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November 2013

A Free Genealogy E-Book



As we write, we assume that most of our Dear Readers are paying no attention whatsoever, but are busy with pie crusts, large dead birds and shopping for Thanksgiving. For those who never did and never will celebrate the day and for those who could or should but would rather not, we write on.

We have in the past made a mention or two of the French blogger, Jérémie Bourillon, who writes the blog Généalogie facile, which translates as "Easy Genealogy". He covers pretty much the same territory as we do here, minus the Identity Wars and other such personal trivia. Monsieur Bourillon has just produced an e-book (PDF download) of advice and guidance which he is offering free to anyone who will subscribe to his blog.

It begins with a number of reasons for pursuing genealogy, such as curiosity, the desire to identify people in old photographs, or to know why someone was awarded that old medal in the sugar tin, or why an ancestor had an atypical (for the family) profession. The list is quite long. He then explains the first steps to gathering one's French family history and documents. This is followed by explanations which cover finding the civil and parish registrations in the Departmental Archives and researching in military records and railway employment records. It runs to about fifty pages or so.

If you have already finished our book,  you may wish to read his, keeping yourselves industrious over the long weekend.

We wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving and a bon appétit!

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Mysterious Powers of the Cercle Généalogique d'Aunis


Cercle d'Aunis


As we have written many times before and will recapitulate here, the non-professional and local genealogy associations, or cercles, of France have been enormously helpful to any and all researching their family history. Primarily, and long before the Internet, members of the cercles have indexed the parish and civil registrations held in their local Departmental Archives. Sitting in the archives, with the original registers or peering at microfilm, page by page, hamlet by hamlet, great city by great city, they have written down all of the names and dates mentioned in the births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials. The results, known as the relevés, were published in booklets for each town. They were then labouriously entered into and made available as databases on Minitel, a defunct French precursor to the Internet. The relevés are now available via Geneabank and/or Bigenet. Even so, many  of the cercles have more complete collections of relevés in their own offices and so, if possible, it is worth visiting them.

We had set our hearts on visiting the Cercle Généalogique de l'Aunis, which rather recently and amicably had divorced the Cercle Généalogique d'Aunis et Saintonge. It was not easy. For some days, we had been battling a clearly demented satellite navigation system that thought we were not in La Rochelle but, perhaps, in outer Rangoon or maybe Oslo. Her tinny, robotic voice would go into a panic and sputter "go left go right go left go right go left" at such speed that it was clear she had lost her electronic semblance of reason and we knew it would have meant death to follow her instructions. She would not be hushed. The address of the Cercle was on the outskirts of town. Smothering as best we could the mad voice -- which was still begging us to "go left go right go left go right" at a breakneck pace --  we got out a map and wended our way through some very dodgy neighbourhoods to arrive at what looked to be an abandoned school, its paint peeling and its walls graffiti-festooned.

Up the stairs and down the corridor, we entered spacious and somewhat minimalist offices, filled with cheerful members quick to jump to our research aid. As suspected, their own, ferociously protected database of relevés had much more detail than on Geneabank, and could be searched across many different kinds of detail. We frantically took notes of the results, for prints were not possible and photographs were forbidden. We complimented them on their work and expressed our admiration for their members' paleographic capabilities.

"Ah" Madame President smiled wisely. "We  use software." 

"There is software to read sixteenth century parish registers?" We asked, unaware and astonished and, we add with shame, also with a burst of uncontrollable desire for proof and possession. "Show us, please!" 

"We use 'Snippy'. Just snip a few lines from the document, paste it into Word, then put the resultant text into Google translate and voilá." The computers were already being shut down. It was too late for her to show us, but she wrote down the procedure for us. Dear Readers, we did everything but turn our computer upside down, but there was no voilá moment for us. We do not doubt Madame President's veracity, but we cannot reproduce her results. Please, could any of you give it a try and let us all know the secret to this particular magic trick? 

UPDATE: Many thanks to all of our Dear Readers who have written to explain to us how to use Google Translate or how to use Snippy. Forgive us; we have not been clear. The mystery surrounds neither the one nor the other, but how Madame President was able to get the two to work together, via Word. Essentially, she said that, by capturing an image of writing with Snippy and putting it into Word, the programme was able to transcribe the handwriting from an image which then could be put through Google Translate for refinement. 

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Archives of Ile de Ré


Musee EC

Nowadays, the Ile de Ré is known as a holiday playground for France's la-di-da folks. When it was rumoured that the actor who played Captain Jack Sparrow took his tots there, our own begged that we might spend our holidays there as well. The answer was no. We did not get to the famed isle -- once nothing more than salt flats -- until said Captain had upped stakes and returned his homeland and our own little ones were little no more. Off-season, it is a sad place, overbuilt with summer bungalows and camp-sites, but the tiny harbour of Saint Martin is quite pretty. However, we went there not as a tourist, but in a continuation of our Charente-Maritime archives junket and, frankly, after a previous experience, expected no good thing.

How nice to have such expectations disappointed! We went to the local, quite tiny, museum, Le Musée Ernest Cognacq. It had a display space with an exhibition about salt (what else?) and, to the rear, the communal archives of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. There, we found order! There, we found courteous and intelligent guidance! There, we found a simple, sane, clear and most of all, working, classification system! We were welcomed into the small but efficiently arranged space by the archivist.

Archives Ernest Cognacq

We had telephoned ahead to book this meeting and to explain our field of interest. She had already pulled the most likely boxes of papers for us and, after we had gone through these, many of which were very much what we sought, she encouraged us to go through the list of all of the archives held by the museum and to request anything else we might wish to see. Perfection! Our only regret was that, the archives being so useful, we did not have enough time for a complete and thorough study of the salt exhibition.

These archives contain more, in some ways, about other communities on the island than about Saint Martin. This is because the town hall of Saint-Martin-de-Ré burned to the ground in 1891, the archives along with it. What was saved was what had been copied out beforehand by three men: the doctors Kemmerer and Atgier, and Monsieur Phelippot, passionate historians all. Their copies of some but not all of the parish and civil registrations of Saint Martin have made them belovèd of genealogists and local historians researching the Ile de Ré. In addition, the archives contain papers on:

  • The history of Ile de Ré
  • Various towns and villages of the island
  • The island's military history
  • The Dechézeau family
  • Many families of the island, arranged alphabetically

There is room for just two researchers at a time, so be sure to book in advance. The archivist herself is quite a font of local knowledge and happy to answer questions.

Musée Ernest Cognacq de Saint-Martin-de-Ré

Hôtel de Clerjotte

17410 Saint-Martin-de-Ré

tel: (+33) 5 46 09 21 22



©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Municipal Archives of La Rochelle



Saints preserve us! As our exploration of the various archives in La Rochelle continues, we fear we have at last met our match. Dear Readers, we have survived ravaged Kampala in the immediate post-Amin years; we survived the horrors of having sublet  an apartment in Athens not knowing it had previously been the workplace of a six-foot-tall Australian prostitute; we survived our own youth on the wild ride that was California in the Sixties and Seventies; we survived hitch-hiking all over the state during those same years, but we do not believe we will be able to survive the demented efforts at classification on the part of the conservateurs of La Rochelle's Municipal Archives.

We had done our homework and knew that these small archives held records about the history of the city and its people not to be found elsewhere: certain parish registers on microfilm, hospital records from the 18th century, census returns, electoral lists and more. We had researched and found the codes and so, hoped to waste no time. Folly! We wrestled our way into the archives:

At your own risk

There, we registered as a new user with the helpful secretary, who typed up a card for us. She then handed us a map of the streets of La Rochelle, showing us how to arrive where we already were. Growing worried, we thanked her and asked how we might find the specific records we sought, and we showed her our codes. She bustled across the tiny room to a shelf of binders and selected one.

"Oh, we don't use those codes anymore. The conservateur has reclassified the archives. This binder shows the old codes but do not use it and this binder shows the new codes. No there is no index or concordance linking old to new." We had heard this story at the Departmental Archives and our heart sank, but it had lower to go. "Really," she continued, "you need to look at this third binder, because the conservateur made a lot of changes. On this one, there are some of the first set of codes linking to the third set, but she has not yet finished these." 

We studied the three different sets, the beautifully logical and clear first set, done a generation ago, and the next two, a descent into the inner mayhem of one of Bedlam's finest. There simply was no sense and no way forward. Our guide was becoming nervous, even testy. We asked if we might request an interview with the conservateur, which brought a shocked and frightened gasp. 

"Oh no! The conservateur is NEVER to be disturbed!" That old trick of Parisian waiters who will never come to your table except to say not to disturb them while they are working? Or Charles Bovary after the surgery on Hippolyte's foot?

Expecting little, we selected a roll of microfilmed registers from the early seventeenth century. Most of the images were askew. Some were upside down. Clearly, the Municipal Archives' problems go back a long way. 

Give this one a miss.


Archives Municipales de La Rochelle

16, place Baptiste Marcet

La Rochelle

tel: 05 46 51 53 91


©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Departmental Archives of Charente-Maritime



We have been junketing again, this time to the Departmental Archives of Charente-Maritime, in charming La Rochelle. As is the custom with nearly all of the Departmental Archives in France, they are in an ugly building far from the centre of town. There is no hotel nearby and no one would want to stay in that suburban wasteland anyway. Only occasional buses go there, so one must rent a car or take a cab, and be prepared to pay.

With empty pockets and many notes, we entered the drab building to arrive in a lovely reading room, staffed by truly cheerful and helpful archivists.

Reading Room

Using the archive's website, we had done a significant amount of preparation for our research. We had truly laboured, and combed through the Inventaires online, so that we could arrive with a list of codes ready for the requesting. All went smoothly; the staff seemed to find our organisation and diligence quite the joke. They were so kind and jolly that we made the mistake one morning of slipping into the informal."Bonjour", the man in charge of pushing the trolley full of cartons and register books said to us amiably. "Bonjour", we chirpily responded, and then blundered. "Comment allez-vous?" He stopped and scowled, then said, in French: "Here, we say only hello. To add anything more is quite astonishing and is not done." Chastened and sobered, we went back to our table most meekly.

On the whole, the Departmental Archives of Charente-Maritime are brilliant.

  • They have nearly all parish and civil registrations available online.
  • They have begun to digitise and put online judicial and notarial records
  • The first 150 contracts of men who signed on to ships (they are called engagés) from 1606 to 1758. There are thousands, but this is a beginning
  • A very close cooperation with Archives Canada France, which has digitized more of their records
  • A rather secretly kept data base, the Base des Engagés, has the names of four thousand people who signed on as crew members on ships sailing from La Rochelle and Rochefort during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; this is not available online and is pretty awkward to use in the archives, but is brilliant
  • A growing database about all of those ships, using the information taken from the Admiralty of La Rochelle records; this too, is mighty hard to find

There is one flaw that we find serious and baffling. Nearly all Departmental Archives have a precious card index to the pre-Revolutionary  records.


Many of these old documents require a gifted paleographer to decipher the writing.

Painful writing sample

The card index, called the fichier, is an alphabetical listing of all occurrences of a family name, with the code, page and column in which it appears. Without this almost no one would be able to read those pages to find anything at all.


As we were noting down codes for one of the families we were researching, one of the archivists tiptoed to us and whispered that they had been rendered partially useless. We were suitably stunned. He explained that they could still be used for judicial records but not for notarial records. Those had all been renumbered and there was no key showing old numbers with new. We were horrified. This is something we have not before encountered and hope never to do so again. We can only hope that the culprit was removed, to prevent further harm, and that enough shreds of information remain for a key to be made one day. Catastrophe!

Archives départementales de la Charente-Maritime
35, rue François de-Vaux-de-Foletier
17 042 La Rochelle cedex 1
Tél. 05 46 45 17 77
Fax. 05 46 45 65 11

Read all of our posts about Departmental Archives here.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Toussaint and Commémoration des morts


Toussaint Chrysanthemums

Today is Toussaint, All Saints Day, a national holiday in France, when just about everything really is closed. For the past week, every flower shop and supermarket has had a huge stand of potted chrysanthemums, with a dedicated sales person, ready to wrap them in lovely paper. They have been selling fast.

This is the day when all Catholic saints are honoured and tomorrow, Commémoration des morts, All Souls Day, when the dead are remembered. Churches and cemeteries are full of chrysanthemums, bright in the autumn sunlight. In larger communities masses will be said on both days; in smaller ones, a simple mass will be held today, in the cemetery.

People have been travelling across the country to be with their parents and grandparents. Together, they will visit the cemeteries and clean the family graves, remove broken vases, prune roses, and place the newly bought pots of chrysanthemums. Around the graves of the forgotten, dried pots of dead plants can be seen. It is a solemn time -- one does not say "Bonne fête" at Toussaint -- but one of family closeness.

Usually, after the mass and the placing of flowers, everyone in the family gathers for a meal, often in a brasserie where the older members may be warmed by the sun through the wide windows. Conversation tends toward reminiscence. Older people recall the past, children get restive and adolescents text their friends.

If you have living family in France and the whopping cousinades are not for you, then Toussaint may be a better time to visit and to learn your family's history.


©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy