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August 2023

A Question About French Regions and Provinces, and How to Cite Them

We received the following from Monsieur G.

I have a few small questions...

1) Have you done any articles on the recording of French region names?  Are there any guides that discuss the recording of place names in French genealogy?

2) I notice that many genealogy programs include region names when mapping database entries. This can be confusing, since there have been massive changes to most across the years. Many of the actual historical records only give (at most) the commune, canton, arrondissement and department. Actually; with the exception of census records, they seem most often to give only the commune and department. Now; some departments have been re-defined and renamed, but those cases are far fewer and seem to cause fewer issues. I’m considering just recording the commune, department and country, since the region seems not to add much value.Does this make sense to you?

Monsieur G. has been grappling with this issue for a long time. Some months before the above, he wrote to us with the following:

I do have one thing that still bothers me a bit... the postal code [or] the INSEE code. They are so similar that I often get them confused. Since the INSEE code is unique to a particular city and the postal code isn’t, are some genealogists now starting to append the INSEE code instead? eg. The postal codes for Royan and for St-Suplice-de-Royan are both 17200, but the INSEE code for Royan is 17308 and for St-Suplice-de-Royan it is 17408. So what I’ve seen some do is: Royan (17308).

In one particular instance that I have, the original name in the document was simply, “commune de Baume”. Today, that location is called, "Baume-les-Messieurs”, which has two postal codes; 39210 and 39670. So; I was thinking that by using the INSEE code as in, “Baume [Baume-les-Messieurs (39041)], France”, one would remove all doubt. If the old and new names had been the same, one would use the name with the INSEE code in parentheses. Does this make sense?

Ah, Monsieur G., these are not small questions at all. Dear Readers, there are times in this genealogical life when to be "on the horns of a dilemma" does not begin to describe the citation struggle; we feel it is closer to being like a live worm impaled on a fish hook. Monsieur G. brings up more than a few issues:

  • The fact that nearly all place names in France, from the hamlets and parishes to the provinces and regions, went through not only the gradual changes of time, but an abrupt and radical change of names and boundaries during the Revolution, followed by a slight and selective return to old names. This has been followed by ever-more-often rationalizations and reorganizations that have seen many smaller towns being combined (giving them tediously long names) and larger cities being broken into more and more arrondissements, quarters or other such subdivisions, all of them producing official records that you may wish to cite. Most recently, in our last post, we explained the creation of the departments and the reorganized regions. How to correctly and clearly cite a place that changed its name from Saint-Port in the province of Ile-de-France before the Revolution to Seine-Port in the department of Seine-et-Marne in the region of Ile-de-France today? 
  • INSEE is France's National Institute of Statistic and Economic Studies. It was founded in 1946. Even before its founding, the first list of unique codes for towns, or communes, was published in 1943. There also are codes for all of the arrondissements, departments, regions, etc. The new list of codes, with all of the annual statistics for each commune, is published every year. To our knowledge, no retroactive list of codes (with or without statistics) for old town names or province names has been created. The code for the commune of Seine-Port is 77447. There was no code for the commune of Saint-Port, as that existed before 1943. So, much as we love the rationality and uniqueness of the code commune INSEE, it is not, on its own, adequate for the geographical part of a source citation for any source created before 1943.
  • The fact that most creaters of genealogy programmes should be taken out to the woodshed and appropriately chastised for their appalling laziness and their unforgivable cultural and linguistic prejudices. If they are clever enough to write software, they are clever enough to read Evidence Explained and to have the programme accommodate the geographies and record creation methods of other countries.

We have debated and discussed the citation issue numerous times on this blog and elsewhere. In essence Dear Readers, you must decide the purpose of your citation.

  • Will you publish your genealogical research? Will you be expecting other genealogical researchers to read it and to be able to trust your citations, to understand them, to know more about your sources because of them and be able to retrieve the same sources with confidence?
  • Alternatively, will you keep your research private to your family and want them to know that your research is based on sources that they can find again, if they wish?

Elizabeth Shown Mills explains very clearly the difference in goal and purpose between source analysis and source citation here. The simplest form of source citation of books, such as we all were taught in school, is simply not adequate for the many types of historical sources used by genealogists. More, those sources often provide conflicting evidence. So, Mills concludes, each source must be analyzed and that analysis must be presented in brief form in the citation. This is absolutely necessary if your genealogical research is to be published in a peer-reviewed genealogy journal. If that is not your goal but you still wish your research to be taken seriously and to stand the test of time (look at how much we sneer at much of the early and wholly unreliable DAR research), then perhaps you will write simpler source citations and include a detailed analysis only when they are in conflict.

The complexity or simplicity of source citation insofar as one wishes to apply the style of Evidence Explained to French sources and/or enter French sources into an American genealogy programme boils down to two issues:

  • Translation of the French source names in the citation, which makes it extraordinarily long
  • French geography changed radically and often and, in all its forms, it has never followed American geographical customs.

Each, if you are producing your work informally, for family and friends, requires a choice that you clearly state in your work. You can choose not to translate the French in the citation, especially if all of your readers can read French. You can choose in source citation, to follow the French standards as concerns their own geography, for documents such as census returns, parish and civil register entries, etc. , and give the town name and department name or number, with a link to the page of the soucrce online. Beware to give enough information for the source to be found should the link change.

We are not very familiar with all of the many American genealogy programmes but, considering the number of times people write to us about this problem, it would seem that they all, as concerns any French geographical location, ask for the wrong data and make it difficult to enter the correct data. To be sure, that is maddening. You have no choice, Dear Readers, but to create your own manual for how to enter the data, and then be sure to adhere to your rules forever, in the name of consistency. Here are a few possibilities:

  • For the regions, provinces and their many changes issue, Make a short list of those that you are citing, with dates and name changes (all of the information concerning regions and provinces can be found on the French Wikipedia page about each). It is unlikely that your ancestors lived in all of France's regions, so your list will not be that long.
  • Where town names changed, dates, not INSEE commune numbers,  are crucial to identifying the correct sources. You will either have to include the date, with the current name in parentheses, either in the entry. on in a compendium of some sort.

Finally, remember one important rule: never, ever change the name of a document or register or series and never, ever change the name of a place from what it was at the time the document was created. Do not "correct" or "improve" or "simplify" if it means altering the original name of the record, register or series. If you do, you are writing fiction that cannot be shown to anyone and inventing "sources" that can never be found.

Bonne chance, Monsieur G.

©2023 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The Departments

Departments of France

There are one hundred departments in France, grouped under eighteen (down from twenty-two) regions, and each has its own archives, where much genealogical research is done. Thus, knowing about the departments is a key first step for hunting ancestors in France.

The current departments are always listed alphabetically and always referred to with their number, e.g. Seine-Maritime (76) or Dordogne (24). When they were created, in 1790, the new system was supposed to be more rational and we are sure that, in terms of government, it was. This numbering is used in many aspects of administration. In post codes (the first two numbers are the department's number), in the old style car license plates (the last two numbers are the department's number), in each and every person's tax number (the third pair of numbers indicates the department). Children memorize the departments' names and numbers at school and use the list all of their lives. The numbering system, however, went the way of all simplistic systems meant to be the definitive, final, last, perfect, etc. version of something, and is getting messier and messier as time goes on. Even so, it is very convenient.

In the beginning, there were eighty-three departments, in an alphabetical list. Each was numbered, beginning with 1, and leaving no gaps. To look at a map, like the one above, is to see all of France with a disarray of numbers within it. Knowing the alphabet, one can sort of fumble around and guess at the name, but it is not easy. We have not studied it, but we suspect there was a political reason behind this and that the confusion was intentional. In the unstable years of the Revolution, there were many powerful families with a well-established network of government based in the old provinces. Such networks would have greatly helped any counter-revolutionary activities. The new system of departments effectively broke up those provinces and the power network of those families (of course, most of those people were guillotined as well and that really fixed them.)

Then, Napoleon conquered new territory and the number of departments went up to one hundred and thirty, but their names did not all begin with Z so, as they had to be given numbers, the alphabetic sequence was lost. Not to worry, as Napoleon was defeated and the number of departments went down to a more manageable eighty-six. A little more territory was acquired and the number went up to eighty-nine. There were reorganizations, some colonies became Overseas Departments, Paris kept growing. In an effort to keep a logical sequence, numbers were reassigned at times. Today's list of one hundred is still pretty much alphabetical until the last few. The departments, with links to the websites of the Departmental Archives, are listed in the left-hand column of this blog. The regions are as follows:

Thirteen in mainland France:

  • Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
  • Bourgogne-Franche-Comté
  • Bretagne
  • Centre-Val de Loire
  • Corse
  • Grand Est
  • Hauts-de-France
  • Île-de-France
  • Normandie
  • Nouvelle-Aquitaine
  • Occitanie
  • Pays de la Loire
  • Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

Five in overseas France:

  • Guadeloupe
  • Martinique
  • Guyane
  • La Réunion
  • Mayotte

For the genealogist, especially the foreign one, this is torture. To finally find the correct department of an ancestor and then find that it has disappeared is maddening. However, not that many departments disappeared and, in most cases, the archives are still somewhere. (For example, the departmental archives of Yvelines contain those of the ex-department of Seine et Oise.) It will just require a little more effort to find them.

For an extremely thorough discussion of the administrative structure and history of France's departments, see the excellent Wikipedia article on the subject. 

N.B. This post is updated from the original that appeared in 2009.

©2023 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Acte de Rectification - Changing a French Birth Register Entry

Ambiguous genitalia

We were contacted by a Loyal Reader and Supporter of this blog, Monsieur M., with the following about his ancestress: 

Have you ever heard of an "Acte de rectification"?

I have an 2x Great Aunt who's birth name was entered incorrectly in the village register. Salome Fix, born in Climbach, Bas-Rhin, in 1835. Her surname was entered incorrectly into the town register as Fuchs.

When she was 21, she sought to have a correction made, to her actual name. The actual name of FIX, and the error of FUCHS.

One would think this would be a simple matter, right? Correct a mistake? This happens all the time, no? But no.

My relative had to go to a tribunal in the nearby administrative town, and get a ruling from the tribunal, ordering that the register be altered to show her actual name. And she had to produce evidence to prove her own name, which included her father's marriage record, where the correct family name was used. So, the tribunal issued an "Acte de rectification," an Act of Rectification, and a note was duly added to her entry in the birth register.

Ever heard of this? Having never encountered it before (or the degree of legalese involved), it seems unusual to me. I googled it, and not much came up.

Thanks for your work and your blog,


He had also discussed this on Reddit, where the responses are, for the most part, quite well informed. One commenter explains the State's ownership of records of civil status; another gives this link to the Code de procedure civile, which explains how such a rectification must be made in France.

Having fought our own battle to change our name, we are most sympathetic with Salomé. It is difficult to do in any country, but the situation in France requires a bit more explanation for the genealogist than the fine folk of Reddit chose to give.

In 1804, the Code Civil was first published. It is a remarkable work. After the French Revolution, the laws and customs of King and Church, insofar as they governed civil society, were abolished. New civil laws, based upon reason, it was intended, were (and still are) the Code Civil, also known as the Napoleonic Code. Page twenty-eight clearly states that any alteration to a civil register entry must be authorized by a court.Rectification

It is preceded by the rules for birth, banns, marriage and death register entries. For the banns and marriage, each of the couple had to present a certified copy of their birth register entry. When a man reported for military service, he had to present such a copy. As did any child when registering for school. Thus, any mistake would be perpetuated; it could not, as in other countries, be altered by a customary use. Moreover, for a woman, as was Salomé, the name would not disappear when she married, as it does in other countries; as we explained here, a woman's birth surname is always her legal name in France. Thus, it is clear how important it is for a civil register entry to be correct.

Yet, while we have seen quite a few rectifications, we have seen only one case where a rectification was surely required but never made. In late December of 1877, Julien François Morin was born to an unmarried mother in Bourges. The midwife declared the birth and, the register states, presented the child, who was registered, (see image no. 421 here) as female, the word quite boldly written. A few months later, the child's parents married and recognized Julien as their son. (The marriage and recognition can be seen at image 145 here.) Was this a case of ambiguous genitalia? Of a midwife who mixed up some babies? Of a myopic or drunken civil registrar? Julien Mamet, as his name became after his parents' marriage, lived as a man, serving in the army, marrying and divorcing a woman, but his birth register entry was never corrected. The two marginal notes on it refer to his parents' marriage, which legitimated his birth, and to his own marriage. How did he manage the discrepancy each time he had to present the certified copy of his birth register entry? How was he entered in the Livret de famille? Should anyone of the mairie in Bourge read this, please let us know.

Many thanks to Monsieur M for inspiring this post.

©2023 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Do You Need Help Reading Your Old French Documents?

Clerk practice


More than a decade ago we wrote here about paleography. The information in that post is still relevant, though we had to purge it of the vanished links. So, if you wish to tackle a murky old French document on your own, do read that post and also have a look at our glossary.

If, however, you find that your document was not written by someone made to practice (as above), that it is worse than murky and is utterly illegible to you, we would like to introduce the excellent transcriber, Madame Sandrine Anton-Fayard, the owner of Ancêtres et Familles. She has been of great help to us of late. By way of demonstration of her talents, she has sent two examples of monstrously difficult script which she deciphered in a trice.

Paleography 1 Extrait d’un testament de 10 pages de F.Bouhelier; Source : Archives du département du Doubs 


The following paragraph is her transcription of the above extract of the ten-page will of F. Bouhelier of Doubs:

[...]implorant sur ce la benignité du droit canon et rejectant la rigueur du droit civil et affin qu’il ayt force, vigeur et perpetuelle valeur, je l’ay faict a mectre et rediger par escriet en ceste forme par Claude Prestot et Pierre Faillard pbrestres vicaires à Damprichard, notaires publicques coadjuteures des tabellion[s] du bailly d’Amont du comté de Bourgoigne soubscriptz ès mains desquelles j’ay laché et passé cestes soubz les prévileges du seel de leurs Altesses Sérénissimes que fut faict et passé aud. Damprichard au poille de la maison presbiteralle regardant du costel de midy et soleil levant envyron les trois heures d’apprès midy du treiziesme jour du mois de febvrier l’an mil cinq cens nonante neufz (1589).[...]


Paleography 2Copie d’un acte de 1326, sur la constitution d’un muid de blé de rente foncière au profit de l’hôtel Dieu d’Amiens à prendre sur la terre de Croy.

Source : Archives familiales de la Famille de CROY, déposées aux Archives départementales de la Somme (France)

Copie des lettres des anciens seigneurs de Croÿ, datées de 1324 et postérieurement constitutive d’un muid de blé de rente foncière au profit de l’hôtel-Dieu d’Amiens à prendre sur la terre de Croÿ.


Her transcription of the above copy of a notarial act of 1326, found in the papers of the Croy family of Somme, reads:

[...]A tous ceulx qui ces presentes lettres verront ou orront Betramart, chevalier, sire de Croy, salut. Comme li maistres freres et sereurs de l’hostellerie Sainct-Jehan en Amyens [meusse] meussent poursuivy pardevant le prevost de Beauvaisis adfin que je fusse contrains deulx paier quattre muys de blé d’arrerages pour quattre années et disoient quilz estoient en saisine d’avoir chacun an ung muy de blé de rente annuelle des mes devanciers ; lequel muy de blé je avoie cessé de paier par l’espace de quattre ans et je, non bien advisés des fais de mes devanciers, niay les fais proposés contre my de par lesdis religieulx[...]

We are impressed. Madame Anton-Fayard goes quite a bit further than most in her work for clients, giving definitions of rare or archaic terms, and  providing links to further information, helping one not only to read the document but to understand it within its historical context.

Like many of us, Dear Readers, Madame Anton-Fayard became enamoured of family history in her youth. In time, she became the family historian amongst her relatives, who gave to her all of their family archives and photographs. After a career as a pharmacist, she returned to studies at the prestigious University of Nîmes, where she received the Diplôme Universitaire in Genealogy and Family History. You can read her full biography here.

She came to the rescue of one of our Dear Readers, Madame K, who could not make out this name from a 1583 baptismal record from Eure.

Nom 1

Nom 2

Madame Anton-Fayard identified it as Christofle. Remarkable!

Should you wish to know more about paleography, this page has more links than we ever have seen on the subject.

Happy reading or bonne lecture!

©2023 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy