Old French Records

Reading old records written in any language can prove difficult because the language has changed over time. French is no different. Besides having to become familiar with a different set of words, you will need to adjust to such things as old styles of handwriting, archaic words, ink blots, torn or worm-eaten pages, and unfamiliar abbreviations. While some of these things can be difficult to navigate, our site provides you with all of the necessary tools to successfully read old French records with ease and accuracy.


Types and Formats

Through your efforts to read French records dating back to the 16th century, you will come to know both the development and individual characteristics of the records and become proficient in reading the text and format.  As you gain an understanding of what the records are saying, an appreciation for the people who made a diligent effort to create them will develop.  Record keeping in France, especially civil, parish, and notarial registers, was highly regulated by the French Crown.  The government dictated what information should be contained in each type of register.  Naturally, there were local and regional influences that affected the registers; however, extensive general similarities found in most records which are a tremendous aid in reading and understanding French old records. For example, the Crown prescribed the form in which Catholic church parish registers, were to be kept. Each time a child was christened, a couple married, or a person was buried, the parish priest or one of his assistants was to make an entry in the register, recording the name of the person, where the event occurred, and the date it happened.

Although the specific requirements for keeping registers have changed from time to time, the formats have stayed basically the same. This tutorial will introduce you to those basic formats; that is, it will focus on the specific information contained in each record and where in the record that information is usually found. Those just beginning to learn to read and understand old French records should go to Techniques and Tools on the sidebar and read each of the pages there. Then go to the Civil Registers pages under Documents and begin with the page about birth records. Those with more paleographic experience can go to a specific document type under Documents for sample transcribed and translated documents with explanatory notes and commentaries about that document type and its essential components.  



Much of the text on this page was adapted from p. 1-1 of French Record Extraction - An Instructional Guide, © 1981 by Intellectual Reserve and Alain Marie, Lire les Archives Notariales. Please consult these resources for more detailed guidelines of French document extraction. Which texts may be found under Additional Resources.

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