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The Genealogy Group of Nancy - Le Cercle Généalogique de Nancy

A Lecture on Foundlings - With More to Come

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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