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February 2018

January 2018

A Boost to Alsace Research

Alsace Grandfather

Recall that ancestors from Alsace were quite mobile and that this makes them difficult to research. For a long time, French genealogy societies, called cercles, have been heroically going through, town by town, all of the parish and civil registrations and extracting names and dates. It is painstaking work, as anyone who has looked through the registers on the Departmental Archives websites will know.

The extracted names then are put in alphabetical order and listed in booklets sold by the societies, by town name and type of registration, e.g. "Commune X - Naissances". Thus, one could buy a booklet for all of the births for a town dating from, for example, 1669 to 1870. It would list the names of the children, the parents, any godparents and give the date of the baptism or birth registration. Armed with that, the researcher could then find the registration at the Departmental Archives or on their website and make a copy.

Over the years, the formats changed. From booklets, the extracts, called relevés, were then put on France's early internet, Minitel, now defunct. With the demise of that, the various societies slowly set up their own websites and struggled to convert their often idiosyncratic databases and programmes to something that could be used online and that would also bring them some income. The large, commercial genealogy websites posed a very real threat with their own indexing, until the two began working together to provide quite a boost to the researcher.

Geneanet has worked extensively with the societies and has just announced that it will now have access to the extracts made by the Cercle généalogique d'Alsace (discussed here). This will be an incredible help for all of those who cannot easily read the writing or who would rather not peruse thousands of registers seeking their ancestors.

As explained on the Geneanet blog, the most direct way to search just the Alsace collection is to go to the search page entitled Genealogy Society Indexes. As their global searches produce quite messy results, this is the recommended way to conduct a focused search. You must have a "Premium" subscription to Geneanet to view the results. This costs forty euros per year, while joining the cercle costs fifty-eight euros, although you would receive their Bulletin as well.

This new avenue should be of great help to many of you, Dear Readers!

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Deeper Research via Family Chronicles - Livres de Raison

Livre de Raison

Many of you, Dear Readers, would seem to have been so successful in your French genealogy, that you have researched your families back to the beginning of parish registration and are keen to push further. We tell today of one way to do that.

In earlier days of this blog, we extolled the joys of reading local history as an aid to genealogical research and to understanding your French ancestors' lives. In the same vein, we suggest that you may be able to find more about your family, if you are very lucky, in livres de raison

These books were essentially family account books, usually of farms or businesses, but sometimes of shops. Often, they span centuries and can contain an extraordinary amount of detail, including:

  • Running accounts
  • Copies of bills paid for all sorts of items or services, including veterinaries
  • Copies of wills
  • Copies of baptism, birth, marriage, death and burial registrations
  • Lists of heirs
  • Maps of lands
  • Property ownership histories
  • Notes on local events and/or catastrophes
  • Pages from almanacs

They are highly personal, so the content of each is unique. Some go as far back as the fourteenth century. A few have been published. As they tend to be mostly agricultural, few come from the maritime departments. It seems that none from Finistère, Loire-Atlantique or Côtes d'Armor have survived, though there are some from the larger Seine-Maritime and Charente-Maritime. 

Where to find them? Some have been put online by Gallica, either as original manuscripts or published studies. (Click on Recherche avancée, type in the titre field "livre de raison" with the quotes, in Type de document click only manuscrit and monographie.)

The Archives nationales have published a comprehensive list of those held in Departmental Archives and in libraries throughout France here. Others have been microfilmed or have surfaced more recently, so check the online finding aids of the Archives nationales, SIV, as well.

Even if you do not find that your ancestor maintained a livre de raison that has survived, look at any for the location where your ancestor lived and you may find at least a mention. Your ancestor's name may appear in an invoice, as a witness at a marriage, as a godparent, as a customer of a cobbler.

Research at this level   -- far deeper than merely a list of births, marriages and deaths -- can be much more difficult and also more rewarding; and it will make your family genealogy much more informed.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Privacy Restrictions on French Documents

Town Hall

We have covered this some time ago, but recently have noticed that misinformation on the subject abounds and so, here we go again.

The French, as well as most European nationals, value and protect their privacy. The right to privacy is considered more important than the public's right to know and it is considered more important than the freedom of the press, especially where children are concerned.

Thus, in France, certain documents that contain personal details are closed to public access for a particular period of time. Since 2008, the periods of restriction on access for types of documentation have been as follows:

  • Birth registration / acte de naissance - 75 years
  • Marriage registration / acte de mariage - 75 years
  • Death registration / acte de décès - no restriction
  • Ten-year indices to the above three /  tables décennales - no restriction
  • Census returns / recensements - 75 years
  • Notarial records / actes notariés - 75 years
  • Judicial records / archives judiciaires - 75 years
  • Personnel records / dossier de personnel - 50 years
  • Medical records / secret médical - 25 years after the death of the individual or 120 years after his or her birth

Generally, these limits are calculated from the end of the year and/or the closure of the register. However, sometimes it is possible to obtain a copy of a record for which the limitation date has passed before the end of that year, if one asks nicely.

It is very important to note that public access to the record does not mean that the information may be published. This was confirmed by a court ruling recently. In that case, reported by a Le Monde journalist, a historian had researched over six thousand families, gathering thousands of birth, marriage and death registrations and published a book about them. The people who were the subjects of some of these registrations were still alive. One of the birth registrations contained a marginal note that the child had been adopted. This person was among those still alive and sued the author for having revealed the adoption in his book, which the complainant claimed was a violation of his privacy. The court ruled in his favour.

Thus, though you may request a document once it is available, you may not publish the information in it without the permission of the person it concerns, should he or she be alive. Should you be in the process of writing your French family genealogy with an eye to publishing it, beware! 


©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Everyone Wants a French Noble Among Their Ancestors

Aristocratic French

We cannot fathom why, but it would seem to be true that a large number of our readers are seeking a noble among their French ancestors. On the whole, they were not nice people. After the Restoration, about a thousand of them wrote their memoires and, after reading a few of these, no one can dispute that the Revolution brought them great suffering, loss of loved ones, and enormous trauma. Yet, even some of them agree that they brought it upon themselves. Madame de la Tour du Pin, whose memoires are among the most readable, wrote:

Never had people been so pleasure-seeking as in the spring of 1789, before the meeting of the States-General. For the poor, the winter had been very hard, but there was no concern for the misery of the people.

Looking back at our blindness, I can understand it in young people like myself, but find it inexplicable in men of the world, in Ministers and above all, in the King.

(de la Tour du Pin, Henriette-Lucie Dillon, Memoires of Madame de la Tour du Pin, trans. Felice Harcourt, London : Century Publishing, 1985, pp. 103-105.)

Many noble families were obliterated, but the requests that we receive from our Dear Readers to help to find a connection to one of them are on the increase. Thus, we write yet again about researching French noble connections and the likelihood of finding any living cousin, even though he or she, once found, would almost certainly refuse to have anything to do with you.

Historians estimate, according to the great Gildas Bernard in his Guide de Recherche sur l'Histoire des Familles, that of the noble families in 1789, there remain now somewhere between three thousand and three thousand five hundred. One adds to that the second batch of nobility, that created during the nineteenth century, which included another five hundred or so.

Let it be known that the members of each batch sneer at one another; those of the pre-Revolutionary batch consider that their antiquity and royal authority are indications of a genetic superiority, while those of the post-Revolutionary batch consider that titles conferred by Napoleon or later rulers and which were based on merit are indications of a moral superiority that can be inherited. The first step in your hunt is to know to which group your noble ancestor belonged. If of the latter, read no further.

Of the pre-Revolutionary nobility, the oldest families together form the group known as the noblesse immémoriale, and their membership to the club is incontestable. A few facts about their number:

  • Besides the royal Capetiens, only three families can be traced with certainty to the eleventh century
  • Only three hundred families can be traced to the fourteenth century
  • Only one thousand families can be traced to the mid-sixteenth century

Few of our Dear Readers (most of whom are in Britain, Australia or North America) have presented evidence tracing their immigrant ancestor to one of the families among the noblesse immémoriale

Before assuming that your ancestors were of the nobility, we must eliminate a couple of misconceptions:

  • The particle "de" in a name is not a sign of nobility. More non-noble French names have the particle than do noble names. 
  • Having a coat of arms, a blason, also is not a sign of nobility. Peasants could have them, bourgeois could have them, and not all of the nobility had them. Bernard quotes that, in the seventeenth century, the going rate for a coat of arms was twenty livres, well within the means of a modest budget. Hozier pointed out that plenty of nobles chose not to maintain a coat of arms as they did not wish to pay the tax on it.
  • We would add that we have seen, especially among the dreaded DAR applications, quite a lot of nonsense about noble French ancestors but little documentary evidence and so, the claims in those applications cannot be considered as evidence.

Thus, even if your ancestors had the particle "de" in their name and had a coat of arms and were touted as noble in a DAR application, these alone do not mean that they were of the nobility. Even knowing this, many of you Dear Readers, remain undeterred and plan to conduct research in the archives among such things as the Lettres d'anoblissement dating from 1308 to 1499 or the Lettres  de noblesse dating from 1364 to 1703 or the dozens of other manuscript sources around the country. We fear that one could become impoverished and disappointed by the effort.

We propose an alternative avenue of research, based on a simple assumption: if you are truly a descendant of a French noble, it is unlikely that you are the only one. Why not research among known descendants and their lineages for your ancestor?

The surviving noble families are referred to as the noblesse française subsistante. The lot of them have been listed in thirty-two volumes Etat de la noblesse française subsistante by Alain Galbrun. These thirty-two large volumes are not online, to our knowledge, but the family names are listed alphabetically on two Wikipedia pages, one for letters A to K and one for letters L to Z . Look there first to see if your noble family still exists.

Then, if you can find it and can prove your link to it, why not join the Association d'Entraide de la Noblesse Française, a society established to aid distressed nobles, formed apparently after some nobles at a train station once discovered one of their own working as a porter. Quelle horreur! Surely, there you will find your noble distant cousins, though we doubt that they would condescend to dance with you at their ball.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


See also our previous posts on nobility:

Nobles on the Net

 The Beleaguered Nobility of Brittany

The Cabinet des Titres


Bonne Année 2018

Bonne Anee 2018

Many apologies, Dear Readers, for our extended silence. We should love to be able to say that it is the result of celebratory high jinks. Alas, it is not so. Somehow, in the dead of winter, we have managed to trod upon a wasp in our bare feet. And we are allergic. Fortunately, our local pharmacienne flings the necessary medications with abandon and without prescription so we are well-stocked and on the mend.

Please bear with us; the next post is already in the works. 

Wishing you all a Happy New Year and Bonne Année!

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy