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Book Review - Unnaturally French

Unnaturally French

For a definition of French citizenship in the Ancien régime, for a complete explanation of how it was developed and eventually dismantled and for an understanding of how and why people became citizens of France, look no further than this excellent book. This is history, not genealogy, but one cannot do very well at the latter without studying the former. The author, Peter Sahlins, is a professor of History at our old stomping grounds, the University of California at Berkeley.

There are many fine historians out there, publishing with abandon, but few of them have the clear prose of Professor Sahlins. Indeed, after reading some of the more frantic, polemical and muddled histories out there, to come to "Unnaturally French" is to step from a pen full of turkeys at feeding time into a calm room where all are banished but the sane.

He explains the crucial difference between citizens of the realm of France and foreigners residing in it: the droit d'aubaine, the right of the king to seize the estates and property of foreigners who died in the realm. Those wishing their children -- if they were foreign also -- to inherit might have been inspired to apply to the king to become French. Those applications, of which the author says only about twenty per cent were successful, would have given much personal detail. Challenges in court by heirs concerning citizenship and the right to inherit were many. Quickly, it becomes apparent that this book is essential to anyone tracing ancestors who arrived in France from elsewhere and stayed for a generation or two.

The period covered is from 1660 to 1789 and the key sources used by Professor Sahlins are the letters of naturalization and the tax rolls for the 1697 Naturalization Tax. He has a very large sampling from both, running into the thousands of cases, and sprinkles his history with examples. His data base revealed that the largest categories of those who were naturalized were, in descending order:

  • Clergy
  • Merchants
  • Artisans
  • Liberal professions
  • Military
  • Office holders
  • Servants

Many came from regions that are now part of France but that were not so at the time, such as Savoie and Nice. The Irish flight of the "Wild Swans" occurred during this period and is covered as well. In terms of geographic origin, the largest groups were from:

  • Southern Europe
  • Northern Europe
  • Central Europe
  • British Isles
  • Ottoman Empire

Of particular use to those using this book to know better the history in order to trace better their family is the Appendix number two, which gives a long list of treaties France made with various countries to abolish or exempt foreigners from the droit d'aubaine, beginning with the 1753 treaty made with the Kingdom of Prussia and ending with the 1790 and 1791 unconditional and absolute abolition of the droit d'aubaine throughout France and her colonies.

Increasingly, we are contacted by people seeking not just their French ancestors, but something they have recently discovered. With DNA testing for genealogy, they have discovered indicators of ancestry from other parts of Europe and, based on other research, it seems to them that their French ancestors had non-French origins. For all those who suspect that those ancestors entered France and became French during the seventeenth or eighteenth century, this book is essential to understanding what may have happened.

It is also invaluable as a source of sources. A quarter of the book's 453 pages is devoted to notes, appendices, an index and a superb bibliography of published and unpublished sources. First, read this book  to learn the history, then use it as a guide for your own genealogical and historical research.

You can buy it by clicking on the image under "Books In English" in the column to the right.

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy