French national archives, French archives, French genealogy, French professional genealogist
French archives

Discovering the French archives

26 July 2021

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 wealth of the French archives? In this two parts publication, I’ll share with you the variety of the French archives. Let’s start with the National Archives.

Back to the beginning

On August 10th, 1539, François Ier (Francis I) signs the first organization of the French registers of births, marriages and death. The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts calls 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.

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).

Archives départementales Côte-d’Or, Bourgogne. Photo Credit: Sophie Boudarel

The French Revolution and the Archives

In 1789, the French people rose against monarchy, and the clergy. One year later, the National Archives were created. It is in 1794 that a state decree made mandatory to centralize all the pre-Revolution Archives. Departmental Archives were created in 1796. 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 Archives comprises five main archival services, 100 departmental archives, 30 big municipal archives.

The five National Archives

  • Paris: 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 records of French heads of State, private archives, the Minutier central des notaires parisiens (Parisian notaries), and pre-Revolution papers such as the Parisian court registers, 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 official documents.
  • 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. Due to building structure defect, this site is closed and its holdings being gradually transferred to Pierrefitte-sur-Seine.

Colonial era

  • 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.

Trade

  • 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.

Military

  • The SHD: The Service Historique de la Défense, French for Defence Historical Service, stores the archives of Ministry of Defence and its armed forces. The SHD has three departments, located in different cities:
    • Vincennes : Archives of the Ministry of Defence (and ministries that preceded it), the joint agencies, the Army, the Air Force, National Gendarmerie, the staff of the Marine and navy organizations based in Ile-de-France.
    • Five port cities (Cherbourg, Brest, Lorient, Rochefort, Toulon) for the archives of the Navy units and services based in the maritime regions.
    • Caen: Archives Division of the victims of contemporary conflicts (DAVCC). It stores the records relating to victims of contemporary conflicts (dead, deportees, prisoners, …).

In the second part, I’ll introduce you to the departmental and communal archives, as well as the information you will find in the parish and civil status registers.

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