French ancestors – parish records

Before 1792, your research will rely on Parish records (registres paroissiaux), the only source for finding people before the civil status.

The records between 1700-1792 are generally good, with information such as age, occupation and witnesses. Before this, details are much more sketchy and you may be forced to carry out your research by exhaustive and systematic searches.

Also, note that the Catholic church continues to record baptisms, marriages and deaths in Catholic records (registres de catholicité) – very useful if you are unable to find a civil record.

Parish records began in 1517 when king François I ordered every priest in his kingdom to record baptisms, marriages and deaths. At the same time he decreed that the documents (previously in Latin) should be written in French, so that as well as improving records, he also improved the French language.

As the secondary purpose of parish records was to count people, they are not denomination-specific. Catholicism was the dominant faith (more than 95 per cent of the French population was Catholic), but most other minority religions kept their own records. These were often linked with particular areas (eg Protestants in Cévennes and Jews in Bordeaux).

Each village or town has its own registers – most of them very well preserved in the local archives. Again, it may be worth checking whether those you are looking for have been digitised and put online – try

French ancestors – notaries' records
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