The one-woman powerhouse that is the publishing company Archives & Culture has brought out another genealogy guide, or guide de généalogie. To anyone who has researched his or her French roots to earlier than the French Revolution, the thought of a book that explains at last the intricacies and geography of French Catholic dioceses would bring joy and immense relief. This book, by Jean-Paul Duquesnoy, the Atlas historique des diocèses en France, is, unfortunately, something of a disappointment.
The problem is that it is a bit deceptive. Civil registrations in France began in 1792. They became the legal documentation and proof of births, marriages and deaths. While parish registrations may have continued, they became, in the eyes of the law, informal and without legal validity. What is more, no religious ritual of baptism, marriage or funeral could take place until after the civil registration had been made. So, for the genealogist, civil registrations are much more important than parish registrations after 1792.
Prior to 1792, however, the parish registrations of life events were the legal documentation and are of great importance in genealogical research. The difficulty is that identifying the correct geographical location of parishes mentioned by emigrants far from France is often close to impossible. There is much repetition of parish names throughout France and one really needs to know the correct diocese to continue research. At times, the diocese may be mentioned but identifying its location and boundaries, or even its correct name may also be problematic. (We tell a tale of the struggle here.) Over the centuries since the Christianisation of France, the dioceses have changed names, changed boundaries, been reorganised and in some cases merged. Thus, a book that could resolve the issues concerning the geography of dioceses and parishes prior to 1792 would be extremely helpful.
The Atlas is touted as just the ticket but it is not. It describes the modern, post-Revolutionary dioceses and bishoprics. It gives a list of bishoprics as they were at the time of the Revolution's beginning, in 1789. It gives the briefest of written histories of the ecclesiastical provinces and their dioceses as they were in 1789, with a tiny map of the dioceses. By page six of a ninety-six page book, this brief history is finished and the rest of the book is dedicated to an alphabetical list of the dioceses, with a brief historical account of each, mostly but not entirely from 1802 onwards. In truth, for the genealogist, this is not much help. (Additionally, it contains some serious flaws, as detailed by a comment on Amazon.fr by "Loïc Pilven le Sévellec", such as omitting the diocese of Strasbourg, among others.)
The longed for series of maps showing the historical developments and changes of the dioceses is not to be found in this little book. That is because it would appear not to exist, at least that was the case in 1965, when the excellent article on the subject, "La carte des diocèses de France avant la Révolution" ("The map of the French dioceses before the Revolution") by Jacques Dubois, appeared in Annales. Dubois gives a lengthy description of the problem of identifying the boundaries of the dioceses as they changed over the centuries. He also gives what are probably the best, simple maps of French dioceses at different periods:
- Dioceses created from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries
- Dioceses created in the fourteenth century
- Dioceses created from the ninth through the twelfth centuries
- Dioceses created under Clovis
- Ecclesiastic provinces in the eighteenth century (showing the dates when some were created)
- Ecclesiastic provinces during the Merovingian period
Neither Dubois nor Duquesnoy attempts to list for each diocese the parishes it contained. (For locating a parish, we describe some of the tricks we have tried here.) We cannot really recommend this Atlas because it is not what its title says, unless you are building a library and are happy to put this in a corner of it. More useful would be to download Dubois's article and, where appropriate to your research, examine the sources given in his excellent footnotes.
Would someone please write the book, complete with many maps, that we need?
©2018 Anne Morddel