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The Problematic 1831 Census

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Not long ago, we received a message from Monsieur H:

"I'm having trouble tracking something down that I found in a Wikipedia article, and I'm beginning to wonder if it's true or just something that's gone around the internet a few times. I can't seem to find any references to it in academic works. The article for the 1831 recensement du peuple mentions a supplementary query about literacy (link here)"

We had written on this blog about the French census some time ago. We were somewhat ashamed to read, when we went back to that post, that we had given the 1831 census rather cursory treatment:

"There was an earlier census, in 1831, but it was not a success in terms of logic and organisation, and little of this census has been digitized or even, in some cases, preserved"

We resolved to improve upon that, but found, as we hunted through our library, that Monsieur H. was correct. References are few and far between. Genealogy books, genealogy magazines and genealogy websites all are silent on the 1831 census. We surmise that they all are following the complete lack of mention of it by the great Gildas Bernard in his Guide des Recherches sur l'histoire des familles. At last, we found an excellent article by Pascal Vidal (1) on the census generally with a significant portion give over to the "delicate" problem of the 1831 census.

At that time, the Ministry of the Interior was responsible for the census and it was hoped that the unsatisfactory methods of the previous census of 1826 would be avoided. Trusting to the prefectural administrators to handle the census, the Ministry sent round no basic form or list of questions, merely a form with columns for statistics. (2)

1831 census stats form


There was no list of questions to ask, not even a column for names, just this form for cumulative statistics. This is why the 1831 census is such a problem: each prefect, even each mayor, conducted it his own way. Some merely counted the number of people, some merely the heads of households (as in Rennes), some made their own forms and asked quite detailed questions. The result was uneven; for some towns, one can say that yes, there was a proper census, with all persons named and counted, in 1831, for others, there was not. So, one cannot generalize about it and thus, the little chart in the Wikipédia article, Tableau des renseignements recueillis de 1831 à 1891is incorrect in giving a list of details obtained for the 1831 census when that was not always the case. This sample from Rennes shows that the form, such as it was, was hand drawn in a notebook and did not note age or personal situation or, for the most part, women.

1831 Rennes

As to Monsieur H's specific question whether there was a literacy question, we can now say that the Ministry of the Interior did not give instructions for one. That did not preclude a prefect or a mayor including one. Apparently, this happened in Bretagne. 

The wonderful thesis "La pratique du breton de l'Ancien Régime à nos jours", graciously put online by its author Fañch Broudic, gives an entire chapter to the questions used the 1831 census in Bretagne. In essence, the question was not if a person could read, it was if he could read French. The local prefects or mayors were interested in the highly political issue of indigenous language or, as Monsieur H. posits: "in following Prussia in introducing universal primary education' by doing a bit of preliminary research.

Thank you, Monsieur H. for sending us on a fascinating little journey!

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Further Reading:


Duchein, Michel. "Les archives des recensements", Gazette des Archives, 1961, vol.33, pp. 61-72

LeGoyt, Alfred. "Les premiers recensements de la population en France, jusqu’en 1856", Journal de la société statistique de Paris, tome 128 (1987), p. 243-257.

Le Mée, René. "La statistique démographique officielle de 1815 à 1870 en France", Annales de Démographie Historique,  1979 pp. 251-279.

Watel, Catherine. Administration Générale et Économie 1800 - 1940 Population, Archives départementales d'Indre-et-Loire.


(1) Vidal, Pascal. "Les Recensements en Généalogie", Généalogie Magazine, no. 369, May 2018, pp.12-25.

(2) France. Ministère de l'intérieur. Recueil des circulaires et instructions émanées du Ministère de l'Interieur et des circulaires et instructions émanées du Ministère du Commerce et des Travaux Publics. Paris. page link