What are Church Records?
Church records are also commonly known as Parish records. Since the people in French, Catholic parish records are the most common and abundant source of records in French family history research. Since keeping records as part of the civil registration systems did not start until the nineteenth century, parish records constitute an invaluable source of information about individuals; in many cases, they are the only source available for these individuals. These records can be divided into two broad categories: sacramental and non-sacramental records.
In the Catholic Church, there are seven significant sacraments or Christian rites, which are seen as channels to the grace of God and, as such, are essential to the Catholic faith. Since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), parish priests have been required to keep records of certain ordinances or sacraments in records called registres paroissiaux or parish registers. These include records of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and deaths and burials.
Under the direction of local Bishops, each diocese of the church prescribed the form in which these records were to be kept, and although the specific information required to be recorded in parish registers has changed from time to time, the formats of christening, marriage, and death entries have remained essentially the same.
Then in 1539, François I, the King of France, signed the edict known as Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, which standardized the administrative language of the kingdom and required priests to register births and deaths in every parish. This initiated the first records of vital statistics with filiations in Europe and is the oldest piece of legislation that is still in effect in France. Thus, French records tend to be very consistent. The following pages will introduce you to those basic formats; they will focus on the specific information contained in each entry and discuss where that information can usually be found.
To learn more about these kinds of parish records, use the options at the top of the page.
Parish records also include records that record other events that are not related to the sacraments of the Catholic church. These other records include fraternal order books, church censuses, account books, and local history documents. While not used as often as sacramental records in family history research, they can often be a valuable source of additional information.
"Seven Sacraments Altarpiece," Triptych (right panel), Rogier van der Weyden, 1445-1450.
This image is in the public domain