In the Archives diplomatiques - The Overseas Census
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We have discovered Microtoponymie! No, the word is not a fictional Faulkner locale; it is the study of the place names of the minute spot, the lieu-dit. Those whose ancestors were city dwellers need read no further. This post is for those whose ancestors were country folk who, bafflingly, frustratingly, confusingly, gave on documents as their place of birth not a town, village or even hamlet, but the name of a small cluster of structures or just of their tiny patch on the planet.

When we wrote of our walk in l'Hérault, we told of how every centimeter of land in France has been known deeply and thoroughly to humans for millenia. Not only known, we now realize, but named. Whether named with an endearing intimacy with it or a block-headed hatred for it, every little bit of France has been given a name. These names were not noms de fantaisie - Idylwild, Valhalla, Bosun's Snug -- the sort of thing with which you shame your summer cottage or your boat, but were generally derived in some way from the local geography, or a person, or an event. We like the poetry of old place names. In our native California, such names as Calpella (the shell-fish bearer), Jacumba (hut by the water), or Moro Cojo (the lame Moor) enchant.

Our fine neighbour, Professeur B., recently gave a lecture on the Microtoponymie of Périgord to the history association: Hautefort Notre Patrimoine, in the nether regions of the realm and possessions of Eleanor of Aquitaine. He has kindly given us permission to present here a summary of his findings which, though he was quick to say he is no expert on the subject (which in France means that he does not have three doctorates on Microtoponymie specifically and does not pontificate about it on television) we find nevertheless to be most enlightening.

He divided the types of place names, lieux-dits, into categories based on probable linguistic origin:

  • Pre-Celtic names, such as Var (a ravine)
  • Celtic names, such as Les Vergnes (elm trees)
  • Latin names, such as Les Fayes (a place planted with beech trees, fagus in Latin)
  • Occitan names, such as La Bessade (from the Occitan Beçeda)
  • "Frenchified" names ( le francisation), such as Le Maine (the hamlet)

And divided them again into groups of meaning:

  • Simple geography, such as Beausoleil (a sunny spot); Le Champ (a field); Le Cros (a ravine)
  • Vegetation, such as Les Acacias, Les Grands Bois (the large wood)
  • Water, such as La Beuze (a stream)
  • Agriculture, such as La Chaumière (from the Limousin word, chauméro, a shady place where sheep gather)
  • Human activity or constructions, such as l'Aqueduc
  • People, such as La Baronie
  • Religious significance, such as Les Chapelots (the little chapel)
  • Mysteries, such as La Jalovie

As you look through the Napoleonic maps and the Cassini maps, you will come across many such lieux-dits, each reflecting local language and history. To know more, Professeur B. suggests the following books:

The above are works that apply to most of France. Be sure to look among the many others for those that apply to the region and patois of  your specific interest.

Merci Professeur B.!

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy