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December 2015

XXIII Congrès national de Généalogie - The History of Seals


We are still working our way through our reporting on the many fascinating lectures we attended at the 23rd National Genealogy Congress in Poitiers. To be honest, the subject of this post was one we had avoided for many years. The study of seals seemed to us tedious and dull, the objects fiddly and crumbly. In all, it seemed about as thrilling as those rows upon rows of tiny coins in glass cases in the British Museum. Not as much fun as research and not as much fun as piecing together information about lives long ago. As happens more often than we are happy to confess, we were wrong.

Monsieur Daniel Da-Ponte is an engaging speaker, small, highly audible and witty, though not a dab hand with an out-dated slide projector. He had the comfortable authority that comes with mastery of one's subject and managed to communicate his enthusiasm such that, by the end of the talk, the room was full of breathless converts to sigillography.

He began by pointing out that there are seals as old as one from 777 A.D., which survives on a document relating to Charlemagne, and that 50% of the seals that are still in existence are copies or fakes.

He gave a bit of vocabulary:

  • Bulle - is a seal in metal, often silver
  • Cachet - a small seal to ensure secrecy
  • Garde des Sceaux - Today, this is the Ministry of Justice
  • Lac - the silk or other type of ribbon that attaches the seal to the document
  • Matrice - the engraved object to print the seal onto wax
  • Queues - excess lac below the wax

During the Medieval era, which was the golden age of seals, apparently, the sealing procedure was thus:

  1. A document was written
  2. Ribbon attached the pages, often sewn through them at the side, binding them
  3. Wax (or, less often, lead) is dripped onto the two ends of the ribbon, closing them together, as would a knot; the wax was not on the document itself*
  4. The seal is pressed into the hot wax

Seals had nothing to do with heraldry, Monsieur Da-Ponte shouted emphatically, though they could, especially after the twelfth century, have the image of a family's crest. Their purpose was not to show relationship but to confirm or even replace a signature. Thus, a seal was an authentication of the approval if not the authorship of a document, to the point that it had probative value. For this reason, seals were very carefully guarded, often worn as rings.

Their value, he said, is in the study of Medieval costume, art history and social history and NOT genealogy. However, for those genealogists working on family records from the twelfth or thirteenth century, a knowledge of seals will be useful in confirming the authenticity of some of those documents. He mentioned that a claim made to him by one fellow to have used seals to trace his family line to 52 B.C. is preposterous (he glared around the room at this point, daring anyone to make a similar claim; no one accepted the dare).

He closed his cheery talk with the suggestion that anyone who can should visit the Musées du Sceau et Springerlé (delightful combination of subjects, that) in La Petite Pierre, Bas-Rhin.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


*In our photograph above, 18th century wills have been stitched shut and the seals placed over each point where the stitching pierced the document.

Comments Received on the Bilingual Diploma

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To date, on the subject of the bilingual Diplôme Université in genealogy offered by the University of Nîmes as discussed in the previous post, we have received comments and suggestions both at the end of that post and  by e-mail. We give them all here; each, obviously, from a different person: 

  • This sounds wonderful and too bad I am too old to do it.
  • I have spent countless hours transcribing church and civil records put online by the Department of Bas-Rhin, but the church records are in German (Alsace before the Revolution).  My French, sadly, is minimal. I can translate slowly with a dictionary, but would probably not be able to get much out of lectures in French.......I have French ancestors in other areas as well, and would be interested in the written materials.  Since I do genealogy only for personal use, I have no need for an official certificate. If they could make the written materials available for a considerably lesser fee, with no exams or diploma, that would be very welcome.
  • I wanted to let you know that at Brigham Young University they do have specialty tracks in their curriculum allowing for specialization in Spanish, Italian, French, Scandinavian, British, Irish, German or American research. Genealogy courses are also offered online through BYU-Idaho and they include many of the same specialty tracks.
  • This course interests me. I want the program and the technology to be user friendly.  I believe the structure and content will be user friendly. I must know the level of French required and the level of work required, in daily hours.
  • I would love to know more about French genealogy to help find my Huguenot ancestors....However, French genealogy is not of such an interest to me that it is worth 4000 euros to me. I might be interested in following some modules, if that is possible....My French skills are sufficient to read and listen to French lectures and use French sources, but taking an exam in French would be stretching it. Also, I would not be willing to travel to France to take the exam.
  • One of our local librarians attended a week-long course several years ago on French records at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. I've been waiting for them to offer it again, but no luck so far....For most people working in a foreign language, reading and writing is easier than speaking and understanding; so I, for one, would be totally out of my element if the lectures were in French. This would not be a good fit for me.
  • This is very exciting! I am going to start saving my money for it. There is an Alliance Française branch fairly close to me. I hope I would be allowed to bring a French dictionary with me for the tests.
  • I am French living in the States and what I need is to learn how to be able to get to the archives that are NOT on the internet without having to cross the Atlantic! Apparently the course will only deal with archives on line and that is not worth the 4,000 Euros. For example what is the paleography course worth, if you don't have access to any records prior to 1738, which is usually the norm in most villages? I know any learning is good, but at that price, it needs to be useful.
  • This type of course would be very interesting to me in a few years when I am able to retire and possibly pursue genealogy work for others. The price tag is a little hefty but might be worth it if there was a future revenue source to support it. I just can't imagine there will be many folks interested in it.
    The aspects of this that might be more immediately of interest to me are individual courses on issues like Notary records and French history. I often get lost when reading various documents related to my ancestors because I do not fully understand the
    legal and historical context. Courses like that would be of interest especially if they can be offered at a more nominal fee.
  • My two concerns are similar to the person who wrote on 5 December 2015 at 11:29 pm PST....1.  For most people working in a foreign language, reading and writing is easier than speaking and understanding; so I, for one, would be totally out of my element if the lectures were in French.  A potential solution to this issue is to have Closed Captions in English (similar to movies) in French for those who are not strong in understanding speakers who would talk with us about unfamiliar topics....2.  The price is too expensive simply to learn how to be a better French genealogist with no need for a diploma.  In addition, the internet should allow classes to be taught which are much less expensive than a class in a building.   In the US, often times class may be audited to learn information and not receive credit.
  • I think it is a wonderful idea to offer the bilingual diploma. ...My two problems with it would be that my French is intermediate level and I fear it may cause problems with the work.  Also, the cost of the program is too expensive for me.
  • Having very little French counts me out! Also this course is far too expensive (EUR4000 = AUD6000) for an Australian. As a former lecturer at Flinders University we offered a genealogy course face-to-face at 2 levels - those for students seeking post-graduate diplomas etc and the general public who wanted skills. The latter paid less than AUD1000! If I had a spare AUD6000 I would be more inclined to either spend it on a holiday to France or engage a local researcher!


Thank you for these latest. Any more opinions out there? 

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Bilingual Diploma in French Genealogy - Please Give Your Suggestions

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We have been contacted by the good folk who are designing the bilingual component of the distance learning version of the Diploma in  Genealogy and Family History offered by the University of Nîmes. We first described the course four years ago here, and it has developed and become more refined since then. 

This proposed version of the course would be truly bilingual, with some parts in French and some in English, so anyone taking it would need to have some ability to understand and read French. The current plan for the course includes:

  • Tutorial classes (in French) given by viseo-conference using AdobeConnect
  • Filmed lectures (in French)
  • Written materials (in French and English)

All of the supporting materials for the classes and lectures would be available in French and English.

  • Students will be required to write a paper based on research in French archives that are available online. The purpose of the paper being for the student to exhibit a thorough understanding of French archives. The student will be able to select the Departmental Archives for the paper, and the professor will formulate the research proposal with the student's area of interest in mind.
  • Exams will be in French and must be taken in person. Locations proposed are French consulates and Alliance Française offices close to the student's residence.

Subjects covered remain as they are:

  • Genealogy
  • Modern (post-Revolutionary) history
  • Palaeography
  • Heraldry
  • Family law
  • Anthroponymy

The cost of the bilingual course is anticipated to be about 4000€. The course lasts six months.

To our knowledge, this may be the only university diploma course given entirely on the subject of French genealogy and will certainly be the only one offered by a French university at least partly in English. Comparing with others, we find that:

  • The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in Canada offers Certificate Programmes in the records of a number of countries, but not those of France
  • Brigham Young University in the United States offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in Family History but it is not an online course, nor does there seem to be the possibility to specialize in French records.
  • The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Britain offers an online diploma course but, quite naturally, there is no French component. This is the same for the University of Strathclyde in Scotland.
  • The University of New England in Australia offers a distance diploma in Family Historical Studies; again, nothing concerning French records is taught.

Bearing that in mind, we and the people at Nîmes would be most grateful if you could please send your responses to the following questions:

  1.  Does a course with this structure and format interest you?
  2. If not, how would you change it to improve it?
    1. Structure?
    2. Content?
    3. Level of French required?
    4. Level of work required?
    5. Anything else?

Please do send any and all ideas and suggestions and be part of the process of designing the ideal course.  We eagerly await your replies.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy