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March 2013

Easter Roots Hunt



Not long ago, we wrote of local words and traditions relating to Carnival that might help you to locate your ancestor's place of origin. Continuing in this service of providing culinary trails that may lead you to the ancestral home, we offer today more of the same, but in relation to Easter and the feast marking the end of Lent. Unsurprisingly, in France, as elsewhere, it has a lot to do with eggs.

Eggs were not permitted during Lent in the France of long ago (except on the one very convenient day of Mi-Carême) but they were, of course, saved. So, by the time Lent was over, each home had an egg mountain that would soon begin to smell. Thus: a feast menu heavily laden with egg dishes, each region having its own variation of and words for what was essentially the same dish - an omelette. The Easter omelette is normally eaten on Easter Sunday morning, sometimes before sunrise, to se décarêmer -- to end the fast of Lent. May the following help you to find your family's roots in France:

  • In Rousillon, the sunrise omelette is called the ribote d'oeufs de Pâques, the same omelette served with the main meal of the day is called a Truyatada
  • Down in the Béarn, in the Pyrénées, it is the omelette au millassou, an omelette served with pork casings stuffed with corn bread
  • In the Auvergne, the omelette is called simply la Pascade or la Pachade
  • In Upper Normandy, it is not the name but the way it is served: cooked in beechnut oil; tradition also included a vile concoction of jellied pork and hard-boiled eggs (surely, if your family has a recipe for that, Upper Normandy is your ancestor's home)

Various types of egg bread for Easter, or brioches, were called:

  • Millassou made with corn flour, in Sarlat
  • Campanile in Corsica
  • Brassadeû and in the shape of a ring in Vaucluse; children put them on their arms
  • Feretra, offered on Easter Monday by the men of Toulouse to the women they were wooing
  • l'Agneau Pascal in Alsace was a cake in the shape of a lamb

Look, look look, through the old letters, diaries and papers of your French ancestors for these words or recipes and perhaps you will have a voilà experience!

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Have You An Ancestor Who Was In the Paris Commune?

Notre Dame picture
The streets of Paris are full of demonstrations these days, called manifestations in French. The one in the news is over a very politically charged subject, though one might be forgiven for wondering if it were not really about the provenance of a colour. Which brought us to another demonstration, last week, to commemorate the 142nd anniversary of the Paris Commune.
To date, we have written of the Paris Commune only in reference to the Communards' successful torching of the Paris City Hall, the Hôtel de Ville, with the centuries worth of parish and civil registrations within. However, as several thousand Parisians were Communards, many were executed, others exiled, some escaped to neighbouring countries and nearly all affected by the events, perhaps it is time we gave them a bit of attention, genealogically speaking.
Ever so briefly: France lost the Franco-Prussian War, during which Paris had suffered four winter months of siege. The Prussians -- as a part of the surrender agreement --  insisted upon a march through the city to humiliate the inhabitants and the rest of the country. The Parisians were disgusted with the victors and with their own government and those who had suffered the most during the war and siege -- the poor --rose up and took over the city. Similar Communes occurred at the same time in Lyon and Grenoble. They had the sympathies of many in the army, who often refused to fire on them. The government called in more troops and the rebellion, street by street, in ever bloodier battles, was put down. Vengeful executions took place, most notably in the cemetery of Père Lachaise. 
If you trace your family back to Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century, you may well have in your tree a Communard. How to know? The website of Les Amis de la Commune de Paris 1871 has lists of some of them, along with :
  • Dates of cultural events such as plays, concerts, exhibitions, relating to the Paris Commune, and there are plenty!
  • Scholarly articles about the Paris Commune and /or various Communards
  • A fun map with little flags and important dates
  • A list of streets named after individual Communards
  • Dates of guided tours around the city's more important spots of Paris Commune history
  • A very thorough history section on every aspect of the Paris Commune that also tells of where the best sources are in the archives 
  • Videos and Songs
  • Most useful of all, a list of the names of those Communards who were condemned in military courts and executed. The case files from which the list is derived are held at the Service Historique de la Défense in series 8 J. This list gives the file numbers, to enable a request to be made. Click on the icon at the bottom of the page of the following link that is called Consulter le fichier SHD 8 J to download the entire list.

Very fine site indeed.

Update: Inspired by Madame A-M's comment below, we have discovered this blog about the deportees of the Commune, Les Déportés de la Commune, and think it looks very good.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Bedford Russell of King's Lynn


Bedford Russell of King's Lynn and Prisoner of Napoleon

Technology Pushes Us Off the Deep End


Bureaucratic insanity


This is good. This is really good.

Historically, the notion of an individual's right to privacy is rather young. Early societies seem not to have considered it. According to a Scientific American timeline on the subject, American Puritans vehemently opposed it, the story goes that French kings would not have comprehended it (indeed, most royalty thought nothing of performing the most intimate acts in front of a crowd of courtiers) but today we cherish it.  

Ever since those in power have had the strength to enforce the documentation of the people under their authority, they have tried to do so. The reasons were almost never academic, but economical: a list of citizens, their ages and sex enabled more efficient taxation and the identification of young men to fill the ranks of armies for conquest.

As we all know, enormous amounts of documentation, revealing all kinds of details about the lives of people long ago and yesterday have been and are being collected and stored. As genealogists, we raid the archives hunting ancestors with joy. It is fun to find out who they were and how they, and consequently we, fit into history. As to the same kinds of documentation and information about our own lives, most of us would prefer it not be available to the entire world, e.g. splattered all over the Internet, at least until we are dead and gone. Therein lies the tug-of-war: we want to find all on others and we want no one to find anything on us. 

It is the Internet, of course, along with various programmes that can manipulate and unite personal data, that is bringing the tug-of-war to the point of one side or the other all falling down. The rate at which not only officially collected but all kinds of personal information is accumulating is astonishing and bizarre. Google "accidentally" scoops up loads of personal data on people while photographing their homes. Scientists (and progeny) have used genealogy DNA websites to identify sperm donors who thought they were anonymous. Facebook gathers and sells to marketing companies as much as it possibly can about the lives of its users, many of whom are young and innocently think it is a free site for connecting with friends. Those are examples of only the legal misuse of personal data. Crooks are having a field day on the Internet.

In the United States, concerns about identity theft have resulted in a few bills being introduced in Congress aiming to limit access to the Social Security Death Index. This is a puny and myopic response to a huge issue when compared to the proposal before the European Parliament, which intends to "strengthen on-line privacy rights" across the entirety of the twenty-seven countries of the Union. More specifically, it will recognize what is called the droit à l'oubli  or the "right to be forgotten", including the right to erase personal information from public view. How many of us wish we could take down words or pictures we put on the Internet in the past? 

Just as a number of genealogy organisations in the United States are opposed to any restriction of access to the Social Security Death Index,  so a number of French genealogy groups and others (including Facebook) are opposed to this Data Protection Reform (though the CNIL supports it). The recent, rather panic-stricken press release of the Association of French Archivists suggests that the proposal says that the only way to prevent the misuse of private data is to eliminate it....all of it.....forever.  To quote: 

"Did you recently graduate? Schools or universities will destroy your file. Did you sell your real estate property? The land registry office will destroy every trace of your property. Are you no longer employed? The organisation you worked for will delete every bit of information related to you." 

Alternatively to the whole document being destroyed, according to the blog of the Fédération Française de Généalogie, this law, if passed, would require the anonymisation (and the British mock the Americans for word invention!) of documents, e.g. presumably with a censor's bold, black marking pen, blocking out names, dates and places from documents. The blog of FranceGenWeb says the law would mean that the websites of the Departmental Archives, with on-line archives (see the panel to the left on this page) would all have to be closed.

Would such a law be applied to historical records? Of course, if not, we would have to reconsider when current information becomes history. Should all information contained in vital records be public from the moment of creation? Should it be allowed to be sold? Doesn't that make us all, literally, a commodity? And doesn't being a commodity dehumanise us? We have to teach our children how to avoid pornography in the Internet, how to "self-censor"; should not we genealogists learn to apply that same sort of self-discipline when it comes to researching and publicly presenting personal information about living people? 

Never before in our history as a species have we had to grapple with this problem or ask these questions. These are exciting times indeed.

