Previous month:
May 2014
Next month:
July 2014

June 2014

Mayenne Does It Again With Prisoners Online - No More

Squashed Man

Due to a ruling by CNIL, this database can no longer be viewed online, but may be seen in the reading room of the Departmental Archives of La Mayenne.


Why not spend some time this new year researching those poor souls whose lives -- perhaps with justification, perhaps not -- never again contained anything new or beautiful: prisoners?* The département of Mayenne has raised the standard yet again with a new database on their website. It contains the names of 42,000 people sent to one of the department's three prisons between the years of 1832 and 1908. It is extremely useful not only for those with ancestors in Mayenne, but for those whose ancestors may have been from elsewhere but ended up in prison there. Thus, it is a good place to look for a French brick wall ancestor.

Les Registres d'écrou des maisons d'arrêt de la Mayenne (1832-1908)

To find the site, either click on the link above or on the link in the column to the left for the Archives Départementales de La Mayenne and click on the link Archives en ligne to the left on that page, then on Registres d'écrou. Once there, click on the orange line that reads:

consulter la base des registres d'écrou

That brings up a nice, clean and simple search page.  We have put in English  below how to complete the form (click on it to see a larger version):


Search form écrou marked

 We recommend leaving the age and year of imprisonment fields empty, in order to bring up all possible names. Click on Rechercher to start the search or Effacer to clear the form and try again. A sample search result looks like this:

Prisoner search results marked

A sample log book page looks like this:

Sample prisoner log page

Which we found utterly impossible to read, but those clever folks at La Mayenne put in a useful tool for magnification and moving around the page. Some departments got this bit wrong, with the image not refocusing when magnified, but La Mayenne is one of those which got it right. It takes quite a few seconds to focus. A word to the wise on this point: if, like us, you beat on the mouse a dozen times to enlarge the image significantly, the whole thing freezes in a blur. One must treat the page with delicacy, click the mouse once, wait for the refocus, click again and wait again. The procedure requires rather the same extreme patience and politesse as does dealing with French bureaucrats. How on earth did they manage to digitize that?


Toolbox copy

A nicely enlarged section looks like this, giving a wondrous amount of information about the person:

 Enlarged prisoner log


Fun site. Enjoy!


* For a suitably horrifying read on life in French prisons even in modern times, we recommend Frank Abagnale's  Catch Me If You Can


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Press Review


Press Review

It has been some years since we last did a general review of what was to be found in the French genealogy press, though we have tried to keep you posted on any hot topics concerning French genealogy. Time to take a look at what three of the most visible magazines are saying.

La Revue Française de Généalogie has for its cover story an article explaining best practices for research in the censuses. It discusses the history of population censuses in France, where the returns may be found in the Departmental Archives. There is a long discussion of how a census was taken, explaining the paperwork, and a comparison of American and British census fashions with those in France. It is followed by a study of an example that includes many errors. As ever, the French love of statistics is evident.

There is an article on the value of permalinks to specific document images by Pierre-Valéry Archassal. A map of the country showing which Departmental Archives use the technology on their websites shows them to be in an odd south-to-north strip up the centre of the country. Arkothèque, the company that designed the system for archives is based in Marseilles and it would seem that the salesman never got off the E15 to Paris or the E17 to Lille.

 It seems there must always be a bit of celebrity genealogy and here it is that of Pierre Soulages, the artist. A few pages later is printed an eye-witness account of the Battle of the Marne by an unfortunate woman who lived nearby.

The prize article, in our opinion, is that on wolves. Not the genealogy of wolves, but -- statistics again -- the number of attacks on people and human deaths attributed to wolves based on information found in archives. Apparently, wolves claimed about three thousand victims per century until they were mostly eliminated in the twentieth century. The article is based on and praises the work of Professor Jean-Marc Moriceau at the University of Caen, who has launched a website on the history of the murderous relationship between wolves and humans.

Nos Ancêtres, Vie & Métiers is an off-shoot of the above publication. It comes out every two months and focuses on bygone skills and professions and on aspects of daily life long ago. The most recent issue tells of medieval cookery. As what the majority of the people ate is not very much documented (probably because for most there was not very much to eat) the author is forced to rely on the writings that do exist, and they are mostly about monks' dining rules and regulations. The source for what the nobility ate seems to have been illuminated manuscripts (of which we are most fond) many little reproductions of which dot the article.

There is a biographical article on the composer, Offenbach. The rest of the magazine is about the professions of maintaining law and order: the police, the gendarmerie and the maréchausée. In all, this magazine is not one to aid the reader's skills in genealogical research, but to deepen his or her understanding of the times in which various ancestors lived.

Généalogie Magazine always seems a bit down market to us, perhaps because it generally gives about sixty per cent of its space to celebrity genealogies. This month's big names are the new Prime Minister, Manuel Valls and Charlie Chaplin. For royalty fetishists, there is a biography of Louis Philippe I, really a long promotion for the big new book listing all of his descendants. As it runs to almost four hundred pages, we imagine there are many.

The lead article, however, is a step in a new direction, for it is about "The Best Genealogy Websites". It is quite a thorough directory. It lists:

  • all of the Departmental Archives websites
  • commercial data bases
  • online guides and manuals
  • websites about surnames
  • medal and military websites
  • lists of those who can be linked to historical personages or events
  • websites on heraldry
  • websites on paleography
  • map and geographical websites
  • websites of genealogy associations and cercles
  • publishers and bookshops specializing in genealogy
  • professional genealogists
  • international archives
  • genealogy bloggers (minus our own sterling effort)

It is a most unusual lurch into excellence for this magazine and we wonder if this heralds a new path or if it be merely the raising of the hippo's head out of the shallows and into the light of day before it is again submerged in the murky waters.

 ©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


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


Emigrant Visas From Bordeaux


Voyage of chance


Currently, among professional genealogists, there is much grumbling about the clumsy mess that has made of its search facility and the "ridiculous results" that come up. Many long for the now banished "old search" on that website. We suspect that we know what went wrong somewhere in the hinterland of Ancestry's labyrinthine corridors.

We trained as a librarian and have worked with many computer/information/programming professionals of various ilk and can verify that the emphasis of the two in aiding researchers is quite different: librarians are trained to structure every aspect of their work toward the retrieval of the specific information sought by the researcher; while the computer programmer longs to deliver the entire universe at the touch of a button. The latter sounds very cool but is useless, while the former requires quite a lot of planning but brings the desired result. In many ways, the French, with their eternally beloved logic, have done a better job, and usually offer it gratis. This is good news for those with French ancestors to research, and it has just got a bit better.

There is a beautiful new addition to websites where one can search at no cost -- and with a certainty of logical, clear, possibly relevant results -- on those who emigrated from France via the port of Bordeaux. We have written in the past about the burning of the archives of the Port of Bordeaux, a great loss indeed. We have also reported here on the easily searched passport database maintained by the Departmental Archives of La Gironde. Today, we write of a rich, new resource that complements the latter.

A group of not only dedicated but apparently literate and even intelligent genealogy enthusiasts have been indexing correctly (unlike those elsewhere, who seem to be guilty of indexing while under the influence, to judge by the ludicrous results) a number of records from the archives pertaining to Bordeaux that are not online. An emigrant leaving France had to obtain not only a passport, which would have been issued by the authorities where the emigrant-to-be resided, but then had to obtain a visa to leave and this was issued by the authorities at the place of departure, in this case, Bordeaux. Lists of visas and passports, as well as some passenger and police surveillance lists, are the sources for the information.

These enthusiastic indexers have created the website Les visas en Bordelais : l'émigration au départ de Bordeaux au cours du 19e siècle. With pages in English, Spanish and Portuguese, they allow for searches on:

  • Visas issued, by name
  • Ships, by name, but you must also have the month and year of departure
  • Passengers, by name
  • Emigrants, by name, but this is a very small database, taken from a few police and other records, such as we have described when discussing a passenger list
  • Travelling companions, by name, extracted from the documents but not specifically listed in their own right
  • Destinations of ships, but not all ports of call will be included, only the expected destination

The results give as much detail as was found in the documentation:

  • date
  • full name
  • age
  • place of birth
  • passport details
  • names and ages of travelling companions
  • destination
  • relevant archives series codes and document numbers
  • details of the ship, if any

If your ancestor were from or passed through the southwest of France and left the country during the nineteenth century, there is a good chance of finding him or her in this wonderful labour of love of a website.

The only word of warning necessary: the site is slow and, once discovered by the descendants of emigrants, will likely get slower still. There is also a survey, or sondage, asking how you like the site; since one does not pay, it would be only fair as well as a courtesy, to complete the form by way of thanks.

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Your Genealogy Tour de France


Tour de France

Before the most recent and somewhat fantastical wave of Brussels bashing, France was seriously looking at the genealogy tourism industry and its possibilities. Certain French folk have expressed annoyance that other member countries of the European Union -- Ireland, Poland, Germany, Greece and The Netherlands -- had received large grants to develop tourism programmes aimed at the (often Anglophone) visitor combining genealogical research with tourism. France did not apply for such a grant, but one anthropologist did write an article on the phenomenon of genealogy tours in Ireland.

Whether France be on or off the bandwagon, we have received enough missives from you, Dear Readers, to be sure that many do come to France to find their roots. We suggest the following to help you to have a better experience of it:

  • Do the maximum amount of research that you possibly can, using French resources online. By now, you should already have purchased our guide and be using it to find your way through the many websites. Many of the documents that have been made available online are now no longer accessible in the archives that hold them. It would be a pity for you to waste precious research time looking at microfilm in an archive facility that you could have studied on your computer at home.
  • Plan to visit specific archives. Do not simply plan to go to a city and expect to be able to figure out the research when you arrive, for you will waste far too much time. Find online the relevant Departmental Archives, Municipal Archives, Town Hall archives, military archives, etc. Note the addresses (and their distance from your hotel!) and opening days and hours. Most stop some services at lunch time and an hour before closing time, so you want to be there early, to have the maximum amount of research time.
  • For each archive facility that has its finding aids online, read through them and note the codes, notaire's names and other information. We have watched innumerable novices arrive at the Departmental Archives, be shown the finding aids, and then spend all of their research time trying to understand them and never actually being able to request documents. Do that work at home first.
  • Some archives state very clearly on their websites that they are open to researchers by appointment only. Make an appointment long in advance. Some require that a visit and place at a desk or table be booked online in advance. Do that booking well in advance, or you risk being turned away.
  • You will want to visit the ancestral village and we have written here before about how to make that a more rewarding experience for you and those you might meet. 
  • Find cousins via the many websites. Contact them; make appointments to meet them and to visit homes in which your ancestors lived, the churches or synagogues where they worshipped and the cemeteries where they were buried. 
  • Include in your itinerary local museums and exhibitions of traditional skills. Doing so will help to imagine your ancestors' lives.
  • If possible, stay in a chambre d'hôte (furnished room, bed & breakfast) rather than a hotel, for that will give you more of a flavour of local life. Every town hall maintains a list of local registered chambres d'hôtes.
  • Join local genealogy associations in advance so that you receive their newsletter and can plan to attend a meeting or event.
  • This year, quite a large number of events are planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. If you ancestor fought in that war, you may want to visit battlefields and attend ceremonies. Be sure to look at the exhibits in the Departmental Archives; most of them are presenting something in relation to the War this year.
  • Familiarize yourself with national and local public holidays to know when archives and town halls will be closed. And beware of August! It is the month of the traditional family holiday in France and many facilities shut down for a week or two in August. Check the websites to be sure.

Lastly, should your journey take you to the southwest of the country, we shall be spending July and August in the charming city of Périgueux and would be pleased to meet with you and discuss your research.

Bon voyage!

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy