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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.