Love it. Absolutely love it.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy




The Beleaguered Nobility of Brittany


Mon Beau Chateau


We have written recently about the determination of Louis XIV to establish just who in his realm was truly of the nobility and who was not. We have also pointed out in a recent post that the nobility did not pay many forms of taxes. It does not require deep thought to comprehend that there was a clear financial incentive for many to become what were known as "false nobles". This problem was particularly severe in Bretagne, which had missed out on the nobility checks for several years and thus had a surfeit of spurious dukes. 

The royal command inaugurating the Great Reformation of 1668 established an office for reformation in each province. That for Bretagne was headed by Monsieur d'Argouges; he was supported by a team of parliamentary advisers. They were to examine and rule on all disputed or "usurped" uses of noble titles. Local notaires had to provide copies of the documentation showing use of titles by their clients, and reveal their addresses. There were two basic ways to prove one's claim to nobility:

  1. Being able to show that one's ancestors were of the old nobility of Bretagne, which required much genealogical documentation, or
  2. Being able to show "noble and advantageous government" of the title for at least one hundred years, which required not only some genealogy but good account books and perhaps testimonials as to one's noble and advantageous governing practices.

Those proven to be false nobles had to pay a stiff fine of four hundred livres. This was reduced to one hundred livres if they confessed and gave up their dishonest use of titles. Even those who may have thought they were legitimately ennobled by Letters patent had to surrender their titles if awarded after 1609, or pay one thousand livres to keep them.

These would have made a most enjoyable read on a rainy night but, sadly, most of the case documentation was destroyed during the Revolution, either by those despising all to do with hereditary tax breaks or by those desperate to eradicate a method by which they could be traced as such. The genealogy proofs which have survived cover about two hundred families and have been collected and transcribed by the Count of Rosmorduc (how quickly the titles returned!) in the four-volume La Noblesse de Bretagne devant le Chambre de la Réformation, which can be read on Gallica. Some original documentation can be found in :

  • the municipal library of Rennes 
  • the municipal library of Saint-Brieuc
  • the Departmental Archives of Côtes d'Armor
  • the Departmental Archives of Loire-Atlantique
  • the Departmental Archives of Ile-et-Vilaine
  • the Bibliothèque nationale

Without doubt, one of the best online sources of information concerning this and other episodes in the history of Bretagne's nobility is Tudchentil. This is a very impressive site, founded by a historian, Norbert Bernard, and written for the most part by academics and post-graduate students, with a few genealogists and history buffs contributing as well.  For those too impatient to read the history and who wish to dash straight to the family list to see if Grandpa may not be there, the Preuves de Noblesses are given in their entirety, carefully copied out from Rosmorduc.

An absolutely dynamite site. Give them money

One of its authors, Amaury de la Pinsonnais,  is putting up on his blog, Au hasard des archives further information from his own research on certain families.

Thus, we now know that not all Bretons were fishermen.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy 

Finding Your Franco-Belgian Ancestors Just Got Easier


Ardennes Belges

The world of French genealogy is abuzz with the news that Belgium has begun to put its genealogical records online. If you have had trouble tracing your ancestors from the north of France, chances are that they slipped over into Belgium or came from there in the first place. If so, this news will please you, indeed.

It is early days yet, and the Belgian archives, the State Archives of Belgium , are calling it a test phase and are adding document images gradually (so, if you do not find your people, try again in a few weeks). However, the plan is to include all of the country's ten provinces and all of the nineteen communes of the Brussels region. 

Before beginning there, we suggest you exhaust other resources first, including the work of André Vanderlynden, in order to make a more focused search. This will be particularly useful if your ancestors had family members on both sides of that somewhat mobile border between France and Belgium. You may also want to use this handy little Belgian towns site to be sure of the town's correct name.

Having completed your preparation, you may then try the search page of the Belgian State Archives. Though it purports to be multi-lingual, the English page is not yet set up, so you will have to work in French or Flemish. The site is free, though it is necessary to register. Then ..... chargez! Jump in and start hunting among the parish and civil registrations. They are arranged first by province, then by arrondissement. The map site above will help with this.

You may also want to try the search page of names, based on the enormous amount of extracts made by volunteers. This is quite useful as it includes many types of documents, not only the parish and civil registrations (of which there are hundreds extracted) but:

When you run into trouble with language, and you could well do,  the Association Généalogique du Hainault Belge, will help with translation from Flemish or Latin to French; you upload an image of the document onto the forum and everyone helps decipher it.

We wish you grand success!

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy