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March 2023

Napoleon's Law on Children's Names


The English section of Radio France presents a regular podcast "Spotlight on France". It gives pithy and perky summaries of the events of the day, with occasional fillers of historical or cultural interest. A recent edition contains something of interest to French genealogists: a discussion of Napoleon's 1803 law on what people could name their children.

Coincidentally (or not?) the law was passed on the 1st of April and remained in effect for one hundred fifty years before it was relaxed a tad. It was not until 1993 that, at long last, parent could name their children what they pleased, with the courts intervening only if they deemed that the name were not "in the interest of the child". (Such names as "Ugly", for example, or "9X", which do make one reflect, not on the courts' intervention into family life, but on some peoples' idea of parenthood.) 

You can hear the podcast here. The portion concerning the law on names begins at at thirteen minutes and eight seconds (13:08). 

Some years ago, we wrote our own post upon the subject and we give that again :

Historically, the French have been very strict about naming. It is permitted to change a name legally, but very difficult, and only with a very good reason. Even when one does, every single official document about one gives one's name as "Monsieur X, who changed his name from Y...." One might as well not have bothered.

Forty per cent of all French surnames are religious, falling into general groupings, as determined by the authors of the Grand Dictionnaire des Noms de Famille (éditions Ambre, 2002)

• Biblical names, such as Adam, Daniel, Gabriel, Levy, or Salomon
• The evangelists' or apostles' names or Mary and Joseph, such as Jacques, Andrieu, Pierre, Marie, Joseph, Lucas, Marc
• Names of saints that may have Germanic, Greek, of Latin origins, such as Arnaud, Lambert, Nicolas, Vidal, or Clément
• Names of religious occupations, such as Clerc or Moine
• Names of religious festivals, such as Noël or Toussaint
• Names of pilgrimages, such as Pelerin
• Names of religious places such as Chapelle
• There are also surnames of a religious nature given to nameless foundlings such as Dieudonné, meaning God-given.

If surnames have been influenced by religion, first names have been even more so, and that religious influence was used by the government for its own purposes. Humorous stories abound of parish priests who imposed the name of a favourite saint upon every child, with generations of children having the name Martin or Martine. No priest would baptize a child who did not have a Christian name. The rigidity was continued by the officers in charge of entries into birth registers. As late as the 1970s, an acquaintance of ours tried to register the birth of his daughter Pénélope. The officer at the Mairie refused to accept the name because it did not comply with the 1803 law. Our acquaintance was stunned but possessed a formidable amount of French dudgeon and won the day; so Pénélope she is.

Some names were not permitted on the grounds of their not being French. The civil government extended the custom of the priests' limiting of names in order to prevent any child having a name from the suppressed language of lower Brittany. Breton names such as Aezhur or Tangi were not accepted by either priest for baptism or clerk for acte de naissance. The parents had to choose another name. Today, though Breton is still not recognized as a language by the French government (read here an in-depth CNN article on the subject of the Breton language's struggle for survival) such Breton names as Yannick and Annick are beginning to be heard again. 

©2023 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Fire at the Bordeaux City Hall - the Municipal Archives Are Safe

Singed signPhoto ©SudOuest


By now, Dear Readers, you may have noticed that things are somewhat disruptive here in France. In case you are not aware, we are experiencing many days of strikes called by many unions in protest against two things:

  1. A new law to change the age of retirement from sixty-two to sixty-four. It also will change how pensions are calculated and will reduce the pensions of many, especially women.
  2. The way that the law was passed, without a vote in the National Assembly, but by using an article in the Constitution that empowers the Prime Minister to declare the law passed. When this article, known as 49.3, is used, it is automatically permitted for the National Assembly to request a vote of no confidence in the government. Two such requests were made and neither was passed. So the law was.

The protests and strikes have been going on for a number of weeks. Perhaps the most tedious aspect for those in Paris is that the rubbish has not been collected. Not only are the mountains of bin bags high and most odoriferous, but the rat population has joyously exploded, with exultant and grateful rats visible in parks, on roads, in the Mètro tunnels and scrambling over the rubbish mountains.

Then things got more violent, and this is probably what you may have seen in news reports. Protestors throwing molotov cocktails and corrosive acid at police, police beating protestors with batons and worse. In France, one never witnesses such things without immediately thinking of the Revolution and the Paris Commune. In the latter, as we have explained here often, the Paris City Hall, with all of the city's hundreds of years of parish registers, was torched and completely destroyed.

Hotel de VillePhoto © Archives de Paris

Bordeaux has had her own loss of records, when the port archives, which could have been so useful to researchers of passenger lists, were destroyed by a fire, as we wrote here. In the protests this week, the people of Bordeaux and those researching their Bordeaux ancestors nearly missed another such loss. As the marchers chanted their rage at the government in front of the City Hall, some of them were seen to place wooden pallets and bags of rubbish against the grand eighteenth century doors and set them alight. The flames raged very high. For the genealogists amongst us who know that the building houses the more recent civil registers of the city (not the older archives, which are in the Municipal Archives of Bordeaux,) this was a moment of dread. 

Be reassured, Dear Readers, it was only the doors to the courtyard that were damaged, and the fire was extinguished within fifteen minutes, so they were not utterly destroyed. No part of the archives was damaged. Arrests have been made; the perpetrators appear to have been teen-aged boys. The City Council are considering bringing charges against the mayor for not having provided better security. The next day of strikes and protest marches is planned for Tuesday. Let us hope that there will be no violence or fires.


A Reader Asks for Help

Alt Strasburg

We have received an unusual plea, Dear Readers. Perhaps one of you may wish to respond. If so, contact us and we will relay your interest. 

"My brother did extensive genealogical research on our family, concentrating on the branch from Alsace Lorraine, especially Saint Quirin. He died recently and I am investigating whether his research could be useful to others. His records are hand-written and include at least 2000 pages, all unindexed. We suspect that much of his work may have been done before so many archives and records became available on the Internet. This part of the collection, perhaps thirty per cent, would be obsolete. He also wrote many articles about his research findings, and had, on his numerous visits to France, copied documents that are not available online. This part of the collection is what we would like to share with other researchers.

We are hoping to find someone with significant knowledge of Alsace Lorraine genealogy and genealogical resources to go through this material. We would like an analysis of what to make available to other researchers and how to do so. We would like the material to be indexed and put in a logical order so that it may be easily used by others. As it would be impossible to scan this entire archive for online work, it is essential that this person be based in or near New York City and able to work with the physical archive. "

Having Trouble With the Côtes-d'Armor Departmental Archives Website?

Bad Day

We have heard from Madame T and a couple of others that the website of the Departmental Archives of Côtes-d'Armor are not working properly, nay, are blocked, for users outside of France. She reports that, from this screen, showing links to all digitized, online records of the archives:


C d A

when she selects parish records, she repeatedly is taken to this Screen of Torment:


C d A blocked

This does not happen when we use the site from our computer here in the nether regions of France. The intrepid Madame T managed to contact the Archives départementales des Côtes-d'Armor and received a reply (quite an achievement, that). They explained that they have locked online access to parish records from outside France for security reasons. This is the first that we have heard of such a xenophobic blockage. Madame T, never one to accept defeat, writes that she found the necessary parish registers on FamilySearch.

Have any of you, Dear Readers, found this on other websites of Departmental Archives? If so, were the records then found on FamilySearch?

Do let us know.

Many thanks to Madame T for this report.

©2023 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy