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December 2011

The Magic Box at the Archives nationales

Magic box at CARAN small

In the Archives nationales in Paris (le CARAN), there are three floors for the researcher:

  • the room on the top floor holds a bank of microfilm readers, some cabinets of film, and a desk of staff who issue pre-ordered rolls of film;
  • the room on the second floor is high-security, for there, one may request and view original documents;
  • the room on the first floor is filled with shelves of volumes that are finding aids, e.g. lists and lists of groups of documents and their codes.

One spends more time trawling through the finding aids, looking in all the many, many possible subjects that might pertain to one's research, noting codes, and then requesting the documents, than one actually spends reading the documents. Many of them will not really be what one wants, as the finding aids do not always go into great detail.

In the room of finding aids -- the Salle des Inventaires -- is an ordinary-looking chest of drawers that is in truth a magic box created to rescue the suicidal researcher from that last moment of despair. It is full of large index cards on which some blessed archivists noted all of the codes for documents relating to certain subjects. This is a life-saving treasure!

We give here two examples of these wondrous cards (click on the images to enlarge them). One, on all that the Archives nationales hold on the subject of cotton:

Cotton fiche

Well and good, you say. That may be fine for the researcher on textile history, but how does it help the genealogist? It is of great help, for there are also many cards on individuals, such as this one on Admiral Duquesne, an important fellow in Canadian history:

Admiral Duquesne fiche

As always with such treasures, the value of this card index - fichier -- is not only in the information it does give but in what it does not give. It tells what the archives hold on the subject and, if something is not on the list, that tells what they do not have.

The fichier is not filmed or online, even internally to the archives. Neither is it particularly protected. It is an old thing, put together  in the 1960s and 1970s and can be viewed only in person. Twenty drawers containing thousands of cards that can save the genealogist many, many hours of work and frustration. If you are lucky, and are researching in Paris, the fichier could have a card on your ancestor.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Departmental Archives of Nièvre online

Arbre de Noel

We have received a nice gift for the holidays from a reader, Monsieur N. He has sent us a user's report on the new website for the Departmental Archives of Nièvre. He writes:

I've had a chance to tour around the new Archives de la Nièvre website, and thought I'd give you a little review, especially in light of your post with one genealogist leaving his records for the rest of us.  To start, the basics, online now are Tables décennales for all of the communes along with select censuses, and military registrations.  The actual état civil is apparently nearly ready and expected to be online this month, with the parish registrations to follow progressively over the coming months.  They have also put online two more of the less known but more interesting sets of documents - the Cahiers de Doleances sent to the French king shortly before the  Revolution, and the Déclarations de grossesse.  
The search form is free text which is nice for the freedom, but tiresome when you're repeatedly looking for certain villages.  The interface still has bugs being worked out, such as printing, but it's generally faster than most of the other ones I've used.  It has all of the standard features, plus an impressive new innovation - collaborative indexing.  Anyone can add notes, such as a name, date, & document type to any areas the user wishes to highlight on the page.  These tags then appear in the search results, something M. de Chastellux would have no doubt enjoyed.  It's incredibly useful, and the value is immediately apparent in the Déclarations de grossesse where names are hidden in large bodies of text, not otherwise indexed in the tables décennales.  I suspect they will be equally useful when the parish registrations are published in the new year.  The indexing still had a few bugs, for instance: though there appears to be a functionality to edit the indexing, it's not yet live.  The site also has a few images online, but overall, it's a giant leap forward for the Departmental Archives.  Hope that helps.
It does, indeed, Monsieur N., and thank you very much. We hope that all of our Readers will receive exciting genealogical breakthroughs for the holidays. In the new year, look for it....the much anticipated website of the department of Finistère!
Read all of our posts about Departmental Archives here.
©2011 Anne Morddel
French Genealogy


Hérault - Part Two


We continued down the other side of the peak, along more twists and turns. It was hot and the climb had tired us. As we walked on, we began to catch glimpses of the next village, Cabrières, its stone houses, with their tile roofs, sitting gently in the hills like an orange cat in a deep, green pillow. But for one framing peak behind, the hills surrounding it seemed small and not overwhelming, seemingly as if they were tilted up by the weight of the village, and had it, like a cat, up and walked away, the hills would settle flatly into the earth.

The main road of Cabrières was roughly one hundred meters long, with only one shop, which was closed. We were relieved to find that the only bar was open, and we fell into the dark, cool room, blessing it. The grey-haired proprietress wore shimmering pink, exceedingly form-fitting trousers; she gave us a glass of mineral water. We were the only customer and drank a second glass while she danced alone to the music she selected on the juke box. Had there been a hotel, we would have rested in Cabrières, for we were very tired, but there was none.

For the next eight kilometers, we were too tired for observation of nature's glories. Occasionally, a car passed, but for the most part we were alone, tramping, no longer thinking or singing, simply walking. At the outskirts of Clermont-l'Hérault were the usual petrol stations and mechanics' garages that go with a big town. In our exhaustion and isolation we were a little dazed by the racket of laughing mothers, shouting teenagers, motorcycles, televisions. We found a room in an icy, disinfected tourist hotel near the train station, and collapsed into the bath. Our feet were blistered, our back ached, and we had a cramp in our left leg, but oh! we were euphoric.

The next day, another sunny one, we explored the town. Our hotel was a short walk from the medieval centre, an antique world surround by ordinary modernity of the tackier sort. Unlike pretty, protected Pézenas, the old quarter of Clermont-l'Hérault was battered and very lived in, with skinny, winding streets, buildings of chipped stone and plaster, shutters askew, laundry hanging out of every window. The littered, cobbled streets reeked of human history; not the big events, but hundreds of years of babies, lovers' quarrels, old people, petty feuds between neighbours and relatives. Coming from a country that can cough up such a short span of that, we are still impressed to see houses that have been lived in without a break for five hundred years. One could feel the human roots reaching deep into the land. Every inch of the town and surrounding countryside was completely tamed and had been thoroughly tramped by people for centuries. Not a centimeter was unknown. Where we come from, in the Sierra Nevadas, most houses are less than fifty years old; bears used to walk down our street at dawn in the springtime, taking swipes at garbage cans; whole tracts of land remained unmapped, even by the native Washoe Indians. There was no sense of humanity to that land. It was wild and free but without human history.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Hérault - Part One


We have ever been a keen walker and have spent many a holiday on foot. One of our finest walking tours began in Pézenas, famous for its ancient, russet-roofed buildings and for being the home town of Molière. We thought we might share it with you.

One fine day -- wearing cheap tennis shoes and carrying the wrong kind of pack, we aborted on ordinary hotel stay in Pézenas, surged through the open air market and strode out of town. We headed toward Roujan, ten kilometers or so away. The road was lined with tall plane trees just coming into leaf, the only things of height to be seen in the endless expanse of vineyards. The majority of the vines were extremely old, stumpy and gnarled, looking like armies of black mandrake roots clawing the air. They were planted in neat rows, with the odd field startling the symmetry by veering to the diagonal. The incessant rows brought to mind the Sacramento Valley, where there once were miles of fields planted in rows of cabbages or lettuce. There, one passes by in a car at sixty miles an hour or more, and the flashing rows seem kaleidoscopic;  here, seen at a walking pace, the slowly shifting geometry, accented by the straight lines of trees and road, was hypnotic in a much calmer way.

Roujan was a dud, a tiny village that obviously turned to Pézenas for interest. All of its signs and billboards advertised businesses in Pézenas; and it had a dusty, unkempt look about it. We drank a glass of water and bought two apples, one of which was inedible mush, and followed the blue-jeaned postman (le facteur) to the edge of town. From Roujan, we headed north, in the direction of Clermont-l'Hérault. It was midday, sunny and the wind was blowing full strength. Except that it kept blowing us into the paths of cars, we were grateful for the wind's coolness; when it paused for a moment, the heat was unbearable. It was incredibly strong. A crow took off from a tree and the wind blew him backward instantly. He seemed a jet in reverse, sailing nobly backwards over earth of three distinct and soft colours: terra cotta, sandy brown, and a deep purple, sometimes in pure patches, sometimes all three mixed together. The  flowers and grass along the road flapped frantically in the wind. The dandelions and angelica intertangled and waved wildly as a mass. Small, black-orange butterflies were flipped around crazily like bits of paper in a slum. 

It was twenty-two kilometers to Clermont-l'Hérault, and for most of the way we saw not a soul, especially after the modern village of Nèffies. Built of what advertisements called "Mediterranean Style" houses, the town was shiney and cheap looking, with an empty, suburban feel -- all sidewalks and no life. From Nèffies, the land gave way to hills, and the road, now treeless, began a long series of sharp switchbacks. For the next ten kilometers, as we climbed, not a single vehicle of any type went by, and we began to wonder about the safety of our blissful solitude. There was nothing but an endlessness of vineyards, hills, scrub and an exquisite view of the valley of the Hérault River, spreading to the sea; and also some weirdly humming power lines. At the peak of our climb, the power lines buzzed and hummed like a spooky force from outer space. The eeriness came not only from the isolation of the hilltop, but from the fact that the humming actually sounded full of power. The sound of trees humming in the wind, or even that of the wind blowing between power lines is natural, but the buzzing of massive amounts of electricity through wires directly overhead can sound quite frightening, because it seems such an unnatural force. 

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Genealogical Notes From the Ashes of Paris

Hôtel de Ville card

Henri-Paul-César de Chastellux was a fortunate boy, born to wealth and heir to the title of count.  On his deathbed, his father charged him with carrying on the job of sorting out the family archives, which he did stupendously. He wrote books on his illustrious family, traced his ancestry back to 1146, corrected many mistakes made by other genealogists and historians, had reproductions made of the family portraits, tarted up the chateau, and dropped dead at the age of forty. 

His books on his family are:

  • Recherches sur les anciens seigneurs de Chastellux, published in 1868
  • Histoire généalogique de la maison de Chastellux, published in 1869

And then there is this:

Notes prises aux archives de l'état-civil de Paris, avenue Victoria, 4, brulées le 24 mai, 1871

The dear man published all of the notes he had made in the Paris archives from civil and parish registrations. The originals were subsequently lost in the burning of Paris by the Paris Commune. He gives over six hundred pages of names, dates, events, relationships, that he had noted for his own research. It is a work of great generosity. For those researching Paris ancestors (admittedly, these are only the rather grand folk related to the count) it could be of use.


We offer it here via the generosity of Gallica.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Paris Streets Through Time

Rue des Lombards 1300

There is a wonderful children's picture book about history, entitled A Street Through Time : a 12,000-Year Walk Through History, that we wish had a parallel publication for Paris streets. The city is over two thousand years old and its streets have changed, of course. The map above shows our own patch as it was in about 1300; we calculate that we are at number eight or so. 

Paris genealogical research is difficult, but French records are often quite detailed and give addresses. However, with the streets having changed many times over. (For a fun account of the most drastic changes to the city, read Haussmann or the Distinction, by Paul Lafarge, which we received with thanks from our jolly friend.) Not only have streets changed, some have been abolished or covered over, newer ones have been created, names duplicated, streets renamed many times over. In our neighbourhood, compared with the map above, the hospital is gone. Most of the surrounding streets have changed their names and one has been suppressed. Google Street View alone will not be much help in such cases without a bit more research.

That website of great help that looks pretty much like a mangled map of today's Paris, FranceGenWeb, has a subsection entitled ParisGenWeb. Here, one finds a section on the streets of Paris through time, giving an account of the streets, parishes, quarters, arrondissements, etc., with some maps. The major time periods covered are:

  • Medieval Paris, from maps made about 1280-1300
  • late-Medieval Paris, from a manuscript of about 1450
  • 18th century streets of Paris, showing how they relate to modern streets
  • Modern Paris


  • Streets under water in the 1910 flood
  • Street of the city and its suburbs in 1918

We use these street references constantly when researching a Parisian family and recommend them with enthusiasm, even gusto.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy