Book and Magazine Reviews

Book Review - Atlas historique des diocèses en France


The one-woman powerhouse that is the publishing company Archives & Culture  has brought out another genealogy guide, or guide de généalogie. To anyone who has researched his or her French roots to earlier than the French Revolution, the thought of a book that explains at last the intricacies and geography of French Catholic dioceses would bring joy and immense relief. This book, by Jean-Paul Duquesnoy, the Atlas historique des diocèses en France, is, unfortunately, something of a disappointment.

The problem is that it is a bit deceptive. Civil registrations in France began in 1792. They became the legal documentation and proof of births, marriages and deaths. While parish registrations may have continued, they became, in the eyes of the law, informal and without legal validity. What is more, no religious ritual of baptism, marriage or funeral could take place until after the civil registration had been made. So, for the genealogist, civil registrations are much more important than parish registrations after 1792. 

Prior to 1792, however, the parish registrations of life events were the legal documentation and are of great importance in genealogical research. The difficulty is that identifying the correct geographical location of parishes mentioned by emigrants far from France is often close to impossible. There is much repetition of parish names throughout France and one really needs to know the correct diocese to continue research. At times, the diocese may be mentioned but identifying its location and boundaries, or even its correct name may also be problematic. (We tell a tale of the struggle here.) Over the centuries since the Christianisation of France, the dioceses have changed names, changed boundaries, been reorganised and in some cases merged. Thus, a book that could resolve the issues concerning the geography of dioceses and parishes prior to 1792 would be extremely helpful.

The Atlas is touted as just the ticket but it is not. It describes the modern, post-Revolutionary dioceses and bishoprics. It gives a list of bishoprics as they were at the time of the Revolution's beginning, in 1789. It gives the briefest of written histories of the ecclesiastical provinces and their dioceses as they were in 1789, with a tiny map of the dioceses. By page six of a ninety-six page book, this brief history is finished and the rest of the book is dedicated to an alphabetical list of the dioceses, with a brief historical account of each, mostly but not entirely from 1802 onwards. In truth, for the genealogist, this is not much help. (Additionally, it contains some serious flaws, as detailed by a comment on by "Loïc Pilven le Sévellec", such as omitting the diocese of Strasbourg, among others.)

The longed for series of maps showing the historical developments and changes of the dioceses is not to be found in this little book. That is because it would appear not to exist, at least that was the case in 1965, when the excellent article on the subject, "La carte des diocèses de France avant la Révolution" ("The map of the French dioceses before the Revolution") by Jacques Dubois, appeared in Annales. Dubois gives a lengthy description of the problem of identifying the boundaries of the dioceses as they changed over the centuries. He also gives what are probably the best, simple maps of French dioceses at different periods:

  • Dioceses created from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries
  • Dioceses created in the fourteenth century
  • Dioceses created from the ninth through the twelfth centuries
  • Dioceses created under Clovis
  • Ecclesiastic provinces in the eighteenth century (showing the dates when some were created)
  • Ecclesiastic provinces during the Merovingian period

Neither Dubois nor Duquesnoy attempts to list for each diocese the parishes it contained. (For locating a parish, we describe some of the tricks we have tried here.) We cannot really recommend this Atlas because it is not what its title says, unless you are building a library and are happy to put this in a corner of it. More useful would be to download Dubois's article and, where appropriate to your research, examine the sources given in his excellent footnotes.

Would someone please write the book, complete with many maps, that we need?

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Book Review - Le Guide de la Généalogie en Belgique


We have had the pleasure of the acquaintance of the highly qualified genealogist, Marie Cappart, for a few years now and enjoy meeting with her when our paths cross at genealogy fairs, congregations and other extravaganzas. She embodies a happy combination of ebullience and expertise; she is also the author of the book we review here on Belgian genealogy, Le Guide de la Généalogie en Belgique.

This is a guide that is both thorough and succinct, both complete and clear. Unlike other guides to genealogy in French, it is not padded with an excessive number of attractive but useless photographs of dolls and documents; this guide is packed with useful information and advice.

Ms. Cappart covers the basics that one would expect to find. She explains the archives facilities and how to do genealogical research in their holdings, whether that search be on site or online. The specifics of the structure and wording of Belgian parish and civil registrations are described. The chapter entitled "Les archives coloniales : un sujet délicat" is a wonder of sensitive yet straightforward discussion of the archives of the Congo an d its years under Belgian rule, a period that is probably that darkest stain on Belgium's history.

The author shows greater patience than we have with the interminable pestering by some family historians to prove a connection with royalty. You think you have connections to Belgian  nobility or are descended from Charlemagne? Ms. Cappart gives a pithy chapter to the research of each. From military records to corporate archives, all seem to have been covered in this guide. There is even a chapter explaining who the Mormons are and why they are so important to genealogy, the necessity of which we find utterly disarming.

Following the bibliography, which includes websites, the Appendices are no afterthought, but contain more useful information in list form rather than in prose. They cover:

  • A sample of a letter you may need for archives access
  • Lists of archives and research facilities, with their addresses and websites, in Belgium, France and The Netherlands, plus Great Britain and the United States
  • A trilingual list of the most common forenames
  • A lexicon to the most common terms to be found in parish and civil registrations
  • A bilingual list, French and Dutch, of the most common of those terms
  • A very useful guide showing what data may be found in each type of document or registration

 You need no other book, guide or resource than this to begin your research in Belgian genealogy.

Brava, Marie!

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Book Review - Revolution in the French Navy


This book was published in 1995 so not a new one in the least but it is new to us and we are mightily pleased to have discovered it. Revolution and Political Conflict in the French Navy by William S. Cormack is an expanded doctoral thesis but only just barely reads like one. Considering the subject, it is concise: ten chapters in three hundred pages, with a decent index and an excellent bibliography.

What happened to the French navy during the French Revolution and the First Empire is a history told almost exclusively from the point of view of the British or at least agreeing with that point of view. Cormack departs from that and it results in blessed clarity. Gone the comparisons of the Marine Royale with the Royal Navy or the French marin with the British tar or the Admiralty with the Ministry of Marine. Cormack looks exclusively at what happened to the French navy in the context of French history and it is enlightening.

Early chapters describe the state of the navy and its officers and seamen just before the Revolution, including their stellar contribution to the American Revolution. He covers in great detail the key disastrous events the so unsettled the French navy: The Toulon Affair of 1789, the mutiny at Brest in 1790-1791, the surrender of the Mediterranean fleet in 1793, and the Quiberon mutiny of 1793. His thesis is clear: that the new concept of the Will of the People could not be reconciled with the functional requirement of naval authority.

The works of previous historians on the subject are discussed and examined and given a fresh analysis. It is a bonus that the -- at times -- shambolic political events of the day are explained neatly and that two centuries of over-simplified characterisations are washed away. Confusion is removed from the complexities of the time; we certainly acquired a greater understanding not only of the navy but of the Revolution and Terror generally from this detailed account that is never turgid, always extremely interesting. 

We have often written here that good genealogy requires a good knowledge of history. For those of you with ancestors who were in the French navy at this incredible time, this book is essential reading. You will come away with a better idea of why an ancestor who was an officer may have deserted (and he may not have been a royalist!) or why another may have been guillotined. You will have a better understanding of the old and new ranks and of how some men moved back and forth between the merchant navy and the navy of the Republic.

An absolute must.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

New Booklet : French Notaires and Notarial Records

Booklet Cover N

We do apologise, Dear Readers, for the long silence and thank those of you who wrote with concern. There are times when, to accomplish something, one must bury the phone in the garden, draw the curtains closed, lock the door and focus on the project at hand. So we did and are pleased to announce the publication of a new FGB Booklet "French Notaires and Notarial Records". It contains over twenty posts from this blog, plus an eleven page glossary of standard terms used in notarial records, which we compiled specifically for this booklet. We give here the Table of Contents:

  • What Is A Notaire?
  • Notarial Records - Les actes notariés
  • Array of Notarial Records
  • Old French in Old Documents
  • Two Marriage Contracts
  • Defiance - the Acte de Respect
  • A Guardianship Document Examined
  • Paris Guardianship Cases
  • Two Wills
  • Estate Inventories
  • Did Your Ancestor Take Another's Place in the Army?
  • Finding Notarial Records
  • Répertoires
  • Registers of the Bureaux des Hypothèques
  • How To Find a Modern Will
  • Marriage Contract Tables
  • Follow the Trail to the End
  • Overseas Notarial Records
  • Glossary of Notarial Terms

"French Notaires and Notarial Records" has been added to the booklets list in the right-hand column on this page and may be purchased via (click on the cover for the link) or via Amazon.


©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Picard on Jules Lion - A Study in an Altered Identity

LaFayette passenger list

Some time ago, we were contacted by the art historian, Sara M. Picard, to help with research into a French immigrant to Louisiana named Jules Lion. It was such a fascinating case that we were more than happy, nay, keen to be involved. We hunted through cemeteries, French passenger lists, Consistoire registers, naturalisation files, commercial directories, notarial records, and many more. Dr. Picard quite brilliantly combined the French research with her much larger amount of research into American records to prove a remarkable point -- that historians had mistaken the racial background of Jules Lion. 

Her article, "Racing Jules Lion", appeared recently in Louisiana History, the Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association. Dr. Picard very kindly has obtained permission from that publication to allow you, Dear Readers, to access and read the article in its entirety here. If you have ever been puzzled by aspects of an ancestor's identity in your research, or if you simply want to have an amazing read about one of Louisiana's earliest photographers, do read this excellent study.

Many, many thanks, Dr. Picard, for allowing us to publish the link on The FGB.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Book Review - "The Terror - Civil War in the French Revolution" - Did Your Ancestor Take Part?

Terror cover


Understanding the French Revolution requires a lifetime of study and we feel that we have barely begun. Many of you, Dear Readers, have written to say that you are descended from people who left France during or just after the Revolution. We will ignore for the time being the inordinate and irrational need of many people to link themselves to the historically powerful, arrogant and wealthy abusers of other people, namely the aristocracy -- this is not another post on helping anyone to prove that he is really the true Louis XX --  and focus instead on what reading French history tells us about our ancestors that French genealogy cannot, which is, possibly, why. Why an ancestor left, why he or she left at a particular time, why he or she went to a certain place. Only by digging deeper and deeper into the history of the time and place can one learn enough to hazard a guess.

Andress's book was first published in 2005, so no one can accuse us of winning or even entering the race to review it. Nevertheless, we do so now, as it is the best book on the subject in English that we have found. In twelve chapters, he covers with great clarity the collapse of order, the fierce revolutionary fervour, even madness, in Paris that was countered by desperate, pro-religion and anti-Revolution forces in many, many locations around the country. Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux and, especially, the Vendée, fought against the Revolution with all that they had. At the same time as this civil war, there were also food shortages while much of Europe allied with Great Britain were attacking France's borders and helping the counter-Revolutionaries.

Slaughter -- the Terror -- was the Revolutionary government's solution. Prisoners were killed in the September Massacres and, over the next year, all suspected counter-Revolutionaries were guillotined.  Lyon was destroyed and the civil war in the Vendée crushed, with hundreds of children and adults killed and villages burned. Unending levées drafted every young man into the army and the attackers were pushed back from the borders.

Andress describes the progression without tones of drama or horror, letting the facts tell the story. He is a British historian and so, tends to concentrate on how and why things happened, as opposed to the French historical style of concentration on statistics to give a general view and following the rules of methodology for a dissertation, which can be tedious reading  for those taught to view the subject of history as an art rather than a science. Yet all the facts are there. We finished the book with a much greater understanding of the time, of the issues and of the enormous power of that foreign country within France that is Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote in his novel about the War in the Vendée, "Ninety-three", which we read in tandem with Andress's "The Terror" that "93 was the war of Europe against France and of France against Paris. And what was the Revolution? It was the victory of France over Europe and of Paris over France." 



 Was your ancestor involved -- like Hugo's father -- in fighting the War in the Vendée? You may be able to find him among the military records concerning that conflict. The Departmental Archives of the Vendée have digitised and put online the entirety of the military records on the War in the Vendée that are held in the Service Historique de la Défense at Vincennes, and they can be viewed here. Correspondence and pension records, reports and strategy papers are all there concerning the different armies:

  • The Army of the Coast of La Rochelle
  • The Army of the West
  • The Army of the Coast of Brest
  • The Army f the Coasts of the Ocean
  • The Army of the Interior
  • The Army of the Coasts of Cherbourg

Should you find your ancestor there, or even if not, we highly recommend both the Andress and the Hugo.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

French Orphans and Wards of the Nation - a Book Review - Part 2


We continue with our review of the book and wonderful talk given by Marie-Odile Mergnac on the subject of orphans and wards of the nation. Orphans and their welfare have been as much of a concern in France as everywhere else in the world. In France, a child under the age of majority and without a father or either parent is considered an orphan. Children abandoned at birth are orphans with no identifiable family at all and become the responsibility of the state, while children who became orphans because one or both parents died usually have a family who are legally responsible for the child.

Madame Mergnac traces the history of orphanages, from their beginnings as religious institutions to being run by the state, to their being shut down by policy changes. This and the subject of orphans with no family touch on the subjects of other of our posts:

Children who lost one or both of their parents but still had family were under the care of a family council, conseil de famille, which was comprised of an equal number of members from the paternal and maternal sides of the family. The members of the family council voted for one person to be the guardian of the child or children. That person carried out the council's decisions as to the children's education and possible apprenticeships, as well as maintaining strict accounts about the cost of their upkeep and expenses against their inheritance. 

The family council also made decisions concerning the rentals or sales of property that had been inherited by the orphans. If an orphan under the age of majority wished to marry, permission had to be granted by the family council. When all children became adults, the guardian was required to turn in the final accounts and the adult children to sign them, if they approved them. Often, the decisions and accounts of family councils were submitted as affidavits to the justice of the peace. Many such records may still be found, such as these we discovered in the Municipal Archives of Marseille.

Madame Mergnac's book goes on to discuss children taken into care and made wards of the state, children in correctional institutions and adults made wards of the state. In each section of this short but most useful book, she explains how and where to research such people who may appear in your family tree.

Quite highly recommended.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

French Orphans and Wards of the Nation - a Book Review - Part 1


One of the talks that we attended at the GENCO 2016 event was that given by the prolific Marie-Odile Mergnac about the subject of her new book, Orphelins et pupilles de la nation. The lecture space was not a room exactly but a space marked off from the exhibition hall with a few panels and a bank of chairs rolled into place. Pretty clever really, but the noise from the chatty folks at the exhibition stands was an annoying distraction. Madame Mergnac is much respected as an author and speaker, so the wobbly little tower of seats was packed.

She began by explaining the quite important difference between children who are wards of the state, pupilles de l'état, and children who are wards of the nation, pupilles de la nation. Children who are wards of the state are those who have been abandoned or who have been rescued from wicked or incompetent parents or families. Children who are wards of the nation are children who have a parent who was killed or severely wounded  while defending the nation. The wards of the nation are not taken into care, but remain at home with, usually, their mothers.

Wards of the nation, as a concept, is fairly recent. Though, in the early nineteenth century, Napoleon had arranged for the children of the men who died at the Battle of Austerlitz to be adopted by the nation, this was a single act and not a continuous policy. That policy was created in 1917, during the First World War, when France lost many, many men.

The programme gave to the children the financial help that the family needed because its breadwinner had been killed or incapacitated. Though each child's needs were assessed, generally the assistance included the paying of school fees and ensuring basic health care. There were summer camps, colonies de vacance, established for the children, which they could attend for free. When they were older, they might have received help in obtaining an apprenticeship. In some cases, employment was found for the mother. Each child was supposed to be seen once a year. Even with all of this aid, Madame Mergnac pointed out, life could be very tough for such children, especially if their mother also died.

It was not automatic for a child to become a ward of the nation. The mother had to make a formal request and provide documentary proof as to the father's service, wounds and/or death. If her husband had survived but become handicapped, she had to provide details and proof of this as well as details about each child. A decision would than be made and recorded. If it were in the affirmative, the child would be adopted formally by the nation. This new status would then be added as a marginal note to the child's birth registration.

The administrative department that did and still does handle wards of the nation is the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War, Office national des anciens combattants et victimes de guerre, known as ONACVG (originally as ONAC). A potential ward of the nation must be under the age of twenty-one and have lost his or her father or mother or other person who was the main support of the family. In addition to adopting the children of those who gave their lives in France's wars, the nation will also adopt the children of:

  • Victims of terrorist attacks committed in France (whatever their nationality);
  • Those who suffer from crippling diseases contracted while in service to the nation;
  • Those who were killed or died while in the line of duty of ensuring public safety in certain non-military professions, such as magistrates, gendarmes, police and customs officers;
  • Elected officials killed while in office;
  • Health professionals killed by their patients;
  • Those killed or incapacitated by pirates on the high seas.

Of course, children who themselves have been incapacitated by wounds received or diseases contracted in the same way as above can be made wards of the nation.

Next: orphans.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy




France to Argentina - An Emigrant's Tale


We were pacing the espace d'attente, or waiting area, of our bank the other day, up and down in front of four uncomfortable plastic chairs. We picked up each of the tattered magazines and each of the shiny brochures encouraging us to mortgage our heart and soul, flipping the pages, trying so hard not to show impatience, for that begins the wicked French game of "Torment the Client, (who is the enemy, always in the wrong and must be ignored or humiliated)". Also on the table was a thick book about local vintners and another book, not quite so thick, left there by a local history society. We snapped through the pages of beaming vintners, dropped back that tome and picked up the local history volume. We began flipping through those pages as well, then slowed, then read, then were pulled in by the compelling story of a young man who emigrated to Buenos Aires.

In the 1880s, Martial Eynard was a poor young man from the countryside, trying to make his way in Paris. He had been born in Cherveix-Cubas, in Dordogne, in 1866, to an extremely poor farming family struggling with debt. Though he was recognised as being quite bright, he received only the most basic, rural education. Many years later, he looked back upon his childhood as a time of suffering. Misère in French is usually translated as "misery" but in modern usage, it means not unhappiness but "grinding poverty" (recall Hugo), and this was the state of young Mr. Eynard's life until he was sixteen. Then, it got worse.

He worked in a fabric shop, some forty kilometres from Cherveix-Cubas, in Périgueux. This would have meant that he left home and probably lived above the shop. We have seen the grim boxes in which lived shop workers and apprentices of nineteenth century France. They were in the attics above the shops. Up, under the eaves, with no ceiling to hide the underside of the slate or clay roof tiles and certainly no insulation, were dozens of tiny cubicles with higgledy-piggledy walls made of unpainted scrap wood, each cubicle no more than six or eight meters square. The inhabitants pasted newspapers to the walls, possibly for insulation, possibly for monotonous erudition. Furniture was a bed and a box. Light was a single candle. Martial Eynard endured that life for a year, then left for Paris when he was seventeen.

There, he found work in a wholesale fabric shop. Life was still hard, but he was in Paris, which his letters home showed that he enjoyed as much as he could afford to do so. He was a tireless correspondent, writing to his parents and to his younger sister. They saved every one of his letters, the marvellous primary source of the article. He attempted to enter a training programme but failed the entrance exam. Then, in 1886, at the age of twenty, he was conscripted. He was selected for "long service". He was still quite poor, his belovèd grandmother had recently died, his employers -- knowing of his conscription -- had let him go months before he was due to report for service. Indeed, he was very low. He got himself to Marseille and, under an assumed name for he was evading his compulsory military service, worked his passage to Argentina, sending letters home from every port.

There, he stayed, becoming Marcelino Eynard. He had many ups and downs but eventually did become financially successful. He built a company, learned Spanish, German and English, voyaged back to Europe and then to New York, but most enjoyed long stays in Paris. He was a misanthropic and solitary man -- in his letters -- who married late in life, without telling his long suffering sister, Marceline, whose many offers to come live with him were sadly refused. It would seem that, when he died in 1921, she had told all the village that she would be rich. She sailed to Buenos Aires to collect her fortune, only to discover that she had a sister-in-law and infant niece to whom her brother had left all. Perhaps Marceline's remaining years were vengeful and after she returned home she sat by the ancestral fire and cursed the shade of her brother or perhaps not. In any case, the chronicler must say with gratitude, she did not burn his numerous letters. 

This is a tale that, at least in its beginnings, cannot be very different from that of many young men who left France during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seeking to escape poverty and compulsory military service. How many others wrote home as did Señor Eynard? Perhaps your ancestor's story appears in some obscure local history publication on a waiting room table in France. To find it, look not only at Gallica, the website of the Bibliothèque nationale, but at the websites of Departmental Archives (listed in the column to the left on this blog), where some local history publications have been put online. We note that the website of Cherveix-Cubas has uploaded a number of texts relating to local history, and surely other towns may have done the same. Check also the list of Associations for the relevant department to find the websites of all those relating to local history and genealogy.

The wonderful article on which this post is based is entitled:

"Marcelino, émigrant périgourdin en Argentine: quarante années de témoinage 1889-1921" by Pascale Laguionie-Lagauterie in Recueil de documents sur l'histoire locale, collectés et présentés par l'Association Hautefort, Notre Patrimoine, tome 6, April 2016, pp. 125-169. 

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


A French Gold Miner Ancestor in California?


We have been contacted by a Dear Reader seeking research suggestions on hunting French prospectors of gold in California. Our own ancestor, a cantankerous and surly fellow by all accounts, was one of a group of enthusiasts from Virginia who bought a ship, sailed it to San Francisco, sold it there and dispersed to the gold fields to find their fortunes. He did well enough to buy a ranch in the Central Valley. Did your French ancestor do the same and, if so, how to trace him or her?

No point in our reinventing any wheels here, so we will point you to the best resource, online or off, which is A.P. Nasatir's "French Activities in California: An Archival Calendar-Guide".




Nasatir gives an excellent introduction that gives a brief but thorough discussion of the French in the Americas. He tells of Balguerie's commercial venture in 1816, sending the Bordelais to Valparaiso, San Francisco and onwards. He tells of the important publication about the beauties of California by de Morineau, Notice sur la Nouvelle Californie. He discusses, with some humour, the few French ships that went to California just before the discovery of gold, and those that went there afterward. He then goes on to give every possible resource to be used in researching the early French arrivals in California, including a discussion of what may be found in the Diplomatic Archives, or Archives diplomatiques. A good example of such research, which may be helpful, is Jean-Nicolas Perlot's Goldseeker:


Nasatir's book was written in 1945 and published by Stanford University Press. It was probably read by about four people pursuing their studies during the war. Since then, it has been quoted widely in other academic sources, but was most likely of use only to academics wth travel grants. The Internet being the new gold rush, you may now, Dear Readers, use this book* to find much to help with your research of that gold miner ancestor.


©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

*Nasatir wisely renewed the copyright, which is why some pages of the book are not online.

Some rather helpful comments have been added below.