Previous month:
August 2022
Next month:
October 2022

September 2022

Last of the Summer Reading: Mutinous Women

Mutinous Women

Years ago, when we were enjoying a lazy afternoon in the Arsenal branch of the Bibliothèque nationale, we came across some remarkable and fascinating lists of women prisoners sent to Louisiana in the early eighteenth century.

Genevieve Hurault

We knew there was a story there to be told, and in the newly published Mutinous Women: How French Convicts Became Founding Mothers of the Gulf Coast, Joan DeJean tells it very well and very passionately. Essentially, women were rounded up in Paris by the police and imprisoned on false charges, then marched to the coast and loaded onto vessels and banished to Louisiana, where the descendants of those who survived live today. DeJean does more than tell their individual stories. She places them and their fates within the context of the histories of France and Louisiana to explain why they were sent there. The French economy at the time, the rise of the charlatan John Law and his Louisiana project, the French Indies Company (Compagnie des Indes), the wicked prison matron at Salpêtrière, the hopeless colonial administration, etc. are fully described so that the reader can understand the social, economic, legal and political forces that ruled these women's lives, (almost certainly something that they themselves never understood).

DeJean has "taught courses on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France at Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she is Trustee Professor. She has done research in French archives since 1974, primarily in the archives of Parisian prisons held in Paris’s Arsenal Library. It was in the Arsenal that, a decade ago, she came across the earliest documentation describing the arrests and deportations of the Mutinous Women who helped found and build New Orleans." (as per the University of Pennsylvania page about the book.) The depth and breadth of the research is most impressive. To piece together the stories, DeJean had to traipse back and forth across Paris, west to the coastal archives and down to the south of France. She had the help of many researchers in many locations, according to her acknowledgements. Yet, even with help, it would not have been easy, as we know from our own visits to many of the archives facilities on her impressive list. Another reviewer called this DeJean's "archival virtuosity" and we cannot improve upon that exquisite term.

As a history of early Louisiana, as a history of forgotten women, this is a fascinating tale told with excellence, but perhaps the reader is clubbed with the hammer of indignant outrage at injustice a bit too often and a bit too hard? At times, DeJean seems not to be writing as a historian but as a crusader. Her intention seems to be not only to cleanse the reputations of these women of calumny but nearly to canonize them. As she tells it, they all were victims of injustice, none of them committed a serious crime, none was a prostitute. Yet, by her own account, one of them, Anne Françoise Rolland, looks to have lived a suspiciously greedy and dishonest life in Louisiana (see p. 349). She implies that the initial "seditious revolt", e.g. something along the lines of a prison riot, in Salpêtrière, never took place or at least was exaggerated, when, in fact, there was a rebellious event during which the women prisoners took to shrieking en masse, long and loud, attempting to drive their jailers mad. DeJean tells the story of suffering and injustice so well and thoroughly that she does not need to remind us, on nearly every page, that this was wrong; it induces in the reader a sense of being patronized by the author.

Nor, surely, is it necessary to overstate, in every case possible, that some of the women rose higher in status in Louisiana than the people who had denounced them in France could ever have hoped to do. She does this so often that it ceases to point out the very real stamina, intelligence, creativity, diplomacy and diligence of these women but seems to be taunting some snob whose presence is not evident to the reader.

Concerning those women whose own parents asked the police to lock them up because they were recalcitrant, while DeJean expresses the natural shock and disgust that any modern person would sense at such parental cruelty, she fails to state that this was a common practice in France at the time, used by parents against children of both sexes, relatives against one another, neighbours against each other, and anyone else who had a grudge against someone. The entire system of Lettres de cachet was monstrous, and not at all uniquely applied to these women. Why leave that out when she explains so much else so well?

Small but niggling points indicate the publisher's failure to provide a decent editor and proofreader:

  • a bourgeois de Paris was not a financier, and Amboise Jean Baptiste Rolland, the father of the Anne François Rolland above, may have had the right to use the term (p. 115)
  • Jeanne Mahou's husband Laurent Laurent died on 14 August 1737 (p. 230); though she remarried quickly, it could not have been on 27 January 1737 (p. 231)
  •  two or three times, paragraphs are repeated

Do not be put off by these stylistic oddities. On the whole, Mutinous Women is a wonderful work of scholarship that expunges three hundred years of lies from these women's life stories.

 

A PDF list of women who sailed on the Mutine can be seen on the website Mémoire des Hommes here.

A very nice map of early New Orleans, showing where some of the women  lived, can be seen here.

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


French Jewish Genealogy - Ancien régime Geography Is Important

Hexagon of modern France

When researching Jewish genealogy before the French Revolution, the reach back into the past is long, well into the Medieval era. Borders were different then and France looked quite different, not at all like the "Hexagon" (above) of today. Prior to the final expulsion of 1394, Jewish people were permitted to live only in specific places. These might have been certain towns, within which they may have been limited to just a few streets for residence and work. They endured long years of persecution and previous expulsions, but lived throughout France. It is important to note that, in 1394, the country looked more like this:

France in 1328

 

Quite a bit less than modern France:

France-map-1328

This makes the map below, claiming to show French Jewish communities at the time of the expulsion, quite misleading, as a significant few of those supposedly French Jewish communities were not within the France of that day.

French Jewish before expulsion of 1394

 

The expulsion, in all its horror, was successful, in that no known Jewish families remained in what was then France. However, their communities just outside of France did survive, as can be seen in this map.

France-silhouette-map-1328

If you are working with only a modern map of France, you will have the impression that the three main areas of Jewish communities:

  • The Southwest
  • Alsace-Lorraine
  • The Papal States and Provence

survived the expulsion within France. That would be wrong, because they were not within France at the time of the expulsion and so, if this is not putting too fine a point on it, were Jewish, of course, but not French. The areas in black in the map just above were controlled by other powers:

  • By the English in the far northwest and the southwest region of Aquitaine
  • A tiny bit in the south belonged to the Kingdom of Navarre
  • The Holy Roman Empire held the northeast
  • Free Burgundy, Savoy and the Papal States owned all the rest of what is now eastern France

Paris, as ever, was a special case. Though no Jewish people were supposed to be living there, most likely they were. Robert Anchell, in his fascinating article on "The Early History of the Jewish Quarters in Paris", maintains that it is unlikely that Jewish people were ever, at any time since the Medieval Era, absent from Paris. He points out that they certainly must have been very discrete, for there is almost no documentation of Jewish people in Paris for nearly 300 years after the expulsion.

For research purposes, in each of the three main regions of Jewish communities there were different laws, rules, languages, customs and attitudes, making for different search methodologies today. Firstly, the language differences:

  • The Southwest received many refugees from the expulsion of Jewish people from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, so many of the surviving documents of the region are in Spanish
  • Alsace was part of the Holy Roman Empire for eight hundred years, while Lorraine was an independent duchy that was then governed by Stanislas of Poland. In both regions, the documentation is as much in German and Latin as in French.
  • The Papal States or Comtat Venaissin, did not become a part of France until 1791, but Provence was annexed in 1481. The documentation can be in French or Latin

In all locations Jewish documents may also be in Hebrew.

For each of these regions, some of the best research may be done at the relevant Departmental and Municipal Archives. Some of these have been uploading onto their websites some very interesting Jewish materials. These are the departmental and municipal archives relevant to the specific regions:

  • Southwest:
    • Departmental Archives: Landes, Gironde, Pyrénées Atlantiques
    • Municipal Archives: Bayonne, Bordeaux
  • Lorraine:
    • Departmental Archives: Moselle, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Meuse, Vosges
    • Municipal Archives: Metz, Nancy
  • Alsace:
    • Departmental Archives: Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin
    • Municipal Archives: Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Colmar
  • Papal States / Comtat Venaissin:
    • Departmental Archives: Vaucluse
    • Municipal Archives: Nîmes

Do visit those websites and start exploring!

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The Signature of the Freemason?

 

Chemin des Araignées

 

Since we outgrew the pastime of sitting in the tree house with playmates and throwing fragrant, blue eucalyptus pods at children down on the ground, we have not had much interest in the tangled-web ways of secret societies. There are many, however, who never quite made it out of the tree house and the tribalism of childhood.

There is a flurry of discussion among a group of French genealogists just now -- though it has come up many times before this -- about a particular sign added to signatures and what it could mean. The sign is one we have come across as well and we, too have been puzzled by it. 

1782a

1782b

1782c

 

The sign is of two slanted bars with three dots between them. Though the number of dots may vary, three is more common. The above signatures were all made in 1782 by three brothers. The general consensus, but by no means the definitive ruling, among French professional genealogists is that this sign indicates the person was a Freemason. This is apparently because the Freemasons were also known as "The Brotherhood of Three Dots", or Les Frères Trois-Points, and because they reputedly had a triangular arrangement of three dots tattooed onto themselves.

However, this triangular arrangement is the very reason some genealogists think that the sign on the signature does not indicate the person is a Freemason, because the dots are always in a line, never a triangle. Occasionally, there are two dots, or five or seven or even twelve. Some of those who think this is a sign of Freemasonry believe that the number of dots indicates the level achieved in the society's hierarchy. We have seen also the bars with no apparent dots, as in this example from 1756:

1756

Opponents to the theory point out that there are some departments in France where no signatures with this sign can be found at all, yet Freemasonry exists throughout France. Alternative possibilities that they posit are that the sign may indicate:

  • that the person held a public office, such as mayor,
  • that he held an important post such as a bailiff or notaire,
  • that it indicates something to do with the military,
  • that he was a Compagnon du Tour de France,
  • that the sign was just a way to clean the pen nib before signing

Many say that the sign was not used until after the Revolution. Clearly this is not the case for the examples above come from a few years before the Revolution. Current French Freemasons have been questioned about the sign (which, by the way, seems to be no longer in use) and they, too, are divided as to whether it indicates membership in their society or not, though Jean-Frédéric Daudin, author of l'ABCdaire de la Franc-Maçonnerie, insists that it is, indeed, a mark to indicate Freemasonry. Yet some Freemasons say they have never seen it used in their lodges.

UPDATE: Lenora Gobert details a quite interesting theory of just how the signature dots represent Freemasonry here.

The uncertainty is such that it may be taken as a possible clue. Should you find the mark among your ancestors' signatures, it may be worth pursuing. A few Departmental Archives have in their holdings, in Series M, the archives of some Freemason lodges and their activities. The only way to know is to look. If you do, by all means tell us what you find.

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


French Commercial Genealogy Loses Its Independence - and It's a Pity

Paris pont mask

We used to praise the high quality of the indexing at Filae. No more. The last few weeks have seen the addition of indexing as messy, lazy and idiotic as the sort of thing one finds on Ancestry or in the infamous indexing of the Drouin collection. It is most disheartening. Now, one finds birth register entries for which the indexer said the daughter was the father, marriages with the wife named as the mother-in-law and, where the indexer was in doubt, everyone named as every relationship.

What possible use is wrong information to anyone? How will users who cannot read the original French document (as in the case of the indexer, apparently) be able to correct these mistakes? The money-grubbers will always say that speed is more important than efficiency, that it is more important to get the material online, even riddled with mistakes, than it is to take the time to do it well, but they are wrong. For every hour that incorrect information is available, people who are researching their family histories are incorporating and perpetuating wrong information in their genealogies. Such commercial cynicism makes a mockery of every genealogist's efforts to find a document the historical truth about a family, and risks dragging the reputation of genealogy as a discipline back down to where it was in the 1920s, when fabricated evidence was rife and family vanity, not family history, was the goal.

That Filae let this happen is almost certainly because its founder, Toussaint Roze, has completed the sale of the company to MyHeritage. The collapse of quality at Filae would seem to indicate that he lost interest in the company a few weeks ago, when the sale became inevitable, as we discussed here. In his announcement of the sale, he boasts that new and greater things are to come at Filae from the MyHeritage takeover. Barring an extensive metamorphosis at MyHeritage and a complicated and expensive programme to correct the mistakes at Filae such as we described above, Roze's promises are blather.

Once again, Dear Readers, the paying customer is merely the punter, the fool to be parted from his money with the cheapest product possible. We strongly and sadly recommend that you NOT renew your Filae subscription for more than a month at a time, as you watch what was a great little company go down the tubes and its services become next to worthless.

Rumours are that Roze is betting that the French law prohibiting DNA testing for the purpose of genealogy will change soon and, when it does, he will be in place with MyHeritage ready and able to take advantage of the new opportunity. We wonder just how big that new opportunity will be. One likely reason for the French lawmakers' opposition to the tests stems from the Civil Code which, from 1804, has expressly forbidden a person to search (just to search, mind you) for the identity of his or her biological father. (Ponder, for a moment, Dear Readers, just what this means.) That law and all that relates to it must change before any anti-DNA genealogy test law can change. We suspect that, if these change, it will be by very small degrees.

We also wonder just how big the market will be, just how many French people will want to have such DNA tests. It is currently something of a fad to take the tests illegally, as we reported here, but the interest is only rarely in genealogy. It is more of a party game to see who is "more French", with distinctly racist overtones.

Left in the dust after the sale of Filae to MyHeritage was Geneanet, which owned forty per cent of Filae and which had hoped to form a single, Francophone genealogy powerhouse from the two. That, actually, could have been something quite wonderful for French genealogists, but it is not to be. Its dreams in tatters, Geneanet announced, in what is surely one of the saddest of such announcements ever written, that it has been purchased by Ancestry. We have made our complaints about Geneanet's messy website in the past, and have praised the efforts to improve it, though it still has some way to go. Merging with Ancestry, the behemoth of indexing disasters and indifference to them, will be no improvement for the quality of Geneanet.

These two sales are very sad events indeed, for neither will bring improved service or quality to those of us researching French genealogy. 

UPDATE: In learning to live with the situation as it is, we have listened to the Legacy Family Tree webinar about the filae collections as they appear on MyHeritage here. If you are committed MyHeritage users, this will be of some help to you.

©2021 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy