Introduction to French Paleography
About this Website
This tutorial will introduce you to basic record formats for French records, focusing on the specific information contained in each record and how to know where those pieces of information may be found.
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 the need to become familiar with a different set of words, you will need to adjust to such things as old styles of handwriting, archaic words, inkblots, torn or worm-eaten pages, and unfamiliar abbreviations. While some of these things can be difficult to navigate, our site provides you with a set of powerful tools to help you increase the ease and accuracy you experience as you read old French records.
We recommend studying the linked sections below thoroughly before reading old manuscripts. Doing so will help you be more confident in your ability to understand these records and minimize misinterpretations or moments where you miss the information you are searching for.
We also recommend having a French-style alphabet open for reference while transcribing or reading older records (see our alphabet charts for French).
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 (note also that certain areas of France have been influenced by Germanic and other Romantic languages); however, extensive general similarities were 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. 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. To start learning about various record types, see 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 in the Document Gallery to see example transcriptions and translations of example documents for reference.
- 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 from Alain Marie, Lire Les Archives Notariales.
- Banner: François Joseph Luigi Loir, La sortie de l'Empereur de Russie à la fête de Gala de l'Opéra, Painting, digital image, Wikimedia Commons (https://en.wikipedia.org : accessed 20 July 2023). This image is in the public domain.
- Map: Samuel Augustus Mitchell, Map of France, 1853, in Samuel Augustus Mitchell, A New Universal Atlas Containing Maps of the various Empires, Kingdoms, States and Republics Of The World (Philadelphia,1853)