Napoleon's Law on Children's Names
30 March 2023
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