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October 2011

Renegade Website in Lourdes

Naughty mermaids

Years ago, a rather risquée friend of ours accompanied an ailing gent on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Being an outgoing, theatrical lass, she tried to cheer him up with singing and dancing and nakedly splashing about in the holy waters. The nuns on patrol issued her with -- honest -- a red card, and she was thrown out of the sanctuary. 

However strict they may be at the sanctuary, it seems they are not so at the Lourdes town hall, the mairie, where a local professional genealogist, Jean-Loup Martinet, has been photographing the parish and civil registers. We all do this. What we do not all do is photograph them in their entirety and put the images online, which is what M. Martinet is doing. On his website, he is gradually adding the images (as PDFs) of all of the pages of the register books. (Beware: they take AGES to upload.) They are in chronological order and are not indexed. He currently has put online the marriages that took place in the town from 1901 to 1905. His warning notice states that the images may not in any way be used commercially. The site is free to use.

The French press in reporting on this generally makes little "miracle!" jokes. Some press reports have added that the work of M. Martinet shows up the failure of the Departmental Archives of Hautes-Pyrénées to develop a website. They criticize the city government of Lourdes, a pretty wealthy town, for the same failure. They do not question its legality, its quality, or the practicality were others to follow suit. We find this a very interesting development. It would seem that the battle of the archives to maintain absolute control over the registers is being lost.

Nevertheless, for the time being, should you be researching your family in Lourdes, now is your chance to access some of the registrations online. We suggest that you act quickly.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Paris Families - Projet Familles Parisiennes

U - IMG_0008

 Living in Paris has its beauties, especially architectural, and its woes, especially genealogical. As oft noted here, the rampage of the Paris Commune resulted in the burning of a number of important buildings, including the mairie. Researching Paris ancestors is thus quite tough. For long, many genealogists have been working to make it easier.

One website of great help is that of the Projet Famille Parisiennes. It is the work of dozens of dedicated contributors, who have indexed thousands of documents. While some of what they have is now available via the websites of the Archives départementales de Paris or of the Archives nationales, they also have been working on documentation that is not available elsewhere, and this is very interesting.

One section, Registres de Clôture d'inventaire apres décès du Châtelet de Paris, focuses on the inventories after death filed at the Châtelet de Paris, now a theatre complex, but once the courts and a major prison. Not only are these inventories being indexed; they are being scanned. Another section concentrates on guardianship documents filed at the Châtelet de Paris. Again, many of these have been scanned. 

Projet Familles Parisiennes works extensively through GeneaWiki, where they list their work in greater detail, and, which hosts the scanned images for them. Most useful, however, is their own search engine for surnames. If you are very lucky and they have worked on documents relating to your ancestor, the name will come up in the search, you will click on "Voir" and get an image of the original document. If you sign up to help with the indexing, you will be permitted access to even more scanned images.

Quelle tentation!

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Ancestors Among the French Nobility

Vicomtesse small FGB blue


Some of you, dear readers, may have noticed that, in the short two and a half years of this blog's life, there has been no mention of the nobility. We do not like the idea of them. A follower of Mark Twain, we are a lover of democracy and hold no truck with the so-called nobility or aristocracy. Nobility of mind, nobility of heart, nobility of soul, we yearn for and admire; but the pseudo-nobility of blood or property we scorn most heartily.

Nevertheless, many of those of the French noblesse had children, not all of whom lost their heads in the Reign of Terror, and they have descendants to this day, seeking to know their ancestry. We have decided that it would be unjust to continue to ignore the genealogy of the French nobility, even though it is probably the best documented sector, in terms of genealogy, of the population. 

The French nobility must first be considered in two groups: those ennobled before the French Revolution and those afterward, "the nineteenth century nobles", as they are known. According to Gildas Bernard in his Guide des recherches sur l'histoire des familles, the two groups combined add up to about 4000 noble families.

Excluding the royal family, only three pre-Revolutionary families could trace their lines back to the eleventh century, only three hundred could trace their lines to the fourteenth century, and about 1000 families could find their ancestors prior to 1550. These are the bluest of the blue-bloods. There were also those ennobled by lettres patentes and those given titles as reward for military or civil service. All together, these were the 4000 noble families before the Revolution. On the 19th of June, 1790, their nobility and their titles were abolished.

After the Revolution, during the nineteenth century, there were a number of governments, a restoration of the crown, more revolutions, something of a wild ride for nobles and the general citizenry alike. Some old titles were reinstated, new titles were handed out "like medals", some hereditary and some not. 

Many in the New World who are researching their French ancestors hope to find a family crest as proof of nobility. Give it up, says Bernard. Anyone could have had one, even peasants, if they coughed up twenty livres. The family crest, le blason, is no mark of nobility. The only certain way to know if one's ancestors were of the nobility is if their names appear in one of the thirteen surviving head tax lists, les registres de capitation, of the eighteenth century. These are found in the Departmental Archives.

We recommend that your research into the family's nobility begin with one of the hundreds of excellent books on the subject, a few of which we give here:

  • Abbé Bévy. Dictionnaire de la 1338 à 1515. In the Archives nationales
  • La Chenaye des Bois and Badier. Dictionnaire de la noblesse. 19 volumes.
  • Père Anselme. Histoire généalogique et chronologique de la Maison Royale de France.... Found on both Gallica and . Perhaps, like Brooke Shields, you are descended from a French king and did not know it.
  • d' Hozier, Louis Pierre. Armorial général de France. 10 volumes. Various volumes found on the Internet Archive.
  • d'Hozier, Louis Pierre. Armorial général ou registres de la noblesse de France...
  • Jougla de Morénas. Grand Armorial de France. 7 volumes.
  • A. Révérend. Titres, anoblissements et pairies de la Restauration (1814-1830). 6 volumes.

There are many, many more. The Archives nationales give a good list of books and procedures useful to researching French heraldry. The Librairie de la Voûte sells many books giving the genealogy of specific noble families.

The resources are innumerable; as are the online hucksters and purveyors of faux-noble ancestors. Good luck but beware!



It may seem odd, but some people chose to become French and when they did so, the process was termed naturalisation. One completed an application that was a demande de naturalisation, added much identifying and supporting documentation, and sent it off to the authorities. They would approve or disapprove the application and, if they did approve, send a certificate. We have come across others who requested from the authorities a certificate confirming that they had NOT taken French nationality.

The benefits of each usually had to do with one's children, especially if a father were the one becoming French or not as, for most of the nineteenth century, children born in France had the same nationality as their father. If he became French, they could inherit and have certain other advantages permitted nationals alone, such as serving in the army. Conversely, if he remained foreign, he might inherit from his non-French family, and his children were exempt from French conscription. One can imagine various scenarios where  one choice or the other would be more advantageous to a family.


The National Archives of France, les Archives nationales, have a jumbo-sized collection of the application files, or dossiers. The site in Pierrefitte has those dating from about 1803 (An XI in the Republican calendar) to 1930. The site at Fontainebleau has those dating from 1931 to 1988. The information in a file can range from just about nothing (especially in the requests for proof of non-naturalisation) to :

  • the full name
  • place of birth 
  • date of birth
  • address in France
  • family members
  • a copy the birth registrations, with translation, of the applicant, spouse and children
  • proofs as to financial solvency
  • documentation of service in another nation's military, if applicable
  • proof of employment
  • a letter from the town hall confirming place and length of residency
  • a letter from the prefecture supporting the application
  • a letter from the police confirming that the applicant had no criminal record

Quite a nice snapshot of a person and a family!

These files are absolutely crucial to any research on nineteenth century Jewish families in France and on the families of the refugees from the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. The former were often immigrants from other parts of Europe, while the latter, if they did not claim French nationality as Optants, would have had to apply to be "reintegrated".

The dossiers des naturalisations are not online, but much of the information from them is. 

  • For the years of 1814 to 26 May 1853, there is a database with the essential information extracted, called NAT. It includes files on name changes, titles and coats of arms during those years as well. Click on "recherche simple" to get a form in which to type a name. 
  • For the years 1855 to 1918, one can search the Bulletin de lois, in the ten-year indices. This will show only the successful applicants.

Within the two sites of the Archives nationales, there are of course, facilities for searching all of the years.

In Paris:

  • For the years from An XI to 1813, the dossiers are on microfilm
  • For the years 1814 to 1858, the same database, NAT, is available in-house
  • The years 1848 to 1883 are on microfilm
  • The years 1884 to 1930 are on microfilm and on the in-house database NATNUM
  • For those from Alsace-Lorraine and for foreigners who served in the French Army during the First World War, the years 1914 through 1923 are on microfilm

In Fontainebleau:

  • For the years 1931 to 1948, one must ask the staff for assistance
  • From 1948 onward, the case will have been mentioned in the Journal Officiel or will be in an alphabetical listing held at the archives.

In this way, some families that arrived in France from elsewhere can, if they chose to stay, be traced with some rather thrilling success.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Using Local History for Genealogical Research

Cafe Serpente 1 small


We enjoy reading history. It is one of the most pleasurable aspects of genealogical research. We find that local history books are quite useful; they often are written by people from the region, they give a much more intimate understanding of a place, and they occasionally name many local people or give lists of names, making some of them genealogical resources as well.

Usually, these works are so small and specialized that they do not appear on the Internet. They are not found via Google and they are not on Amazon, but many of them are on the websites of the Departmental Archives. They are a bit hidden, being found under the headings boutique, service éducatif, service pédagogique, or publications. Those that are most useful may be published books (livres), or they may be PDF documents prepared by the archivists for visitors or school groups (dossiers éducatifs or dossiers pédagogiques). 

We have done a trawl of the Departmental Archives websites and give a list below of those that have such local history works available. Links to each of the sites are in the column to the left on this page, entitled "Websites of the Departmental Archives". 

  • Allier - has an online boutique with works by a local historian
  • Ardèche - has the papers of local historian Albin Mazon and have put online  - as the Encyclopédie d'Ardèche - with a search facility, all those relating to the department. Anyone with nineteenth century ancestors in Ardèche should search them in this collection.
  • Aube - has a pretty large boutique. Most of the work are fairly general, but a couple are about daily life or workers, and could name names.
  • Corrèze - has a boutique with a number of books by one local historian.
  • Hérault - has one local history publication available
  • Loire - has a small boutique selling indices to the holdings
  • Lot - has a catalogue and order form that can be downloaded. There are perhaps ten local history works, including a diary and a collection of letters.
  • Manche - has a number of excellent books for sale, including local biographical dictionaries. Click on Service éducatif to find them.
  • Haute-Marne - has a boutique of publications which includes a local historical and political atlas.
  • Mayenne - under the heading Dossiers d'histoire gives the details of a number of good local history publications.
  • Morbihan - has a boutique with eleven books of local history.
  • Moselle - has a few books of local history for sale, including one on local tanners and tanneries from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Click on Service éducatif to find them. 
  • Nord - has a boutique, with about a dozen local history books.
  • Oise - has a few interesting works, including published war letters and memoires, often rich resources for the genealogist.
  • Pas-de-Calais - wins the prize for the most works. Click on Activités culturelles to find them.
  • Puy-de-Dôme - has works that are both online and for sale.
  • Hautes-Pyrénées - has a number of online dossiers of local history. One on migrations looks quite good.
  • Pyrénées-Orientales - has a PDF list of local history publications and prices.
  • Rhône - has a list of publications, mostly by J-F Martin.
  • Haute-Saône - has a publications list that includes local history and a biography of one of the leaders of the local watch-making industry.
  • Saône-et-Loire - has a list of local history publications and community histories.
  • Savoie - a place with a quite different history from the rest of France, has a very useful list of online dossiers du Service éducatif.
  • Haute-Savoie - has a small list of publications that can be bought via post that includes a work on Savoyards who migrated.
  • Paris - has a small list.
  • Seine-Maritime - has a few local history publications for sale.
  • Seine-et-Marne - has a boutique with mostly general works.
  • Yvelines - has a boutique with a history of the young ladies of Saint-Cyr from 1686 to 1793, among others.
  • Deux-Sèvres - has four dossiers pédagogiques for sale, one being on the schools of the department during the nineteenth century.
  • Tarn - has about twenty dossiers pédagogiques available, some online, some on paper only.
  • Var - has two local history works for sale in its publications category.
  • Vienne - has a few dossiers pédagogiques, repeated at different levels for students, that can be downloaded.
  • Haute-Vienne - also has a few dossiers pédagogiques, including one on the local porcelaine industry.
  • Yonne - has a few dossiers pédagogiques, repeated at different levels for students, that can be downloaded.
  • Essonne - has local history booklets for children for sale, as well as a number of dossiers pédagogiques about local history.
  • Val-de-Marne - has a significant list of books and dossiers pédagogiques, including the early twentieth century community histories, at just under €20 each.

 Perhaps your ancestor will be mentioned in one! 

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Census - Les Recensements


  We have great respect for census enumerators, for it is a job we could never, ever do. Tramping down a crowded street, knocking on every door, bravely stepping over rats 



Cat and rats 

  and ducking under spiders 


would bring such discouragement and despair about the human condition that we would forget to count the babies. As a genealogist, of course, we are awash with gratitude that the census has been taken and all of those babies not only counted but named.

The taking of a nation-wide census of individuals, les recensements or les dénombrements, began in France in 1836 and has been repeated every five years since then, except when locally fought wars disrupted the scheduling (the Franco-Prussian War and the two World Wars). And then there was Paris, where census-taking did not begin before 1926. One imagines that the thought of trying to visit all those homes, as described above, was too dreadful for any bureaucrat to contemplate. Perhaps it was Haussmann's ripping out of half the warreny streets and most of the medieval city that made the Paris census possible? 

There are further local oddities and lacunae:


  • in Paris, the censuses are divided by arrondissement, then by neighbourhood or quartier within the arrondissement, then alphabetically by street name. Having a good Paris street guide before beginning is a help.
  • there was an earlier census, in 1831, but it was not a success in terms of logic and organisation, and little of this census has been digitized or even, in some cases, preserved.
  • some departments, such as Savoie,  have census records  -- in some form or other -- going back to the 16th century
  • the departments that were integrated with France in 1860 -- Savoie, Haute-Savoie, and Alpes-Maritimes -- do not have the standard French census forms before that date.
  • the departments that were a part of Germany from 1871 to 1919 -- Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin and Moselle -- do not have the French censuses for those years but do have German census records.


The censuses give, for each city, town or village, by street and by household, information about each of the inhabitants. The information is thus arranged by location, and not by surname. The forms used for each census differed slightly from year to year. Common to them all are:


  • the address of the household
  • the surname and first names for each individual (married women's surnames are their maiden names)
  • the profession of each person
  • some way of knowing the age of each person
  • notes or observations (the best part)

Little variations of some years include:

  • the person's residence at the previous census - 1962 onward
  • whether the person is owner or employee at his or her place of work - 1901 through 1936
  • marital status, e.g. whether single, married divorced or widowed - 1836 through 1876
  • the person's place in the household - 1881 onward
  • the age - 1836, then 1846 through 1901
  • year or date of birth - 1906 onward
  • place of birth - 1872, 1876, then 1906 through 1946
  • nationality - 1851, 1872, 1876, then 1886 onward
  • religion - 1851
  • illnesses or infirmities - 1851

 Where to find the census returns

The census returns are held in the Departmental Archives and possibly also the municipal archives of the department and city where they were taken. In the Departmental Archives, the code is series 6M. In municipal archives, they are under series F. Increasingly, they are online on the websites of the Departmental Archives (check the panel to the left). There is no central index to or search engine for all of the names in all of the nation's censuses.

Access to the personal data from the census returns is permitted only for those censuses taken more than seventy-five years ago. Thus, the censuses that may currently be seen are those of 1931 and earlier.

As they are located in Departmental Archives and arranged by location, one could go mad trying to find an ancestor via the census returns, so we strongly recommend against that. Once  a name, date and location are certain, however, the census can be a very useful tool for : 

  • seeing a family as a whole
  • discovering extended family who are often neighbours
  • learning a wife's maiden name
  • discovering children who did not survive to adulthood
  • learning more about individuals from the answers to all those nosey questions

We like to find all of the actes d'état civil on a family first, then to look at the census returns to get a much better picture of them as a group. 

Context is everything in historical work. To help put  the census information found about any French ancestors in the late nineteenth century into context, we have found a fine population density map for France in the year 1887 on the World Digital Library.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Seeking a Cause of Death

Funeral announcement


There are those family historians whose passion is to check all possible birth records to find all possible relatives. Their dream is to have the biggest family tree in the world, with many thousands of names in their files. Then, there is another type of family historian whose focus is on death records, wanting to know not only when and where each person in their tree died, but how the death occurred, where the dead are buried and if obituaries (notice nécrologiques in French) were written, to have them all. It is our experience that these two types of family history focus are rarely found in the same person, and this post is addressed to the latter.

We receive a fair number of requests to find the cause of death for a person in the French branch of someone's family tree. Not an easy or often successful task. As we have written earlier, French death registrations do not give the cause of death. Why is not clear. Perhaps to the ever practical French, the cause is irrelevant; dead is dead. (The French do not use an equivalent for the currently fashionable term "passing", which we abhor, for it gives the impression that the deceased is somehow speeding past on the motorway. There is room for the development of the metaphor here; country music lyricists take note.)

Where to look, then for a cause of death? Here are some possibilities:

  • Hospital records, if the person died in hospital, which occurred more from the beginning of the twentieth century. Records of Paris hospitals are held at the Archives de l'Assistance publique - Hôpitaux de Paris, those of many other regions of France are in various archives hospitalières
  • Notarial records may, rarely, state the cause of a person's death. A will or a guardianship agreement could have such a mention, if you are lucky. 
  • Obituaries are a modern practice in France, and only the most recent will commonly name the cause of death. Most earlier obituaries laud the deceased but are mum about the cause of the demise. Finding obituaries can be difficult, as not many newspapers are available online. One of the best sources for those that are is Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale
  • Those who died in battle or of their wounds may be found in the Memoire des Hommes online databsaes which have received so much discussion here.
  • Occasionally, a gravestone may state the cause of death. We have seen a few that do so, especially those erected during the 1832 cholera epidemic.

The chances of finding the cause of death are really, to be honest, quite slim, but it is not always impossible. Do tell us, dear readers, of any other successfully searched sources!

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Marked By the Scribe

Lunatic Mermaid 1 small


We have been spending time in the French countryside, enjoying a rather golden autumn. A red squirrel has taken to visiting an upper window, adding to our delight in nature. During our idyll, we received an exuberant post from Monsieur C, telling of having finally found an interpretation of a mysterious marginal marking seen on some parish registrations from Jura. The complete lack of artistic ability of the scribe resulted in what was intended to be a drawing of a hand appearing as possibly the letter "m" with oddly long legs.

Monsieur C found in the website of the Centre d'Entraide Généalogique de France an explanation: that squiggle is the "hand of God" and appeared in the margin of baptism registrations for children born to unmarried parents. The hands appeared in the registrations of one village over a period of five years, clearly a local and not a national custom.

A community's parish priest was usually but not always the scribe and was occastionally inclined to comment more than may have been necessary. We once came across the entries made by one in Bretagne who felt compelled to comment on the length of gestation for every child baptised, e.g. "This child was born after seven months, as were all of his mother's other children." What a busybody!

While parish priests may have been a bit judgemental in their writings (and drawings) they did not often alter information. When the job of registering births, marriages and deaths became that of the officier d'état civil, who was often the mayor, illiteracy and/or sloppy handwriting caused more serious troubles.

We learned from the charming gentlemen who dons a gardener's apron to cut our lavender for us that his numerous aunts and uncles on his father's side all have different surnames, yet all have the same parents. The mayor who recorded their births wrote an extremely bad hand. The family name was Boniess. When it came time for members of the family to present their birth registrations to the various government agencies for entry into computer systems, the data entry clerks interpreted the mayor's bad handwriting of the name as: Bonies, Bonys, Bony, Bonni, Bonnie, etc. No one of the family had bothered to go through the long process of changing the mistakes legally, however. Speaking of technology the way natives speak of temporary colonial powers, M. Bony said "It matters not what the computer thinks; we know our family name. Everyone in the community knows we are Boniess and that is what they call us." 

Bear the clumsy or malicious scribe in mind when doing genealogical research. Be sure to check similar spellings of a name of people who may be siblings, and keep your eyes open for the hand!

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy