French History and Records for Genealogy

July 5, 2020  - by 
A statue in France.

Over the centuries, France’s government and culture has changed many times. These changes often affected record keeping. The good news is that historical change in France sometimes resulted in the creation of valuable French genealogy records. Here are a few examples of how French history may have affected records kept about your ancestors in France.

The Catholic Church and Parish Records

For hundreds of years, the Roman Catholic Church played an influential role in French history—and record keeping. Clovis I, considered the founder of modern France, converted to Catholicism around the year 500. The church and the French monarchy mutually supported each other; the Roman Catholic Church in France became a state church.

Ordinance of Villers Cotterêts, a french records document

In 1539, King Francis I signed the Ordinance of Villers Cotterêts, which required that priests keep registers of baptisms. Forty years later, another law mandated that they keep marriage and burial records too. Louis XIV further required that copies of parish vital records be created, beginning in 1667, which increased chances that at least one copy would survive in future years.

These records now sometimes make it possible to trace your French ancestry back to the 1600s or even the 1500s. They typically include details that help genealogists reconstruct family trees. For example, baptismal registers typically included an infant’s name and baptismal date (usually within two days of birth) and parents’ names. Marriage registers also identified the parents of the bride and groom and perhaps a deceased spouse (for later marriages) and explained familial relationships between brides and grooms who were related to each other. Burial records named the surviving spouse or parents of the deceased.

Learn more about finding and using French church records.

The French Revolution and Civil Registration

The French Revolution, which started in 1789, upended the monarchy and the Catholic Church’s political power. In 1792, a new law transferred responsibility for official vital record keeping from parish priests to new civil offices. Local civil registration officials gathered registers from local churches and began recording new births, marriages, and deaths. Parish priests continued to maintain registers for church use, so, from this point forward, you may be able to find both civil registration and parish records for your French ancestors.

A french monument to lasalle

The earliest French civil registration records weren’t very detailed, but eventually they included quite a bit of genealogical information. Birth records named children and identified their sex, birthdate and place, parents’ names (including mother’s maiden surname), and more. Marriage records identified the bride and groom and gave their birth information, details about their parents, identities of four witnesses, and sometimes more. In death records, you’ll generally find at least the decedent’s name, death date and place, age at death, birthplace, and parents’ names.

Learn more about French civil registration.

Censuses and a Nation in Transition

France was slow to conduct nationwide censuses. Citizens feared that being enumerated would lead to greater taxation and forced military service. A scattering of local censuses were taken in the late 1700s, but what survives is mostly statistical data. Napoleon ordered the first full census in 1801. Though some censuses followed, logistical issues and political upheaval prevented a successful nationwide, every-name census until 1836.

A french census record

After 1836, censuses were taken every five years in France, except for 1871 (which was delayed a year due to the Franco-Prussian war) and during World War I and II. Censuses are taken on a regional level (département), so the content varies. But you will generally find each person’s full name (sometimes with the maiden surnames of women), age or year of birth, occupation, relationship to the head of household, and marital status. You may see nationality, birthplace, an address information as well as more detailed employment information.

Learn more about French censuses.

The Paris Commune and Family Registers

In the spring of 1871, civil unrest beset the city of Paris. The French government under Napoleon III had just been defeated in the Franco-Prussian (or Franco-German) War. The postwar government was not popular in Paris. City elections led to the formation of the opposing Paris Commune. On May 21, violent clashes led to the burning of public buildings, including the city hall in Paris, where civil registration records were kept. Almost all of the city’s civil registers were destroyed.

This devastating loss led the French government to add family civil registration records to vital record keeping (in Paris in 1877 and across the rest of France in 1884). Couples received family registration booklets when they married and took these booklets to civil registration offices to be updated whenever they had a child (or lost one). The booklet served as a backup copy for individual birth and death records. These booklets were sometimes handed down through generations in French families.

a french marriage register record

Many other French genealogy records came about because of historical events and political policy, including Paris identity cards (1792–1795), pension records, military conscription records, and electoral rolls.

To learn more about your ancestors in France and the stories of their lives, explore French genealogy records for free on FamilySearch.org.

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this round-up – I’ve found some of these resources, but not all so am glad to have this post!

    1. Hi! There are a few ways you can search for your ancestors on FamilySearch. Here are my two favorite ways to search: You can search Historical Records that have been transcribed/indexed by volunteers, which are found here. There are different search fields (like first name, last name, location, etc.) in the form that you may use to narrow your search.

      If you do not find the information about your ancestors by searching Historical Records, try searching Historical Images here where you’ll find records that have not been transcribed/indexed yet that you can sift through manually.

  2. I was looking for my great grand father who went to Mexico but I am not sure of his birth date just the word of mouth of people that tell my that he was born in Cognac France but lack the parents name and his birth date, someone told me that he was jewish His name was Leonardo Roubinet and had 4 daugthers one born in 1867 in the state of Hidalgo. in Mexico Any help would be greatly appreciated

  3. Thank you for your information. I have been trying to find my Grt Grandmother’s family, without success. She married one James Schretter and came to New York about 1850. Her 1918 Michigan Death Certificate states that she was born in LeHavre, but no record can be found of her birth.