Using the births, deaths and marriages registers
If you read my last post about how I used the census returns in the online departmental archives to make a start on tracing the owners of our mill, you’ll know just how useful they are. But as a census is only conducted once every few years I inevitably ended up with quite a few gaps where people disappeared or arrived and I didn’t know exactly when or where from.
To fill in these gaps you can try using the registers of births, deaths and marriages. You will find these on the same website ( ie the departmental archive for your département). In ours they are called Registres paroissiaux et d’état civil but the key words to look for are état civil.
Until 1792 all registers were kept by the local parish priest, and in 1667 a law was passed that two copies had to be kept; one in the parish or mairie (depending on the year) and the other sent to the registry office.
From 1792 onwards it was the responsibility of the mairie, town hall to keep registers of all births, deaths and marriages.
The copies from the registry offices are available in the departmental archives but if they were destroyed following the law of 1887, you may still find that the mairie has a copy and the staff are usually very helpful and will even photocopy documents for you.
It’s also worth noting that from 22nd September 1798 (fructidor an VI) until 26th July 1800 (thermidor an VIII), all marriages had to be performed in the main town of the canton where the bride or groom lived , rather than in the commune.
From 1793 onwards you should also find documents called tables décennales (abbreviated to T.D.). These are alphabetical lists of all the acts registered over a ten-year period and is a quick way to see if you are looking in the right place.
I mention all this historical trivia because when I found out about it myself it helped solve some problems of where to look for things!
Now, I don’t wish to teach grandmas to suck eggs (most of you will speak better French than me, I’m sure) but if you’re not yet very confident it might help to know what you are looking at, once you get into these documents.
So let me take a couple of examples from my own detective work. I knew that François Joubert had remarried but I didn’t know what had happened to his first wife. Looking on the Sarthe archives I went to the section called Registres paroissiaux et d’état civil, filtered on the name of our commune and was presented with a list of results.
The middle columns show the years and the abbreviations N, M, D (or S in the older parish records) standing for naissances (births), mariages, and décès (deaths) or sépultures (burials). You can see that they are often all lumped together in the same document.
I knew she was at the mill in 1911 from the census and François had remarried in 1916 so I looked for the table décennale which covered the period between. By flicking through the document (top tip – use the >> to advance 10 pages at a time) and checking at the top of the page as I went for when the ‘Deaths’ started, I finally came to Rosalie. Notice that her death is registered under her ‘birth’/maiden name, this being her ‘legal’ name.
(As the actual register entries haven’t yet been digitised for this year for my village, I have added it to my list of things to look for when I go into the mairie.)
From the 1906 census for Auvers le Hamon I knew that François and Rosalie had a son, Robert, who had been born on 6th October 1894 in St Denis d’Orques. (If I can’t find the commune in the list on our department’s archives or can’t actually read all of the place name on a document, I use Google maps and start typing the name in the search box. This usually gives a list of suggestions with postcodes that I can use to decide the correct spelling and find out which department archives to go to!)
Anyway, I digress. For Robert, I already had the date to work from so didn’t need to look at the table décennale.
By filtering on St Denis d’Orques and picking the registrations of birth for the relevant year it didn’t take me long to find Robert.
Now comes the fun bit – obviously the records are written in French but perhaps surprisingly, written French hasn’t changed much over the centuries, so if you have a bit of the language from your time at school and a dictionary you will probably find you can understand most, if not all of it. The biggest headache is being able to decipher the handwriting!
Although there may be some variation according to where and how long ago the act was registered, they generally follow a similar format.
Let me take you through Robert’s birth registration as an example. Generally, the person’s name will be shown in the left hand margin with the number of the registration for that year. (incidentally, you also often see additional, later annotations in the margin referring to subsequent events such as the marriage and/or death of that person.)
The priest or registrar will then start with the date of the birth/marriage/death registration (eg.in this case ‘L’an mil huit cent quatre vingt quatorze, le sept octobre’ – The year 1894, 7th October), the time, name and credentials of the person recording the act.
There then follows details of the parents, their ages, where they live, and the place and date of their marriage.
Next, we are told that dad was declaring that at six o’clock on the previous morning Rosalie had given birth to a male child at the couple’s home and that the declarant (François) wants to call him Robert Pierre. ( Parents had 3 days to declare the birth of a child so the registration date is not necessarily the date of birth.)
The official then notes the names, ages, professions and place of domicile of the witnesses to this act…
…(Pierre Froissard, 47, café owner and Charles Dubois, 67, fabric merchant,
both from St Denis d’Orques) and non parents de l’enfant, not related to the child (parent – also meaning relative).
There is then a declaration:
“In witness whereof, we have written this act on the two registers required and the declarant and the witnesses have signed with us, following the reading [of the act] to them by ourselves”
And then the signatures of all parties.
And there you have it. The official in this case is prone to not leaving gaps between words and uses ‘fs’ to denote ‘ss’, as was common at the time.
but generally I don’t think it’s too difficult to read. The more you look at these documents the easier you will find it!
I hope you can find out a bit more about the people who have lived in your home with this information.
To see how this information fitted into what I know about the Joubert family, just click on the link below, and please do leave me a comment to say how you are getting on with your research.