France Historical Geography

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This section describes the changes that have taken place in the provincial and departmental structure of France. It describes the jurisdictions used in the FamilySearch Catalog.

The boundaries of France have changed frequently. Genoa (now part of Italy) sold the island of Corse to France in 1768. France controlled the Duchy of Savoie and County of Nice from 1792 to 1814 and permanently after 1860. Alsace-Lorraine (basically Moselle, Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin) has been an area disputed over the centuries between France and Germany. France lost Alsace-Lorraine in 1871 and regained it in 1914. In the seventeenth century, France acquired a number of cities in Flanders from Belgium.

Before 1789 France was divided into provinces, referred to as "regions" in the FamilySearch Catalog. The French revolutionary government reorganized France into new territorial divisions called departments [départements].

In 1966 France changed the departments in the vicinity of Paris. New departments such as Essonne, Hauts-de-Seine, Paris, Seine-St.-Denis, Val-d'Oise, Val-de-Marne, and Yvelines were created to replace the older Seine and Seine-et-Oise departments. In southeast France, the department of Basses-Alpes was changed in 1970 to Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Côtes-du-Nord, in the northwest, was recently changed to Côtes-d'Armor. The Family History Library continues to use the older Seine, Seine-et-Oise, Basses-Alpes, and Côtes-du-Nord departments in its catalog.

Departments were smaller than the old provinces. Each department was divided into several districts [arrondissements] and each district was divided into several cantons.

During the French Revolution, starting in 1789 and for a few years afterward, names of towns containing the name Saint or God were temporarily changed to nonreligious names. For example, Dieulouard became Scarponne for a few years.

The following book explains more about the historical geography of France. You can find this and similar material at the Family History Library and many other research libraries.

  • Mirot, Léon. Manuel de géographie historique de la France (Historical geography of France). Two Volumes. Paris, France: Picard, 1980. (Family History Library book 944 E2m; not on microfilm.)

Other sources about boundary changes are found in the FamilySearch Catalog under: