is told here).
  • The Légion d'honneur records hold particular interest for Rowling. The narrator mistakenly says that all of the records for those awarded the medal are in the Archives nationales. More precisely, they have the files of those légionnaires named from 1802 to 1932 and who died before 1954. The rest are held by the archives of the Légion d'honneur. Missing are those destroyed in the fire of 1871 during the Paris Commune. The files are in the process of being digitised and put online and can be searched on a database named LEONORE.
  • The archives of the French military at the Service historique de la Défense at the Chateau de Vincennes - where, again, Rowling gets to go into a building off limits to the average researcher. She enters the building across the courtyard from that holding the reading rooms. There, she looks at what appears to be her ancestor's military enlistment and service record.
  • The distressing subject of communal graves and ossuaries comes up.
  • The Archives de l'Assistance publique - Hôpitaux de Paris, a wonderfully useful if tiny place, is shown exactly  as it is seen by researchers.
  • Children born to unnamed fathers and their recognition and paternity are discussed.
  • The birth records that Rowling looks at seem to be in the hospital archives but are not. They are in the Departmental Archives of Paris and can be searched online, as they are in the episode.
  • When Rowling visits the chambre de bonne (maid's rooms that are now normally rented out to students) of her great-great grandmother, the researcher shows her the cadastre, the land registry record, for 1876.
  • Alsace is visited and Rowling looks at civil registrations and census records in the mairie or town hall of an ancestral village.
  • Rowling says she is struck by the struggles of the single mothers of her family in nineteenth century France.
  • Her great-great grandmother's rental agreement shown is a copy of a notarial record.
  • The show explains the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck and the French Optants, showing the names of those who opted to remain French as they appeared in the Bulletin des lois. Briefly mentioned is the fact that the family were Alsatian Protestants.

The episode is an entertaining example of the many, many stages and possibilities of research in French genealogy. Kudos to the Beeb!

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Summer Reading - Les Gardes du Corps de Louis XVI


We have come across another handy biographical dictionary, Les Gardes du Corps de Louis XVI, (literally "the bodyguards of Louis the 16th") by Gilbert Bodinier. Like the Dictionnaire des médecins, chirurgiens et pharmaciens de la Marine, this is an important work of fine scholarship published by the Service Historique de la Défense (under its old title of Service Historique de l'Armée de Terre).

The Garde du Corps was the premier corps of the military household of the king of France. It protected the French king in battle and so, went into battle only when he did, the last time being during the War of the Austrian Succession. It was formed of numerous companies, the oldest being the Garde Ecossaise, or Scots Guard, founded in 1419. They were joined by the:

The first seventy-eight pages give an excellent short history, covering organisation, structure, pay scales, emigration statistics, etc.. As a biographical dictionary, Bodinier's book focuses only on those 1750 men who were members of the Garde du Corps at the time of the end of the absolute monarchy in France. There are nearly 550 pages of entries, of varying length, but all the result of comprehensive research in military, parish and civil archives and in published genealogical works. Sources are given at the end of each entry. 

A typical entry reads:

Droul (François)

Of a family in Lorraine that does not appear to have been noble.

Born in May 1747 in Toul (Meurthe-et-Moselle). Son of Jean-Baptiste-François, lawyer in parliament, and of Marie Pagel. Married Elisabeth-Victoire Pagel, daughter of Charles, a major in the infantry, and of Marie-Thérèse Vaultrin. He had at least the following children: 1) Joseph-Victor, born the 10th of February 1787 at Royaumeix (Meurthe), an officer who married in 1828 Victoire-Félicité Fergant; 2) Laurent, born the 18th of March, 1789, officer, died the 2nd of August 1866 at Royaumeix.

Entered the garde du corps in the Company of Luxembourg the 9th of March 1767; emigrated the 1st of October, 1791, served in the campaign of 1792 in the Armée des Princes , joined the 2nd regiment of noble cavalry in the Armée de Condé on the 27th of September, 1795, he followed the king to Mittau and served until the until the disbanding of the Armée de Condé. He died the 27th of June, 1812 at Royaumeix.

Page 245 (our translation)

Entries on others indicate if they were Freemasons or members of the Legion of Honour. Where the latter was the case, recall that it may be possible then to look up the file on the LEONORE database online. Another excellent and very expensive (55 euros) resource.

Les Gardes du Corps de Louis XVI

Gilbert Bodinier

Paris : Service Historique de l'Armée de Terre, Editions Mémoire et Documents, 2005.

ISBN 2-914611-38-8

638 pages


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Summer Reading - Poor and Pregnant in Paris

Poor & Pregnant in Paris

Still reading Rachel G. Fuchs, we suggest that, if you have an ancestor who was an unwed mother in Paris, you have a dip into the pages of Poor & Pregnant in Paris : Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century.  As with Contested Paternity, by the same author, this is not genealogy but history, yet it is history, in English mind you, of an aspect of nineteenth century Parisian life that is poorly understood by most non-French genealogists. 

Fuchs has a fine, clear style, unencumbered by polemics or by the arrogant obfuscation so often present in the writing of those who do not have complete mastery of their subject, for mastery she indeed has. She leads the reader through explanations of laws that affected pregnant women and the poor, the changing social attitudes on morality and motherhood, governmental concerns about depopulation, charity, welfare, birth control, abortion, infanticide and child abandonment. Throughout the book, she uses examples of real women and children found in the Archives nationales, the Archives de l'Assistance publique and, especially, the Archives de Paris

In these archives, she has used the same resources as would the genealogist researching an ancestor who may have:

  • been born in the Hôpital Port-Royal
  • been accused of killing her child
  • been accused of illegally abandoning her child
  • been an abandoned child
  • received a certificate from the town hall which would have permitted an application for assistance
  • attended the Crèche Saint Ambroise
  • been placed with a wet nurse

There are no lists of names of women or children, but Fuchs gives so many real cases as illustrations that there is a small possibility of finding one's ancestor in the lot. Even if not, it is an excellent starting point for understanding the historical context of such an ancestor and for preparing a research plan in this quite difficult area of French genealogy. The list of archival sources, including codes, given at the end is invaluable.



Poor & Pregnant in Paris : Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century

Rachel G. Fuchs

New Brunswick, New Jersey : Rutgers University Press, 1992

ISBN 0-8135-1780-X

325 pages


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Summer Reading - Contested Paternity

Contested Paternity

Fairly regularly, we are contacted by people wishing to prove their descent from a Frenchman, usually a king or member of the nobility, but it seems that anyone famous will do for some folks. Many assume that the thinking and legislation in France are identical to what is found in their own countries. While there may be some similarities, on the whole, France is different. We think it may be useful to share the very fine resource on the subject: Contested Paternity : Constructing Families in Modern France, by Rachel G. Fuchs of Arizona State University.

Ms. Fuchs conducted much of her research in a number of French archives and libraries, including the Archives de l'Assistance publique, the Archives nationales, and the Archives de Paris. She has written a highly readable and most scholarly work on the subject of paternity disputes and family structures in modern France.

This is a work of history and social science, not genealogy. However, there are discussions of some key historical events and laws of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that are of interest to the genealogist seeking to determine an ancestor's paternity.

Most important to know is that "the Code Napoléon -- the French Civil Code of 1804 -- expressly forbade paternity searches (recherches de paternité), and...that law remained unchanged until 1912." (p1) A mother could not file a paternity suit for her illegitimate children. When the law changed in 1912, it still exempted married men from being sued. (p13) A mother's only hope of claiming support for an illegitimate child was if the father had specifically gone through the process of recognition of a child.  Thus, efforts by genealogists and  researchers to find records of a paternity suit during those years, particularly of a married man, are likely to prove  futile.

Other key dates are:

  • 1889 - marked the first laws that enabled the state to take children at risk away from their parents
  • 1923 - the adoption of children into a family (as opposed to that of adults to be made heirs) was made legal
  • 1955 - children born as the result of adultery could, for the first time, demand support from the fathers, but not filiation, e.g. the right to use a father's surname or to inherit from him or his family.
  • 1972 - paternity suits could be brought against married men; blood testing was permitted as evidence in paternity suits; natural children were given the same rights as legitimate children
  • 1993 - DNA testing was permitted as evidence in paternity suits

These dates will help a genealogist know what to expect and may better guide their research. To understand more, we strongly recommend that you read Ms. Fuchs's book from cover to cover. 


Contested Paternity : Constructing Families in Modern France

Rachel G. Fuchs

Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008

353 pages


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Requesting Paris Vital Records Online

Paris crest 72


Following on from the previous post, explaining how to request online copies of civil registrations which are too recent to appear on the websites of the Departmental Archives, we give here the procedure for the ever unique and non-conformist Paris.  Concerning civil registrations, Paris and other large cities need to be viewed as clusters of communes. They are divided into arrondissements, or boroughs, each of which has its own mairie, or town hall, where births, marriages and deaths are registered. 

Repeatedly, we are asked to help with research on someone "born somewhere in Paris". Without a street address which enables us to know the arrondissement, this means that we have to search the records of all twenty of the Paris arrondissements. In the past, this meant going to each mairie. Now, it means using an online request form twenty times. Here is how it works.

The central City Hall, or mairie de Paris, operates a website of services, among them the request form for civil registrations from any arrondissement, called the formulaire actes d'état civil. The starting page asks the type of registration requested (circled in red in our example below), e.g. birth, marriage, death, or recognition, and then the basic information about the person who is the subject of the registration.

Paris 1

Here, we chose a birth registration, acte de naissance. Click on "mairie d'arrondissement" to get a drop down menu of all twenty and choose one. Then, enter the date of the registration. Recall that French dates are written day-month-year. If you are uncertain of the date, click the box below entitled "sinon année" to get a drop down menu of date ranges. Choose one to be searched. Click on "étape suivante" to go to the next screen.

Paris 2

Enter the surname of the person. For a female, this must be her maiden name on all requests for, married or not, all women are normally registered under their birth names in all registrations. Choose a sex for the person, or even enter unknown, "non connu" and click on "étape suivante" to go to the next screen.

Paris 3

The next question to be answered is the type of copy requested. We recommend a copie intégrale, which will be a certified photocopy. The others are all extracts, or extraits, which give only the basic information in the registration. One may ask for multiple copies, but why? Note that, in the box at the bottom of the page, the law as to who may receive a copy is quoted. Only next of kin may have copies of registrations that are very recent. For registrations older than seventy-five years, others may have copies. Click on "étape suivante" to go to the next screen.

Paris 4

This screen allows you to give the surnames and forenames of the father and mother. Do not leave these blank or you will not be able to continue. Do not make up names, or you will be sent wrong information. If you do not know the names, put inconnu (unknown) in the boxes. Click on "étape suivante" to go to the next screen.

Paris 5

This is where you enter your own name and address. If from outside of France, give the country and state or province in the last two boxes. Click on "étape suivante" to go to the next screen. 

Paris 6

Here, only the starred entires are necessary. Giving the e-mail address, however, the adresse mèl, means that you will receive a response. The first starred box asks your relationship to the subject of the act and gives a list of various next of kin possibilities. The last option is "autre", or other. The second starred box's drop down menu gives a list of reasons possible for the request, including généalogie.  Click on "étape suivante" to go to the next screen.

The following screen (not shown here) gives a complete summary of all of the information you will have entered. Read it and click on "étape suivante" to go to the next screen. The penultimate screen offers the choice to edit, modifier, the information or to confirm, confirmer the request. The last screen gives a request number. Click OK to go back to the beginning to make another request.

If you gave your e-mail address, the response would be two e-mails from the mairie of the arrondissement, one to confirm that the request was received, and one to say if the search were successful or not. Were the registration to be found, it then would be sent by post to the address you gave.

Et voilà!

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Book Review - Dictionnaire des médecins, chirurgiens et pharmaciens de la Marine


We have here a dynamite resource for a very few.  Produced by the staff at the military archives, Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) at the Chateau de Vincennes, it is a wondrous biographical dictionary of all of the medical officers of the French navy, from 1666 to World War II. 

Assisting the archivists in the research and writing of the tome were medical historians, military historians and doctors. Using the numerous records and personnel and pension files in the SHD, collections in the Archives Nationales,  many other archival sources, as well as various publications, they have given for each person as complete a biography and career history as possible. The types of officers covered include:

  • doctors
  • surgeons
  • surgeons' assistants
  • pharmacists
  • health inspectors
  • port health officers
  • regional naval health officers

To be sure, in spite of the extreme dates covered, the majority are from the nineteenth century. In many cases, there are photographs of the individual, or of other artworks representing him, e.g. a bust, statue, portrait. In some cases, the entry is only a line or two, giving only birth and death, or even less. In others, the entries run to two or three pages. The average length is about half a page, or 400 to 500 words, a nicely sized essay. Each entry has full source citations. The scholarship of the authors is apparent, for the meaning of medical contributions and difficulties is put in historical context and explained. Appendices give the lists of health officers, with dates, for each major port.

The book is expensive, at 30€, and weighty. However, should one of your ancestors have been a medical man in the navy, obtaining a copy of the entry about him could be of great help in furthering your research. 

Even Stephen Maturin would have been impressed.


Dictionnaire des médecins, chirurgiens et pharmaciens de la Marine

Bernard Brisou and Michel Sardet, editors

Service Historique de la Défense : Paris, 2010

ISBN: 978-2-1109-6344-4

875 pages


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy