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Making sense of old handwriting

Civil Records




Family Books


What are Civil Registers?

The concept of civil registration became a force of European and world record-keeping following the French Revolution. During the last years of the eighteenth century, civil registration began in France and other French-speaking countries but was effectively blocked by the conservative elements of society, which were dominated by Catholic countries. These elements feared that civil registration would result in a further secularization of society and a reduction of the control that the church had over the people. From approximately 1593 until 1792, the records were officially kept by the clergy in France. After this time, the responsibility shifted to civil registers. This thorough record-keeping extended to all French colonies.

The Records

The books of a civil register are organized into three separate sections: births, marriages, and deaths. There is generally one volume or more for each year, although in some cases during the early years when district populations were small, a volume may cover more than one year. Often, each volume and/or each year will be indexed.

In the civil register, the format of the entries and the information they contain is similar to that found in parish registers. There is, however, a much greater uniformity within a given country and time period between civil register books than between parish books due to the fact that the material which the civil register contains is dictated by national law, and the national governments have often provided printed civil register books. The information given in a civil register entry also tends to be much more complete than early parish entries and even superior to parish entries of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The completeness of the content of civil registers in other countries varies over time and place but generally provides the major part of the information found in those of France. All have in common the procedure in which a declarant, often the parent or other relative, appeared before the judge or secretary of the civil register and reported the event recorded. The first person described, often with his marital status, age, and/or place of birth and/or residence, will be that declarant.


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