Another Chef-d'oeuvre by A Dear Reader
"Mastering Genealogical Proof" and French Genealogy - Part 3

"Mastering Genealogical Proof" and French Genealogy - Part 2


U - Very Long climb

The second chapter of "Mastering Genealogical Proof" deals with definitions and categorisations: of source, of the information sources contain, and of the genealogical evidence that can be drawn from the information. It agrees with Chapter One of Elizabeth Shown Mills's "Evidence Explained", but for the addition of the category of "indeterminable information", e.g. that which appears in a source, apparently out of the blue and certainly unattributably.

We read the chapter. We did the homework and are ashamed to say that our scribbles for that, wending their way around the margins, looked about the same as they did when we were a tot in school. We listened to Dear Myrtle's discussion group and panel on Chapter Two. There, we were told of an interview with the book's author, Thomas W. Jones, on the Blog Talk Radio's "The Forget-Me-Not Hour" by Jane Wilcox, so we listened to that too. (And, life on the Internet being such as it is, we also wandered off topic to watch Neymar and Fred knock out Spain in the Confederations Cup. How we should love to see the beautiful game triumph once again over the coarse, "go for injury" form the game takes in Europe.... The children call this Jackson Pollock style of concentration "multi-tasking".) 

As we read the chapter and listened to the discussion and interview, we realized that the application of the categories of information to French documentation is in some ways much easier and in others a bit tougher. The essential differences between French documentation and American records (the latter being the focus of the book), aside from language, are two:

  • Civil, as opposed to parish or religious, documentation in America went from almost nothing in the earlier years to documents with an increasing amount of information. In many places, birth, marriage and death records were not kept until the mid-nineteenth century. Remoter places without churches or other religious establishments had no parish records either. In France, in spite of a few revolutions, there has been a steady recording of births or baptisms, marriages and deaths or burials since the sixteenth century.
  • In America, each state, once it decided to record information about individuals, determined what to record and how. There can be at least fifty different types of birth registration, and many more when the differences at the county level are taken into consideration. In France, the department is merely an administrative division, not a separate state with its own rights that is part of a federation. France is a republic with one and only one government, directed from Paris and the directives carried out at the departmental, arrondissement and communal levels throughout the country. Thus, all civil registrations at any one time follow the same format. Historically and still today, that format for a civil registration generally contains a great deal more information than a civil registration does in America.

This means that a researcher in America has to deal with a lack of civil registration that must be supplemented with other types of documentation (such as tax records, court records, etc.) and that much of the documentation, especially if it were created in a remote area with little administration,  may not be trustworthy.  Thus, much of the emphasis of the Genealogical Proof Standard is on the quality of the source and the source of the information. In France, however, civil and legal documentation tends to be more trustworthy for the simple reason that one always has had to show a document to make a document, e.g. to show an authenticated and official copy of one's birth registration or baptism registration (or now, one's identity card) to enroll in the army or to marry.

Primary, Secondary and Indeterminable Information

This requirement enhances the trustworthiness of French documentation -- by the criteria under discussion -- significantly. One panellist, Kathryn Lake Hogan, recounted a tale of a man who, on applying for a marriage license, gave an incorrect name for his parent. This would be unimaginable in France as both of the couple must present official copies of their birth registrations in order to marry, and those birth registrations give their parents' full names.

Just after that (at about one hour and eight minutes on the counter) moderator Myrtle asked the panellists if any of them could think of a source that contained more than one of the types of information, being primary, secondary or indeterminable. We would suggest that information of an indeterminable source (coming from an informant that cannot be determined as either primary or secondary) would occur rarely if ever in French documentation and that most French documentation would be a mix of primary and secondary information.

The French marriage registration of the nineteenth century exemplifies a source with mixed categories of primary and secondary information. The standard format contains the following information:

  1. The date, time and full location (commune, canton, arrondissement and département) as written by the officer recording the event, as well as his full name, honours and title. (This can often be the lengthiest part of the registration, providing little genealogical information, unless one is researching the officer's family.)
  2. The full name and title of the groom, his profession, his residence, if he is living with his parents or not, if he is of the age of majority or not, his date and place of birth, the full names of his parents, their professions and whether they are living or not. If a parent has died, the date and place of death will also be given. Whether or not a parent is present will be stated and if not, why not. Whether or not the parents give their consent to the marriage will also be stated.
  3. The same information as in no. 2 will be given for the bride.
  4. The dates and locations of the posting of the banns and whether or not that resulted in anyone opposing the marriage.
  5. Possibly, there will be a statement as to if there were a marriage contract.
  6. Confirmation that the marriage section of the Code Civil was read to the couple and that they agreed to it, both verbally and by signing the register, and that they were thus as married, their names being given again.
  7. The names, professions, ages, addresses and relationship to the couple of the witnesses. 
  8. Signatures or marks of all those named: the officer, the couple, their parents or guardians, the witnesses.

The primary information in the above would be numbers:

  • 1, for the officer is giving the date and location and information about himself 
  • 4, either partially or completely, for the banns would have been posted in the place of residence of each of the couple, at least one of whom would have lived in the place where the marriage was performed. Thus, the same officer would have posted the banns of at least one of the couple, making this information primary. If the other of the couple lived elsewhere, the banns would have been posted there as well and this reported to the officer, making the information secondary
  • 6, for the officer recording the marriage is also the one performing it
  • The signatures

The secondary information would be numbers:

  • 2, for though the groom is present, with his parents, and though he has presented a copy of his birth registration and, if a parent has died, a copy of the death registration, the person recording that information is the officer
  • 3, for the same reasons as above
  • 5, for if there were a marriage contract, in order for the regime it specified to cover the marriage, the officer would have had to have seen only the proof of its having been registered, not the contract itself
  • 7, for again, the officer is recording what the witnesses tell of themselves, even if they have to present forms of identification

Obviously, because of the documentation that would have been presented to the officer, and because of the presence of the couple, their parents and their family, much of the secondary information is nearly as good as primary. If, as sometimes occurred, one or both of the couple were born in the commune where they married, the officer may have been in the same post at that time and may have been the recorder of their birth in the register, which would make much of the information in numbers 2 and 3 primary.

Vagueness and lies are rare in French civil registrations. False documentation is almost non-existent, (though we have heard tell of a baron who, on divorcing his wife, rather inconsiderately had fabricated a false Livret de Famille or Family Book, containing no children when in truth he had four; it was a crime of passion that fooled no one). Finally, primary and secondary information often occur in the same source.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy