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Church records [registres paroissiaux] are excellent sources for information on names, dates, and places of baptisms, marriages, and deaths. Most persons who lived in France were recorded in a church record.
Records of births (baptisms), marriages, and deaths are commonly called "vital records" because critical events in a person's life are recorded in them. Church records are vital records made by priests. They are often referred to as parish registers or church books. They include records of births, christenings, marriages, and burials. Church records may also contain other information, lists, or documents.
Church records are crucial for pre-1792 research in France. Since civil authorities did not begin registering vital statistics until 1792, church records are often the only sources of family information before this date. After 1792 Church records continued to be kept, but such records were usually not filmed because they are incomplete and less accurate than the civil registers.
For birth, death, and marriage records after 1792, see France Civil Registration- Vital Records.
General Historical Background
The keeping of Catholic parish registers was first required by the church at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The oldest parish register in France, for the city of Givry, dates back to 1334. However parish registers are rare until 1539, when the French king, François I, required priests to keep parish registers. Unfortunately, many of the earlier records have been destroyed or lost.
The efficient recording of baptisms, marriages, and deaths developed slowly. The record-keeping requirement was limited, at first, to baptisms. The requirements developed as follows:
1539: The first laws required baptismal registers showing the date and the hour of the birth.
1563: The Council of Trent required that the godparents' names be recorded in the baptismal certificates.
1579: Death and marriage records were required in addition to baptismal records.
1691: Some preprinted forms were given to priests for uniformity of record keeping.
1792: Civil registration began. Church records became less important as a genealogical source. Most church records before 1792 were turned over to the departmental archives.
Feast Dates. Each day of the year had several patron saints and was a feast day to honor those saints. Some vital events are recorded in church records only by the holy day (feast day) on the church calendar. For example, the feast day called "All Saints Day" [Toussaint] is "1 November." To convert feast dates to days of the month for either the Julian (old style) or Gregorian (new style) calendar, use the following book:
- Bukke, Inger M., et. al. The Comprehensive Genealogical Feast Day Calendar. Bountiful, Utah, USA: Thomson's Genealogical Center, 1983. (FHL book 529.44 C738; fiche 6054630.)
Duplicate Church Records
The practice of making duplicates of church books was introduced as law in 1667. The original was kept at the vicarage, and the duplicate was delivered to the clerk of the court [greffe du bailliage]. Although this law was not completely obeyed, most parishes did comply and made at least some copies. Another law reinforcing the requirement for parish register duplicates was passed in 1736. Sometime after the French Revolution, these duplicates and most of the original parish registers prior to 1792 were handed over to the departmental archives for safekeeping.
Differences in Record Keeping by Various Churches
The manner of keeping church records differed somewhat depending on the religion. For more information on the churches of France, see France Church History.
The Catholic churches in France were among the first to keep vital records. The Council of Trent in 1563 issued the first mandate that Roman Catholic parishes keep records of christenings. A later directive in 1579 required the keeping of marriage and death records. The churches in France did not always comply with this regulation. Many Catholic registers date from the mid-1600s, but a few date back to the 1500s. However, there are some earlier records, such as the parish registers of Givry (Saône-et-Loire) which go from 1334 to 1357 and the records of Roz Landrieux (Ille-et-Villaine) from 1451 to 1528. Records were kept in French or Latin.
Although many of the very early records may have been preserved, many parishes have gaps in their records, especially before 1736.
Protestants (Huguenots and others)
See also: France Huguenots
In France, Protestantism started in 1541. A synod of Calvinist reformers in Paris in 1559 decided that a record of baptisms and marriages of Protestants would be kept by the pastors of the Eglise réformée. Because of wars, intolerance, and other calamities, some of these early Protestant records may have been destroyed.
It is important to recall that not all French protestants were Huguenots: the Lutheran church, la Confession d'Augsbourg was tolerated in Alsace and their church registers date back to 1525. If you have protestant ancestors from Alsace, it is important to know if they were Lutheran or Huguenot (Calvinist). In France, the nickname "Huguenot" was given to the French Calvinist protestants; however, in English the word has come to embrace any protestant refugee from France and also Walloons from Belgium and Dutch-speakers from the Low Countries.
Researching Protestants is difficult because these people moved frequently, sometimes from one nation to another. As with all genealogical research, it is necessary to go from the known to the unknown. To trace a Protestant from America back across the Atlantic, it is necessary to know more than just the name of a person. It is important to know relatives or at least friends who traveled as a group with the ancestor. Knowing the nation where they previously resided will help you search the records of that nation and identify the family and its previous nation of residence.
Most Protestants did not come straight from France to North America, but fled first to nearby nations, especially after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. If your ancestors arrived in North America sometime in the early 1700s, the chances are that the family left France in 1685 and spent the years in between in a European nation such as England, the Netherlands, or Germany, sometimes moving from one nation to another. It may be necessary for you to research everyone with a selected surname, especially if this surname is not too common, rather than research just one ancestor. You also need to be aware that in going from one nation to another, the surname spellings were subject to change to fit in better in the new nation.
It is a good idea to learn all you can about the history of these people and search every record available in the Family History Library in their area of residence. To do so, search the Subject section of Family History Library Catalog under subjects like:
HUGUENOTS - ENGLAND
HUGUENOTS - FRANCE
HUGUENOTS - NORTH CAROLINA
HUGUENOTS - UNITED STATES
Look for name indexes and study the history of the area. Identify their date of arrival and their nation of residence before they crossed the ocean. Do not believe everything that has been published previously, but prove information for yourself. The following sources may help researchers looking for Huguenot ancestors.
Bibliothèque Wallonne (Leiden). Fiches op de Waalse register, 1500-1828 (Card index of Huguenots, 1500-1828). Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1950. (Family History Library film 199,755-953.) Text is mainly in French, with some Dutch, on 198 microfilms. Includes Huguenots in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany and elsewhere. The names are alphabetical phonetically, then chronological in order by the event date. They show dates and places of births, marriages, deaths, and migrations.
Bibliothèque Wallonne (Leiden). Fiches op de registers, collectie Montauban, 1647- 1682 (Card index of Huguenots of Montauban, Tarn-et-Garonne, France, 1647-1682). Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1950. (Family History Library film 199,957-62.) Text in French. Alphabetical by name. Shows dates and places of births, marriages, deaths, and migrations.
Bibliothèque Wallonne (Leiden). Fiches op de registers, collectie La Rochelle, 1602- 1685. (Card index of Huguenots of La Rochelle, Charente-Maritime, France, 1602-1685). Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1950. (Family History Library film 199,954-56.) Text in French. Alphabetical by name. Shows dates and places of births, marriages, deaths, and migrations.
Parish Register Inventory
France. Archives nationales. Les familles Protestantes en France (XVIe siècle-1792) (French Protestant families from the 16th century to 1792). Paris, France: Archives Nationales, 1987. (Family History Library book 944 F23f; not on microfilm.) Many of the parish registers mentioned in this inventory are also available on microfilms at the Family History Library.
Cahiers du Centre de Généalogie Protestante (See France Periodicals .)
Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire du Protestantisme Français (See France Periodicals.)
Publications of the Huguenot Society of London. 57 Volumes. London, England: HSL, 1969-1985. (Family History Libaryr book 942.1/L1 B4h; most volumes have been microfilmed.) Includes many parish register transcripts from cities chiefly in Great Britain and Ireland. Text in French in some volumes.
- Geschichtsblätter des Deutschen Hugenotten-Vereins (Historical series on Huguenot leaders, churches and settlements throughout the world, published by the German Huguenot Society). Sickte, Germany: Verlag des Deutschen Hugenotten-Vereins, 1892-. (Family History Library book 943 F2gd; fiche 6000819.) Place of publication varies. Text in German. Volumes 1-14 are indexed in Cordier, Leopold. Hugenottische Familiennamen in Deutschland (Huguenot surnames in Germany). Berlin, Germany: Verlag des Deutschen Hugenotten-Vereins, [1953?]. (Family History Library book 943 F2gd v. 1-14 index; film 962761 item 3.) Volumes 15-19 are indexed in Mathieu, Ursula-Marianne. Hugenottische Familiennamen in Deutschland, Teil II (Huguenot surnames in Germany, part 2). Bad Karlshafen: Verlag des Deutschen Hugenotten-Vereins, 1991. (Family History Library book 943 F2gd v. 20 pt. 7-10; not on microfilm.)
- Der Deutsche Hugenott (Periodical of German Huguenot genealogy and history) Hannover, Germany: Deutscher Hugenotten-Verein, 1929-. (Family History Library book 943 B2dh; film 908257.) Text in German. A cumulative name index is found in Mathieu, Ursula-Marianne. Namensregister 1.-40. Jahrgang, 1929- 1976 (Name index for years 1 to 40, 1929-1976) Sickte: Verlag des Deutschen Hugenotten-Vereins, 1987. (Family History Library book 943 F2gd v. 19 pt. 5-7; not on microfilm.)
Significant Huguenot Records
- Haag, Eugène. La France protestante: l'histoire (The History of Protestant France). Nine Volumes. Paris, France: Imp. de J.-B. Gros, 1846-1859. (Family History Library book 944 D3hg; film 962,949-53.) Biographical and genealogical sketches of prominent figures in the Protestant movement in France. Alphabetical by surname.
- Mours, Samuel. Les Eglises réformées en France (The reformed churches in France). Paris, France: Librairie Protestante, 1958. (Family History Library film 765,005.) Maps and listing of Protestant centers in France with dates of establishment.
- Wagner, Henry. Wagner collection of Huguenot pedigrees in England. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1952. (Family History Library film 087,860-65, index on 824,245 item 9.) Text in English. About 1,000 surnames.
La généalogie: histoire et pratique (see France For Further Reading). Pages 181-87 describe Protestant records, their content, and history.
Some French Protestant records may have been published or indexed by a local genealogical society library.
You may also write to the Library of French Protestantism for assistance. To pay for the search send about $15.00 worth of francs to:
- Bibliothèque de la S.H.P.F.
54, rue des Saints-Pères
Information Recorded in Church Registers
The information recorded in church books varied over time. The later records usually give more complete information.
The most important church records for genealogical research are baptism, marriage, and burial registers. Other helpful church records are marriage banns, marriage rehabilitations, and abjurations from Protestantism.
Catholic records are usually written in French or Latin. Protestant records in Alsace were often written in German. Some records from the area of Nice are in Italian. Local dialects may have affected the spelling of some names and other words in the church records. Some given names are common to some areas and unknown in others.
Catholic children were usually baptized within two days of birth. Some were given an emergency baptism [ondoyé] by the midwife when the child was in danger of death. Protestant children were usually baptized within a few weeks of birth. Baptism registers usually give the infant's and parents' names, status of legitimacy, names of godparents, and the baptism date. You may also find the child's birth date, the father's occupation, and the family's place of residence. Death information has sometimes been added as a note. Children who died at birth may be recorded only in the death records.
Earlier registers typically give less information, sometimes including only the child's and father's names and the date of the baptism. The mother's maiden surname may be missing, and even her given name may be omitted. At first only the baptism date was recorded, but in later years the birth date was given as well.
Marriage registers give the date of the marriage and the names of the bride and groom and their parents or deceased spouse. They also indicate whether they were single or widowed and give the names and relationships of witnesses. They often include other information about the bride and groom, such as their ages, residences, occupations, and sometimes birthplaces. In cases of second and later marriages, they include the names of previous partners and their death dates. Often a note is made whether a parent or other party gave permission for the marriage.
Marriage registers sometimes give the dates on which the marriage intentions were announced in addition to the marriage date. These announcements, called banns, gave opportunity for anyone to come forward who knew any reasons why the couple shouldn't be married. Engagements may be recorded in the marriage register. In some cities, such as Lyon, the notary who recorded the marriage contract is sometimes mentioned.
Many genealogical societies in France are presently indexing the marriages before 1792. See France Societies for information about contacting them.
Marriage banns [publications de mariage]. In addition to, or instead of the actual marriage register, some churches in France kept a separate register where marriage banns were recorded. Marriage banns do not always give the actual marriage date. However, hometown banns sometimes refer to a marriage place away from the bride's or groom's hometown.
Closely related people [consanguinité or affinité spirituelle] required special permission to marry [dispensation]. If a close relationship was discovered after marriage, a rehabilitation was required which granted the couple permission to stay married. Rehabilitations are often found in the marriage registers but more often at the diocesan archives. These were recorded like a marriage but sometimes twenty or thirty years after a marriage. Sometimes a chart showing the relationship can be found either in the parish registers or in the departmental archives record, series G.
Burials were recorded in the church record of the parish where the person was buried. The burial usually took place within a few days of the death, in the parish where the person died. Burial registers give the name of the deceased and the date and place of the burial. Often the age, place of residence, name of the surviving spouse or parents, and sometimes birthplace are given. But early death registers failed to record the age of the deceased and information about parents or spouse.
Some people, born and perhaps married before the keeping of vital records began in their area, may be recorded only in the burial records. These records may help fill in information when baptism or marriage records are lacking. Some children who died at birth are recorded only in the burial records (sometimes with a note that the child was baptized by the midwife).
Other church records include confirmation lists, lists of families, rental of a church bench, communion lists, and attendance at special meetings. Unusual calamities, such as torrential rains, flash floods, and fires, were also noted.
Abjurations from Protestantism [Abjurations]
During times of persecution, especially in 1685, some French Protestants were forced to renounce their religion and convert to the Roman Catholic Church. The records of their abjurations show the name, age, occupation, and residence. You may also identify parents, spouses, or children in some of these records.
Locating Church Records
Sometime after the French Revolution, the parish registers that had been kept at each parish until 1792 became state property. These registers were turned over to departmental archives or town registrars. The local priests no longer have parish registers before 1792. The departmental archives will answer written inquiries regarding the whereabouts of the parish registers of a specific locality, but they will not research a name in them.
You must know the town where your ancestor lived to use pre-1792 parish registers at the departmental archives. You need the same information to contact a priest for help with church records written after 1792.
Your ancestor may have lived in a village that belonged to a parish in a nearby town. A village may have belonged to different parishes during different periods. Try searching adjacent parishes with older records when you cannot find relatives in the parish where you think they should be.
Church Record Inventories
An inventory is a list of available church records, their location, and what years they cover. Church record inventories are included in the departmental archive inventories described in France Archives and Libraries. Some inventories may be out of date.
Andriveau Collection. For a description of indexes to parish registers of 25 large French and Belgian cities, see France Genealogy.
Some Catholic church records have partial indexes in larger towns, but the church records in smaller towns usually have no indexes.
Several French genealogical societies have begun indexing pre-1792 church records in their districts. For a list of indexed church records, chiefly marriages, see:
Recensement des dépouillements systématiques réalisés en France pour faciliter les recherches généalogiques (Inventory of the systematic extraction made in France to help genealogical researchers). Paris, France: Bibliothèque généalogique, 1988. (FHL book 944 D2r; not on microfilm.) List of where to obtain assistance and abstracts of community records.
Some of these societies are entering these marriage indexes on Minitel. See France Archives and Libraries for details.
GENLOR. The Genealogical Society of Lorraine has created a 600,000-name computer database of pre-1792 marriages in church records. It lists all marriages of the department of Vosges, about 95 percent of marriages in Meurthe-et-Moselle, about 50 percent of those in Meuse, and some for Moselle. GENLOR includes the groom's name, bride's name, parents, and date and place of marriage. The search is done one department at a time. GENLOR is on Minitel under "3628 GENLOR" (see France Archives and Libraries for details). If you want to write to request a search of this database, send the names of the bride and groom and the approximate year of the marriage, three international reply coupons, an envelope, and the name of the department to be searched to:
Madame la Secrétaire
54131 Saint Max Cedex
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has Catholic church records on microfilm from over 60 percent of the departments in France. This collection continues to grow as new records are microfilmed. Most of these records are from the northern, eastern, and southern areas of France. Fewer are from central France. Most of the library's parish records come from years before 1792.
The specific holdings of the Family History Library are listed in the Family History Library Catalog. You can determine whether the library has records for the locality your ancestor came from by checking the Place search of the Family History Library Catalog. However, if a record has been destroyed, was never kept, has not been microfilmed, or is restricted from public access, the Family History Library does not have a copy.
In the Family History Library Catalog, look under the name of the town where the parish was, not necessarily the town where your ancestor lived. Look under FRANCE, [DEPARTMENT], [TOWN] - CHURCH RECORDS.
New records are continually added to the Family History Library collection from numerous sources. Don't give up if records are not available yet. Check the Family History Library Catalog again every year for the records you need.
Records Not at the Family History Library
Baptism, marriage, burial, and other church records may be found by contacting or visiting departmental archives, town registrars, or local parishes in France, or you may hire a researcher to do this for you.
Departmental archives. Most pre-1792 parish records are in departmental archives. See France Archives and Libraries.
Town registrars. A few pre-1792 church records are preserved at the local civil registration office. See France Archives and Libraries.
Local parishes. Church records after 1792 in France are available by writing to the parish. Parishes will usually answer correspondence in French. However, most researchers have more success by contacting civil registration offices first. Your request may be forwarded if the records have been sent to another archive. To obtain the address of a given parish, write to the mayor of the town. The mayor will know if the parish office is in his town or in a nearby town.
If your request is unsuccessful, search for records that may have been filed in other archives or in civil registration offices. You may also want to hire a professional researcher for expert help.
Effective use of church records includes the following strategies in addition to the Search Strategies elsewhere in this article.
- For records after 1792, search civil records thoroughly before searching church records.
- When you find the baptism record of a relative or ancestor, search for the baptisms of brothers and sisters. Note the towns where godparents lived—these may be additional places to search for church records.
- Then search for the marriage of the parents. Marriages are usually recorded in the bride's parish. The marriage record will often lead to the baptism records of the parents.
- You can estimate the ages of the parents and search for their baptism records.
- Then repeat the process for both the father and the mother.
- If earlier generations are not in the record, search neighboring parishes.
- Search the death registers for all family members. Death records may show children who were never recorded in baptism records.
Wiki articles describing online collections are found at:
- France Births and Baptisms (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- France, Coutances et d'Avranche Diocese, Parish Registers (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- France Deaths and Burials (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- France Marriages (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- France, Protestant Church Records (FamilySearch Historical Records
- France, Coutance, Parish Church Registers (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- France, Quimper et Leon-Parish Registers (FamilySearch Historical Records)