A French Stumbling Block on Your GPS Road
11 May 2019
A few years ago, we attended the excellent online study session run by "Dear Myrtle" on the book "Mastering Genealogical Proof" by Thomas W. Jones. We published our own little booklet on trying to align French documentation with the Genealogical Proof Standard. After the second session, we wrote:
- Civil, as opposed to parish or religious, documentation in America went from almost nothing in the earlier years to documents with an increasing amount of information. In many places, birth, marriage and death records were not kept until the mid-nineteenth century. Remoter places without churches or other religious establishments had no parish records either. In France, in spite of a few revolutions, there has been a steady recording of births or baptisms, marriages and deaths or burials since the sixteenth century.
- In America, each state, once it decided to record information about individuals, determined what to record and how. There can be at least fifty different types of birth registration, and many more when the differences at the county level are taken into consideration. In France, the department is merely an administrative division, not a separate state with its own rights that is part of a federation. France is a republic with one and only one government, directed from Paris and the directives carried out at the departmental, arrondissement and communal levels throughout the country. Thus, all civil registrations at any one time follow the same format. Historically and still today, that format for a civil registration generally contains a great deal more information than a civil registration does in America.
This means that a researcher in America has to deal with a lack of civil registration that must be supplemented with other types of documentation (such as tax records, court records, etc.) and that much of the documentation, especially if it were created in a remote area with little administration, may not be trustworthy. Thus, much of the emphasis of the Genealogical Proof Standard is on the quality of the source and the source of the information. In France, however, civil and legal documentation tends to be more trustworthy for the simple reason that one always has had to show a document to make a document, e.g. to show an authenticated and official copy of one's birth registration or baptism registration (or now, one's identity card) to enroll in the army or to marry.
Primary, Secondary and Indeterminable Information
This requirement enhances the trustworthiness of French documentation -- by the criteria under discussion -- significantly. One panellist, Kathryn Lake Hogan, recounted a tale of a man who, on applying for a marriage license, gave an incorrect name for his parent. This would be unimaginable in France as both of the couple must present official copies of their birth registrations in order to marry, and those birth registrations give their parents' full names.
Perhaps in that last paragraph we were a bit blithe. In the past couple of years, our research has taken us down some tiny paths into the documentation of small communities and baffling families and we have come across an odd phenomenon that would seem to be rooted in some sort of grief or madness or obsession or serious cerebral limitation. What we have encountered is, essentially, a child assuming (or having forced upon it) the identity of a deceased older sibling. The procedure seems to follow something like this:
- A child, say Antoine, is born in 1820 and dies in 1822.
- Another child, say Léonard, is born to the same parents in 1825. He has no middle names.
- No other male child is born to this couple.
- Throughout his life, Léonard gives his name as Antoine but his date of birth as in 1825. He also gives his parents' names, birth dates, marriage date and death dates correctly.
- On the census returns, Léonard appears with his family as Antoine, with his age corresponding to his birth year of 1825.
We have just come across our fifth example of this form of resurrection (of the dead child) or soul murder (of the living child) and find it quite remarkably unusual in the way that it is outside of the pattern of love of conformity that is the hallmark of the French civil servant's mind. While it may be fascinating to wonder about what was happening in those peoples' lives to drive them to this, as genealogists, this poses a serious problem with normally reliable French documentation.
It really does seem likely that Léonard born in 1825 is using the name Antoine; and we will want to assume that when Léonard marries using the name Antoine and gives his birth in 1825 and we find the birth registration in the name of Léonard, we can use it. Only we cannot, if we are going to adhere to the Genealogical Proof Standard, because we have nothing, absolutely no documentation, to say that Léonard called himself Antoine. What we must do is build a case with a great deal more research.
- Every census return must be examined to see all possible children
- The research must be extended to siblings and cousins of the parents to see if, actually, this may not be a cousin Antoine with the same date of birth and with parents of the same names (not at all a rarity) and, actually, that Léonard died in a different commune.
- The saint's day for Antoine and for Léonard must be identified for the year 1825 and for 1820 to see if any logical use of the names can be discovered.
- Church records will have to be pursued, not an easy task for post-1792 records, as they are not in archives or public records but belong to the Church. Copies of the baptisms of both children and of the burial record of the first Antoine must be requested from the local diocesan archives to see hnow the names appear.
- The wills and death inventories of the parents of Antoine and Léonard should be requested, to see clearly the names of their surviving children.
Certainty of identification will probably be denied the researcher. In a case such as this, we suspect that a probable identification will be the best that one can achieve.
©2019 Anne Morddel