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Aristocracy Comes and Goes


Our grandmother (pictured above) used to remind us that "the only life worth living is the life of the mind" and that "the only aristocrat worth knowing is an aristocrat of the intellect". She was always a tad disappointed in us but she would have applauded France this week for financing the relocation to this country of some very fine aristocrats of the intellect indeed. Eighteen scientists from around the world, including thirteen from the United States, will be leaving their de-funded research departments and bringing their brains, research and discoveries to France. Will they stay, the author of the article at the link above wonders, or will they finish their projects and then go?

Two hundred years ago, France lost rather a lot of the more traditional type of aristocrat when the Revolution and Terror, having made life very precarious, prompted thousands of them to make a run for it. As a group, they became known as the émigrés (literally translated as emigrant, but for that meaning in English the French use migrant, which in English means migrant, but for the same meaning of that word the French use migrant économique, which, at last! means the same thing in English). Some managed to take money or valuables out of the country with them; very few had the prescience to sell their property before 1789; most simply abandoned all in their dash for safety. After a while, the motherland missed her émigrés and, in an invitation not unlike that to the scientists, began a campaign to lure them back home.

The Archives nationales estimate that there were roughly 150,000 émigrés, in two waves:  those who left before 1792 (ruled as traitors and their names listed by the police) and those who left during the Terror (this fleeing mob included people of all classes). In 1802, they were offered a general amnesty and many returned. However, they were not offered the opportunity to try to get their property back until 1825, ten years after the fall of the First Empire.

For those of you with a French aristocrat among your ancestors, the documentation of the émigrés has recently become much more accessible. When they began to return, they submitted requests to the police asking that their names be removed from the lists of those who were traitors and that the confiscation of their property be annulled. The files of these requests of returning émigrés, dossiers nominatifs des demandes de radiation et de main-levée de séquestre, are what are now possible to search on the system of the Archives nationales known as SIV. They are arranged -- like so much in France -- by department. However, the entire finding aid may be searched for a name. A few of the dossiers, those on people of historical importance, have been digitised and may be searched and viewed at no charge here, a search yielding a result looking like this:


If you find the search facility, with its results seeming always to be either zero or in the hundreds, to be difficult or frustrating, it is also possible to see the entire PDF list of names here, and find the name you seek using the time-honoured Command-F on your keyboard.

This really is a very exciting new availability of an old resource. Should you have an émigré among your ancestors it may be that you will be able to find him or her here. If so, you may then request a copy of the file from the archives and discover, we fervently hope, that he or she was neither dolt nor duffer but an aristocrat of intellect or talent who brought as much to France as those eighteen scientists may do.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy