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October 2016

Book Review - "The Terror - Civil War in the French Revolution" - Did Your Ancestor Take Part?

Terror cover


Understanding the French Revolution requires a lifetime of study and we feel that we have barely begun. Many of you, Dear Readers, have written to say that you are descended from people who left France during or just after the Revolution. We will ignore for the time being the inordinate and irrational need of many people to link themselves to the historically powerful, arrogant and wealthy abusers of other people, namely the aristocracy -- this is not another post on helping anyone to prove that he is really the true Louis XX --  and focus instead on what reading French history tells us about our ancestors that French genealogy cannot, which is, possibly, why. Why an ancestor left, why he or she left at a particular time, why he or she went to a certain place. Only by digging deeper and deeper into the history of the time and place can one learn enough to hazard a guess.

Andress's book was first published in 2005, so no one can accuse us of winning or even entering the race to review it. Nevertheless, we do so now, as it is the best book on the subject in English that we have found. In twelve chapters, he covers with great clarity the collapse of order, the fierce revolutionary fervour, even madness, in Paris that was countered by desperate, pro-religion and anti-Revolution forces in many, many locations around the country. Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux and, especially, the Vendée, fought against the Revolution with all that they had. At the same time as this civil war, there were also food shortages while much of Europe allied with Great Britain were attacking France's borders and helping the counter-Revolutionaries.

Slaughter -- the Terror -- was the Revolutionary government's solution. Prisoners were killed in the September Massacres and, over the next year, all suspected counter-Revolutionaries were guillotined.  Lyon was destroyed and the civil war in the Vendée crushed, with hundreds of children and adults killed and villages burned. Unending levées drafted every young man into the army and the attackers were pushed back from the borders.

Andress describes the progression without tones of drama or horror, letting the facts tell the story. He is a British historian and so, tends to concentrate on how and why things happened, as opposed to the French historical style of concentration on statistics to give a general view and following the rules of methodology for a dissertation, which can be tedious reading  for those taught to view the subject of history as an art rather than a science. Yet all the facts are there. We finished the book with a much greater understanding of the time, of the issues and of the enormous power of that foreign country within France that is Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote in his novel about the War in the Vendée, "Ninety-three", which we read in tandem with Andress's "The Terror" that "93 was the war of Europe against France and of France against Paris. And what was the Revolution? It was the victory of France over Europe and of Paris over France." 



 Was your ancestor involved -- like Hugo's father -- in fighting the War in the Vendée? You may be able to find him among the military records concerning that conflict. The Departmental Archives of the Vendée have digitised and put online the entirety of the military records on the War in the Vendée that are held in the Service Historique de la Défense at Vincennes, and they can be viewed here. Correspondence and pension records, reports and strategy papers are all there concerning the different armies:

  • The Army of the Coast of La Rochelle
  • The Army of the West
  • The Army of the Coast of Brest
  • The Army f the Coasts of the Ocean
  • The Army of the Interior
  • The Army of the Coasts of Cherbourg

Should you find your ancestor there, or even if not, we highly recommend both the Andress and the Hugo.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

FGB Free Clinic - Case no. 8 - Adventures in Uniformologie

1923 Sarrebourg

Back in March, we received the above photograph from a Dear Reader, Monsieur R., who hoped that we could help to identify the uniform. Not our strong point, uniforms, pretty as we find them to be at times.

Monsieur R. has very little to go one concerning the subject of the photograph: his name is uncertain but may be Jules Martin. The photograph was taken in Sarrebourg, Moselle in about 1922 or 1923, at a studio called Gaertner. The hope has been that identification of the uniform would lead to a regiment and, perhaps, a positive identification of the man himself.

Monsieur R. has done a great deal of research on the Internet about the Gaertner studio, about various fellows named Jules Martin (could there be a more common name?) and about Sarrebourg. He has tried posting the photo and his query on many uniform forums and websites. We also contacted the people we know who are passionate about uniforms. Many people suggested that the beret was surely that of the Chasseurs alpins, but theirs seems to be quite a bit larger and darker.

Uniform 6-2


Yet, as that is the only regiment that wears a beret, people kept coming back to it. No one, however, could find an example of the uniform in the pictures of the Chasseurs alpins. We had no success in identifying the uniform at all, nor, so far as we know, had Monsieur R. found the name of the regiment. 

Because there was none for that uniform, we have learned, and that is because it is not an official uniform. At a loss, we had gone to the military archives at the Service Historique de la Défense in Vincennes for, at times, one must go to the source. We do so adore going there, at the end of Metro Line 1, although the many changes in the archives administration have meant much more planning is required than in the past. The stumble down the long cobbled road past the chateau and jewel of a church brings one to the still musty but increasingly efficient archives. Once settled into our place, booked weeks earlier, we sought out our good friend, Madame B., and asked for help with a tricky uniform. She immediately rang Monsieur L..

