Preserving the Monuments aux Morts
Seeking a Cause of Death

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