You have been wanting to trace your French ancestors for a long time now, but did not know how to do it ? You are lost among the rich variety of the French archives, and more ? In this new post, I’ll share with you the variety of the French resources.

Back to the beginning

The first organization of the French registers of births, marriages and death was signed by François Ier (Francis I), on August 10th, 1539. The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, named after the name of the city where it was signed, called for the use of French in all legal acts. Prior to the edict, Latin was the most common language used by the clergy and the notaries. It also requires the priests to record baptism, marriage and burial. We call them BMS : Baptême (baptism) Mariage (marriage) Sépulture (burial). 

Some priests have not waited for the edict to start recording BMS. The oldest record known in France is that of Givry, Saône-et-Loire, and dates 1303 (link).

Two records were required. One was kept in the parish, the other one was sent at the court office. Why keeping track of BMS in two records ? This is a security measure, in case one, most likely the one kept in the parish, would to be lost, burnt or destroyed by any means. Sometimes, both records are available online, which is a luck for the genealogist. Writing hard to decipher, missing pages can be completed by a research in the double record. Unfortunately not all records are available. The lack of records is often linked to History. Civil or World Wars have destroyed a lot of archives, especially in Normandy (WWII), Somme and Alsace-Lorraine (WWI). 

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Archives départementales Côte d’Or (©Sophie Boudarel)

The French Revolution and the Archives 

In 1789, the French people rose against monarchy, and the clergy. In 1790, the National Archives were created, but it is in 1794 that a state decree made mandatory to centralize all the pre-Revolution Archives. In 1796, departmental Archives were created. They centralize all the records of the department, and the double of the city archives. In 1970, a law makes it mandatory for municipalities with fewer than 2 000 inhabitants, the submission of city archives in the departmental archives. Municipalities with more than 2 000 remaining free to file or not. 

Today, The National French Archives are spread over five different sites.

Paris : the National Archives has been located since 1808 in the district of Le Marais, in the Hôtel de Soubise and Hôtel de Rohan. It stores the archives of French heads of State, private archives, the Minutier central des notaires parisiens (the archives of all the Parisian notaries), and pre-Revolution archives such as the Parisian court archives, which makes the National Archives essential for those with Parisian ancestors.

Pierrefitte-sur-Seine : located in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, the building stores post Revolution archives.

Fontainebleau : located in the department of Seine-et-Marne, the building used to store private archives of architects, career records of officials, naturalization records since the second half of the twentieth century, audiovisual archives, electronic archives and specific funds. Unfortunately, due to building structure defect, this site is now closed. All the archives but the naturalization records from 1974 to 2012 are now available in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine.

Archives nationales d’Outre-mer (ANOM) : French for National Overseas Archives, the ANOM opened in Aix-en-Provence in 1966. The genealogist can find archives from the Ministries of Colonies, including files of convicts sent to penal colonies. 

Archives nationales du monde du travail (ANMT) : French for National Working World Archives, the ANMT opened in Roubaix in 1993. If your ancestor was an architect, you may find his archives at the ANMT. It also stores archives for societies, associations, businesses and trade unions. 

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Chapelle Saint-Roch aux Minimes, sépultures : registre paroissial. 1623 – 1790. Photo Credit: Ville de Toulouse, Archives municipales, cote GG694

The Departmental Archives

There are 100 departemental Archives in France, 96 in France, and 4 overseas (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion and Guyane). 

These Archives are opened to the public and free. You will find there civil registers that are more than 100 years old.  You will find there:

  • Civil registration (birth, marriage and death records)
  • Church records (before 1792)
  • Census records
  • Notarial records
  • Military conscription records,
  • Hospital records
  • Land register
  • …..

96 Departemental Archives are available online. However, the proposed online digital archives can vary greatly from one department to another.

Town registers

Along with the records you can find at the Departmental Archives, the town registrars have specific recors, such as:

  • Electoral lists
  • Tax documents (from the late Middle Ages to the 18th century).
  • Records of the town council

Access to archives conditions will be the same as in departmental archives.

In the following posts, we will see other resources and how to read French registers.