Monsieur L. is no procrastinator and was at our side in a flash, studying the photo, as well as an enlargement of the part showing the collar and its insignia, which could be seen as GG or CC.

Col et beret

The first thing that Monsieur L. said was "This is all wrong!" He elaborated. "The beret, tunic and trousers do not go together; the tunic is iron grey and the trousers are white and such a mix is NOT acceptable!"

The beret is not of the Chasseurs alpins at all but it could help to date the photograph as after 1915. In the summer of that year, the army issued to all infantry regiments a beret of light blue, or bleu d'horizon. Monsieur L. identified the beret in the photograph as being such a one. The Chasseurs alpins apparently were furious that their unique uniform element of the beret had been given to all and sundry. In September of 1915, the light blue beret was withdrawn and no longer to be worn. Thus, it was available for only about three or four months though one can imagine that those already issued were not destroyed.

Yet, this is no help in identifying a regiment, since the beret was issued to everyone in the infantry. Nor does it help in dating the photograph as after 1915, as Monsieur R. already knew that it was from about 1922. The two bars on the beret and the tunic sleeve indicate a rank of lieutenant which, again, Monsieur R. had been able to discover already.

So, what is this hodge-podge of a military get-up? Here, Monsieur L. had no doubt at all. "He had to be either in a hospital or a prisoner, and patched together this uniform for the photograph. Perhaps it was from clothing the photographer's studio had." Others in the forums contacted by Monsieur R. had noted that no shoes or boots were shown in the photograph and Monsieur L. wondered if the trousers that had gone with the tunic might not have been ruined when the man might have been wounded, and that these two oddities could indicate a leg wound of some sort. 

Thus, from Monsieur L.'s most helpful advice, we can suggest to Monsieur R. to give up the hunt for a regiment to go with this non-uniform and rather to investigate military hospitals and prisons around Sarrebourg between the wars. Alternatively, he might concentrate on a Jules Martin with a leg wound or who had been a prisoner. Not much help, we know, but if Monsieur L. cannot say more, we doubt that anyone else can do so.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


French Orphans and Wards of the Nation - a Book Review - Part 2


We continue with our review of the book and wonderful talk given by Marie-Odile Mergnac on the subject of orphans and wards of the nation. Orphans and their welfare have been as much of a concern in France as everywhere else in the world. In France, a child under the age of majority and without a father or either parent is considered an orphan. Children abandoned at birth are orphans with no identifiable family at all and become the responsibility of the state, while children who became orphans because one or both parents died usually have a family who are legally responsible for the child.

Madame Mergnac traces the history of orphanages, from their beginnings as religious institutions to being run by the state, to their being shut down by policy changes. This and the subject of orphans with no family touch on the subjects of other of our posts:

Children who lost one or both of their parents but still had family were under the care of a family council, conseil de famille, which was comprised of an equal number of members from the paternal and maternal sides of the family. The members of the family council voted for one person to be the guardian of the child or children. That person carried out the council's decisions as to the children's education and possible apprenticeships, as well as maintaining strict accounts about the cost of their upkeep and expenses against their inheritance. 

The family council also made decisions concerning the rentals or sales of property that had been inherited by the orphans. If an orphan under the age of majority wished to marry, permission had to be granted by the family council. When all children became adults, the guardian was required to turn in the final accounts and the adult children to sign them, if they approved them. Often, the decisions and accounts of family councils were submitted as affidavits to the justice of the peace. Many such records may still be found, such as these we discovered in the Municipal Archives of Marseille.

Madame Mergnac's book goes on to discuss children taken into care and made wards of the state, children in correctional institutions and adults made wards of the state. In each section of this short but most useful book, she explains how and where to research such people who may appear in your family tree.

Quite highly recommended.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

French Orphans and Wards of the Nation - a Book Review - Part 1


One of the talks that we attended at the GENCO 2016 event was that given by the prolific Marie-Odile Mergnac about the subject of her new book, Orphelins et pupilles de la nation. The lecture space was not a room exactly but a space marked off from the exhibition hall with a few panels and a bank of chairs rolled into place. Pretty clever really, but the noise from the chatty folks at the exhibition stands was an annoying distraction. Madame Mergnac is much respected as an author and speaker, so the wobbly little tower of seats was packed.

She began by explaining the quite important difference between children who are wards of the state, pupilles de l'état, and children who are wards of the nation, pupilles de la nation. Children who are wards of the state are those who have been abandoned or who have been rescued from wicked or incompetent parents or families. Children who are wards of the nation are children who have a parent who was killed or severely wounded  while defending the nation. The wards of the nation are not taken into care, but remain at home with, usually, their mothers.

Wards of the nation, as a concept, is fairly recent. Though, in the early nineteenth century, Napoleon had arranged for the children of the men who died at the Battle of Austerlitz to be adopted by the nation, this was a single act and not a continuous policy. That policy was created in 1917, during the First World War, when France lost many, many men.

The programme gave to the children the financial help that the family needed because its breadwinner had been killed or incapacitated. Though each child's needs were assessed, generally the assistance included the paying of school fees and ensuring basic health care. There were summer camps, colonies de vacance, established for the children, which they could attend for free. When they were older, they might have received help in obtaining an apprenticeship. In some cases, employment was found for the mother. Each child was supposed to be seen once a year. Even with all of this aid, Madame Mergnac pointed out, life could be very tough for such children, especially if their mother also died.

It was not automatic for a child to become a ward of the nation. The mother had to make a formal request and provide documentary proof as to the father's service, wounds and/or death. If her husband had survived but become handicapped, she had to provide details and proof of this as well as details about each child. A decision would than be made and recorded. If it were in the affirmative, the child would be adopted formally by the nation. This new status would then be added as a marginal note to the child's birth registration.

The administrative department that did and still does handle wards of the nation is the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War, Office national des anciens combattants et victimes de guerre, known as ONACVG (originally as ONAC). A potential ward of the nation must be under the age of twenty-one and have lost his or her father or mother or other person who was the main support of the family. In addition to adopting the children of those who gave their lives in France's wars, the nation will also adopt the children of:

  • Victims of terrorist attacks committed in France (whatever their nationality);
  • Those who suffer from crippling diseases contracted while in service to the nation;
  • Those who were killed or died while in the line of duty of ensuring public safety in certain non-military professions, such as magistrates, gendarmes, police and customs officers;
  • Elected officials killed while in office;
  • Health professionals killed by their patients;
  • Those killed or incapacitated by pirates on the high seas.

Of course, children who themselves have been incapacitated by wounds received or diseases contracted in the same way as above can be made wards of the nation.

Next: orphans.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy




Was Your French Ancestor a Cagot?

Cagot copy

We read the following article by Nick Inman in "The Connexion" October 2016 issue; it is reproduced here courtesy of "The Connexion, France's English-Language Newspaper", It may answer some puzzles and explain some brick walls for some. Read on!

2021 UPDATE: For those of you interested in this topic, check the comments section below for a link to an article with a new theory about the origins of the Cagots.

EVERY family tree has its surprises, but when Marie Diorite investigated her genealogy she discovered something astonishing. Up until the Revolution in 1789 every member of her family had been born, married and died in the same small Pyrenean village. For generations they were members of Europe’s own forgotten caste of untouchables, the cagots, an underclass subjected to social, legal and religious discrimination for no explicable reason.

Almost everything about these people remains a mystery. It is difficult to tell their story. The historical records – kept by prejudiced persecutors rather than the cagots themselves – are often confusing and historians trying to make sense of them frequently contradict each other. Centuries of legends that have grown up around the cagots obscure the few facts that exist. The cagots first emerged in history around the 13th century but they almost certainly existed before then. They seem to have been scattered up and down western France but they were concentrated in the southwest, in the Pyrenees, spilling over the border into Spain (where they were known as the agotes).

No one has ever been able to say clearly what defined one. They were not an ethnic, religious or linguistic group. They are often said to have had defining physical characteristics but this is disputed. It is generally agreed that they were extremely short, but some researchers have concluded the exact opposite: that they were tall and well-built. Other supposedly typical features, such as the absence of earlobes, are almost certainly later inventions.

“It finally became apparent,” said Graham Robb in The Discovery of France, a study of how France came to understand itself, “that the real ‘mystery of the cagots’ was the fact that they had no distinguishing features at all….” They were simply people born into inferiority: a child born to cagot parents was a cagot. The only thing all cagots had in common was that they had prejudice heaped on them from birth and throughout their lives. They were considered to be unclean and forced to live apart from ‘normal’ people in their own villages or in quarters set aside for them called cagoteries. They could only drink from a fountain marked for their use. In some places they were required to have a goose or duck’s foot cut out of red material and stitched on their clothing as an identifying mark. They could only marry within their own and were prohibited from working in many professions, particularly those linked to food preparation.

For the most part, they were involved in the building trades – iron, stone and wood – and they are said to have been skilled craftsmen and many churches and bridges are attributed to them. Even in the churches they built, however, they were treated as second-class worshippers. They had to enter by their own door and sit in an segregated area. Many churches today have a bricked up secondary entrance said to be the ‘cagot door’ and a holy water stoup (bénitier) solely for their use. According to the annals, one cagot in the Landes who used the wrong stoup had his hand cut off and nailed to the church door as a warning to others.

Many pages in books and magazines have been dedicated to hypotheses about who they were and why they were so despised. It was once thought they must be lepers but the groups are mentioned separately in records. Several theories argue that they were being made to suffer for the sins of distant ancestors, who were (depending who you listen to) the prehistoric inhabitants of the region displaced by Christianity; the Visigoths defeated by Clovis in 507, the Moorish invaders of France in the 8th century or even the Cathars – but this is unlikely as there seem to have been cagots in southwest France before the 14th century Cathar wars.

Another proposal is that their forebears were itinerant medieval craftsmen and perhaps builders brought back from the Holy Land by the Knights Templar. The semi-nomadic teams of constructors responsible for medieval architecture would have lived near settled communities for the duration of each construction project they engaged in. They may well have been regarded with suspicion both for their ‘secret knowledge’ of geometry and the disruption that they caused to local life. It is even possible that these travellers opted for voluntary segregation but that this was turned against them. This may explain the geographical location of them which coincides with the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, which was known to be a “builders’ highway” immediately before the appearance of the cagots.

Whoever they were, they gradually vanished from history as the Middle Ages gave way to the Enlightenment. Improved education, economic prosperity and new political ideologies opened up isolated communities and made the old ways obsolete. The Revolution declared all the people of France to be at least theoretically equal and many cagots took advantage of the turbulence of 1789 to destroy damning records of their lineage. When the chance came to emigrate to the New World and leave antiquated hierarchies behind, many seized it. By the 19th century, the cagots were mostly assimilated into the general population leaving behind only a puzzle for historians to tackle.

One of the lesser-known works by the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell is an essay written in 1855 and available today online called "An Accursed Race" in which she recounts facts and legends about the cagots in an attempt to prove superstitions that surrounded them were unfounded. “They were truly what they were popularly called,” she concluded, “The Accursed Race”. Recently, there has been renewed interest in the subject. Several books have tried to explain why they were treated as they were. Despite intense research, there is no consensus as to who they were, or where they came from.

Nick Inman is the author of A Guide to Mystical France, published by Findhorn Press.


We have put in bold what may be especially pertinent to researchers.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


GENCO 2016

2016 Genco

Last weekend, we had the pleasure of going south to attend GENCO 2016,  the genealogy conference in Brive-la-Gaillarde put on by one of those beleaguered associations, Généalogie en Corrèze. It is quite a large regional event, second only to that held in Paris by the Fédération Française de Généalogie. We have to say that it did seem a bit malicious on the part of the planners that the two events were scheduled for the same weekend, making it impossible for the dedicated conference attendee (or exhibitor, for that matter) to go to both. Whether this indicates an irrational (and uncharacteristic for the French) competition between the FFG and one of its member associations, an incompetent failure of communication, or the (normal for the French) complete loathing and damning of the client or consumer, we cannot say. In any case, we, and all others interested had to choose between the two when we would rather have attended both.

At GENCO, there was an excellent programme of ateliers (or, workshops):

  • Introduction to genealogy
  • A couple of sales pitches for Ancestris
  • A talk on how to pass on one's genealogical heritage by a representative of Famicity
  • A demonstration of the genealogy game Genealogik, reviewed here.
  • Palaeography
  • Writing up one's family history
  • A sales pitch for Champollion
  • The Occitan language, given by Stéphane Cosson
  • Genealogy in schools
  • Spanish genealogy

 We galloped between the above as best we could. This was not made easy by the fact that more formal talks were given at the same time, covering:

  • Bio-Psycho-généalogie
  • the Archives of Belgium and Luxembourg
  • Orphans and Wards of the State, (about which more later)
  • Polish archives
  • Heraldry
  • Discovering oneself with transgenerational psychotherapy
  • The life of share-croppers/smallholders -- métayers -- in the Limousin region at the end of the eighteenth century

This last touches on a subject in which many of our Dear Readers have shown an interest. They have also shown some rather free, nay, incorrect, translations of the word. To be sure, as Alfred Cobban wrote in "The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution", "A word such as métayer, like the large social group it described, has no English equivalent." He goes on to explain: "...the generally accepted picture of the mé of a poverty-stricken tenant or a small-holding with a short three, six- or nine-year lease, hiring the equipment and stock as well as the land, and paying for it partly if not wholly, in kind." The word had different meanings in different parts of the country and is not to be confused with métairie, meaning a larger enterprise, but the meaning cannot be twisted to mean "landowner".

As ever at these events, we learned so very much and wish we could have been in many places at once in order to have learned more.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy