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December 2016

2016 to 2017


The year of 2016 draws to a close and we are a bit baffled that the media, social and not so social, are all in agreement that it was a bad year. We are not baffled that they think it a bad year so much as why; their focus appears to be on the pop stars and film stars who have died and on two elections fought with such unpleasantness that both (Anglophone) electorates seem unable to recover from or to forgive the vicious attacks. Resentment of the time bomb variety seems to seethe.

It will get worse, for the real problem is human overpopulation; as we feel the crowding, we react badly: 

  • We expand our use of space for homes and second homes. All other species are being crowded off of this planet, the latest report being that the cheetah is on the brink of extinction.
  • We continue to pollute with fossil fuels. This was the hottest year on record for planet; will we respond to the inevitable weather disasters and crop failures with more hostility?
  • That hostility continues and millions are in such despair that they leave their homes and homelands embarking on dangerous journeys seeking a place to live in peace.
  • As the crowding and competition for resources and work increase, some retreat into xenophobia.

To us, these seem more the reasons to regret 2016. Our failure to change will be our doom.

As a genealogist, we actually are relieved when we research more recent census returns in which we no longer see families following the depressing pattern: a child born every two years until the mother drops dead in her forties after which the father remarries a woman in her twenties who produces a child every two years until she drops dead in her forties, by which time the eldest daughters are adult and at least one must give up having a life of her own to care for the ageing father and all the babies. 

As much fun as it is to research our ancestors, we and our children and our planet are paying a terrible price for their reckless over-breeding, their territorial battles, their greed, their intolerance, their religious, racial and political persecutions. Locally, in past centuries, that behaviour was bad enough, globally -- as everything is nowadays -- it is catastrophic for us all. 

So, for all our love of things past and of history, we would like to make a plea that humanity make 2017 the year that we break with the time-honoured traditions of our various countries and cultures that have brought us to this mess. Let us find a way to live and behave that does not harm any others in any way, and let us find it in 2017. 

Bonne année, Dear Readers.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Lorraine Genealogy - The Departmental Archives of Meurthe and Moselle


Our last day in Nancy was dedicated to the Departmental Archives of Meurthe and Moselle. The rumour is that the facility is preparing for a move. The staff are busing organising all for the transfer and so, the archives are open only two days per week. On the day that we visited, it seemed as if the entire staff were all there in the tiny reading room, keen to be of service.

Before we were allowed into the reading room, we had to register, as is usual, and it was free, also usual. What was unusual was the somewhat crazed and obsessive amount of procedures to get in the door:

  • Entry is free but the door is kept locked and one must ring to enter.
  • Free lockers were provided, but we had to sign a log book, giving our name, the hour that we entered, the number of our locker; then we had to sign an oath that we would take care of the key.
  • We were presented with a leaflet of five pages (A5 size) of rules and regulations for anyone wishing to be admitted to the archives and to use them.
  • We had to sign another document in order to receive our user's card.
  • When we went for lunch, we had to hand in our locker key and sign the locker register with the time of going out and that of coming back in and again when leaving at the end of the day.

All of this, mind you, in a space of about nine square meters and most of that filled by a huge desk behind which sat a person who observed quite closely -- nay, intimately -- all registers, lockers and doors. We persevered and were graciously granted entry to the tiny library and reading room, all lovely old wooden shelves, warmth and cramped, crowded closeness. Sadly, for we love the charm of a curved wooden staircase, we had to admit that the proposed move was probably necessary, even urgent.

The limit of items one could view in a day was ten, and the staff were so speedy and efficient, sweeping in and out of doorways in flowing lab coats, that we reached our limit by mid-afternoon. The archivist at the main desk within the reading room very kindly allowed us to view a couple more sets of records, beyond the limit.

Some of what we were researching involved hunting in military records from between the two World Wars. These may be viewed once they are fifty years old (or, if they contain medical details, one hundred twenty years old)*. Yet, here we hit something of a roadblock, in the person of a very self-important junior archivist, who insisted that we could not view more than one person's military dossier, and then only if we could prove to her that we already knew what was in it. She held each file clutched tightly against her chest and peered into a corner. Then she quizzed us:

    "When was he born?"

    "That is one of the things to learn from the file," we attempted to explain.

    "Non! If you do not know his date of birth, you have no right to view his file." Down went the file into the "Returns" basket. She picked up the next one and asked. "Where was he posted?"

    "Um, Brazil?"

    "Non! Mexico!" Down went another file, just out of our reach. As our ability to guess the contents of the files was abysmal, we were not allowed to view a single one. 

What to do?

We went for a mug of hot, spiced apple juice, a specialty of Nancy, then packed our bags and returned home in time for the holidays.

We wish you all may be home with your loved ones during the holidays.

Bonnes fêtes!


©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


 *Heiser, Sandrine and Mollet, Vincent, Vos Ancêtres à travers les archives militaires, Service Historique de la Défense, 2013, p111.

The Genealogy Group of Nancy - Le Cercle Généalogique de Nancy


Continuing to report on our genealogy junket to Nancy, we take you now to the truly ancient and dilapidated building of the MJC Lillebonne in the centre of old Nancy.  Our time in Nancy was not as abundant as we might have wished so, when we missed the regular opening of the Cercle Généalogique de Nancy on Thursday afternoon, the staff most kindly agreed, on Friday evening, to sacrifice a Saturday morning to meet with us. It was not just any Saturday morning, but the annual festival of Saint Nicholas that was missed, in part, in order to discuss French genealogy.

We were grateful to be met at the door, for we should never have found our way along that labyrinthine route through corridors that surely have not been painted since the building was constructed in 1578, across miniature courtyards, up terrifyingly rickety and slanting stairs, down another corridor that made us feel -- for the first time in our long life -- that our shoulders were too broad, to a somewhat cramped office, the meeting room being in use.

Office 1

Once our palpitations were calmed, we listened to Monsieur Blaché, the President of the Cercle tell of the work of the group. The great treasure shared by the various genealogy groups of Lorraine is their lovingly created database, GENLOR, once of Minitel renown, and now known merely as "la base de l'U.C.G.L.". The database now has over ten million elements extracted from all kinds of documents relating to the people of Lorraine and can be searched via (previously Géné

In addition to the database, the Cercle offers classes in the rather specialised genealogical research of the region, what with its having been bounced back and forth between France and Germany. Membership brings not only a lot of very helpful advice, but the newsletter, "Bergamote et Macaron". We signed up on the spot. For those of you who cannot travel to Nancy to research your family, we suggest that you, too, join the Cercle Généalogique de Nancy, not only to support their fine work, but to receive the newsletter and, especially, to be able to request advice and research help in hunting your ancestors from Lorraine.

After this most interesting discussion with such dedicated genealogists, we sauntered to the Saint Nicholas festival, where we caught sight of one of those monster circus animal creations of Paris-Bénarès

Sacred Cows

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

A Lecture on Foundlings - With More to Come

Enfants en depot sample 1

It is clear that La France Généalogique is experiencing a growth spurt that we are most pleased to witness. Over the past couple of years, they have improved their programme of workshops and lectures by both increasing the number offered and raising the quality significantly.

We attended their most recent offer at the Paris Archives, one so popular that, though we had arrived early, the room was nearly full. This was a talk on foundlings -- Les Enfants abandonnés – and on what resources may be used to try to trace their identities. It was presented by an authority on the subject, the prolific author of genealogy books and guides, Myriam Provence, a stylishly dressed lady with luxuriant grey hair and a brisk, no nonsense approach. 

Enfants en depot sample 2

She began with an interesting point that could have been the sole focus of the talk but that she did not belabour: the conflict between the traditional French laws that have allowed the parents of an illegitimate child, particularly the father, to choose an anonymity that the law would protect fiercely, and the statement in Article Seven of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that every child has the right to know his or her parents. Really, we would love to see a debate à la Intelligence Squared on that conflict of interests.

Madame Provence proceeded to give a most thorough explanation of the history of the French laws and practices concerning foundlings, orphans, and children taken into care temporarily, from the seventeenth century to the present day. She covered how foundlings were rescued and the often cruel measures taken to find and identify the mother. She also discussed the humiliating pregnancy declarationsdéclarations de grossesse – that had been required of women in order to prevent abandonment, and that were among the first laws to be abolished during the Revolutionary years. She explained how foundlings were given names that were at times insulting, at times merely made it clear that they were without family and at times were more ordinary.

She also explained that such children were usually sent to rural areas far from where they were found, the policy being (if they survived their early months with a wet-nurse, and many did not) that they were to be sent at least one hundred fifty kilometres away. One might suspect that this was to give them a chance to grow up without stigma but no.  It was to be able to have them adopted as unpaid domestic servants or agricultural workers who were required to work for their adoptive parents, without pay, to the age of majority. Madame Provence quoted the case of a farmer who had adopted eight such children.

Enfants en depot sample 3

The most anticipated part of the lecture was, of course, the discussion on how to find any documentation about such children. Most of it is to be found in the Departmental and Municipal Archives, both that of where the child was found and that where sent, for there were files kept on them until they reached the age of majority. Some may be in the National Archives and, for males, there may be military conscription records. For children who were apprenticed, there may be a contract with a notaire, again in the Departmental Archives. While it is highly unlikely that the father of an abandoned child ever will be identified, it may be possible to find the mother.

Enfants en depot sample 4

An excellent talk. We look forward to attending some of next year’s offers. Should you find yourself in Paris next year, and would like to further your French genealogical studies, we give here the link to the 2016 schedule of both courses and lectures, where that for 2017 should appear soon.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Guest Post - Success With Signatures

Signatures 1

Over the years, we have had recourse to signatures as supporting evidence for French genealogy proofs rather often. There have been some most interesting cases in which a French immigrant left precious few genealogical details, but he or she may have signed a single document, such as a will or land purchase before leaving this vale of tears. France being a land that treasures documentation, if that immigrant were to have reached adulthood before leaving, he or she may well have signed something in France, such as a civil registration or a notarial act.

We do not use handwriting analysis to compare these signatures, for we are not attempting a charlatan's glimpse into the personality of the signer. Instead, we follow the guidelines on signature comparison of criminologists who specialise in forged signatures. (And anyway, their examples are much more fun to read than those of the handwriting analysts.)

Before we could write a post on this subject, we received a message from Monsieur C. on his research into a related topic. With his kind permission, we give it here, as a guest post.

Recently, I found for the first time the signature of my earliest known ancestor, Pierre Chastain. This was exciting enough, but then I noticed something curious at the end. At first I thought it was just a fancy way to terminate the signature, then I realized it looked rather like the number '98'. 

This signature (above) is for a marriage contract in which Pierre was a witness. It took place in Schwabendorf, Germany in 1695. Being a Huguenot, Pierre had fled to Germany from his hometown of Vesc, France in 1685. 

In trying to discover Pierre's parents and family group back in France, I've been combing through the notarial records for Vesc in the Drôme Departmental Archives. Vesc had quite a few Chastains and Chastans at this time, and I noticed that their signatures all have that same '98' that Pierre uses in his. Here are three Chastain signatures from Vesc circa 1680.

Signatures 2

I noticed that other families also have numbers next to their signatures, though they are occasionally lost in the ornamental nature of the handwriting. 

Signatures 3

They all look like '98' to me. [Monsieur C wondered:] Could this be in reference to 1598 when the Edict of Nantes was signed by King Henry IV giving Huguenots freedom? Perhaps everyone that does this is identifying themselves as a Protestant? 

[Later,] I was able to discover the meaning of the symbol in the signatures. They are not the number 98. They are specimens of a practice known as ruches. These were the most basic form—three interlocking loops—which simply stand for "the undersigned". In English, ruches translates literally to "hives", which isn't that helpful. But the word "ruches" itself, like many French words, made its way into the English language. In the Oxford English Dictionary, ruches is defined as "a frill or pleat of fabric as decoration on a garment or soft furnishing." This makes sense once you see more elaborate examples since they can look quite decorative.

Ruches first appeared in France in the 7th century as the use of signet rings gave way to manual signatures for the authentication of documents. They could be personalized however the signer deemed fit and were also a way of demonstrating skill with a feather pen. This practice, which vanished by the 19th century, would have been most prominent among those whose work required the signing of documents on a regular basis, solicitors and notaries being two obvious examples.

Manuel de Diplomatique by Arthur Giry is the authoritative work on this subject. A digital copy is available at Gallica, the digital library run by the National Library of France

Here are some more elaborate examples that go well beyond the basic three interlocking loops that I originally sent you. Let me know if you get the images below. I didn't attach them but embedded them directly in the email. Even these are fairly simple compared to a few others I've seen! Anyway, I was excited to discover the answer and thought I'd share with you.

Signatures 4


Signatures 5



Many thank, Monsieur C, for this fine small study!

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy