An­cient house story

Ever won­dered about the his­tory of your French prop­erty or one you’re con­sid­er­ing buy­ing? His­to­rian An­ton Lee ex­plains how to re­search your French home’s past

French Property News - - Con­tents -

How to re­search the past of your French home

The first thing to say about any as­pect of his­tor­i­cal re­search un­der­taken in France is that a firm grasp of the lan­guage is vi­tal. That as­sumed, there are a num­ber of ways in which the his­tory of your house can be traced. The process is likely to be long and dif­fi­cult, but those re­ward­ing mo­ments of dis­cov­ery make it all worth­while.

Your quest will in­volve a de­tailed study of the build­ing it­self and a search for any writ­ten records which might men­tion your prop­erty. Much of the lat­ter can now be done on the in­ter­net.

In ad­di­tion, it will be im­por­tant to dis­cover as much as pos­si­ble about the area: a visit to the lo­cal mai­son de la presse will prob­a­bly fur­nish you with a book­let or two on the his­tory of the sur­round­ings while the lo­cal li­brary might have some­thing more sub­stan­tial.

Next are maps; a start­ing point is your mairie where you should find the Carte Napoléon (some­times called the carte cadas­trale), a de­tailed, hand-drawn map of every com­mune, cre­ated in the first part of the 19th cen­tury. The two great car­tog­ra­phers of the 18th cen­tury were Cassini and Bel­leyme, who cov­ered the whole coun­try and their maps can be looked at on­line. Al­most all coun­try houses and farms will be on one or both if they date from be­fore that time. Old IGN maps (the equiv­a­lent of Ord­nance Sur­vey) can also help and if you are near a site of his­tor­i­cal or ge­o­graph­i­cal in­ter­est – an abbey or a river, for in­stance – you might find other old maps are also avail­able.

An­other in­valu­able source of in­for­ma­tion is sto­ries told by neigh­bours. It is sur­pris­ing how of­ten fam­i­lies who have been in the lo­cal­ity for a while will have fa­mil­ial links with a num­ber of houses. They may even know of some­one who has old pho­to­graphs. The dan­ger is that a cer­tain amount of mis­in­for­ma­tion will prob­a­bly be in­cluded as well.

Where to start A phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion of your house is a great place to start. Un­less you live in a cas­tle, abbey or con­verted church, your home is un­likely to go back fur­ther than the late 16th cen­tury. Apart from the struc­tures men­tioned, houses in both town and coun­try be­tween the Ro­man oc­cu­pa­tion and the Re­nais­sance were built of tim­ber and daub and have ei­ther dis­ap­peared or been com­pletely re­built.

Make a site plan and try to work out the way the build­ing has de­vel­oped, be­cause there are very few old houses that have not been al­tered, of­ten many times. If the house is built of stone, a use­ful project is to mea­sure the thick­ness of all the walls. This might help in trac­ing al­ter­ations to the plan. As a gen­eral rule of thumb, the thicker the wall, the older it is.

Like­wise, open­ings can be in­struc­tive. The gen­eral rule, at least with win­dows, is that the smaller they are, the older. Such in­ves­ti­ga­tions should tell you, for in­stance, whether your mai­son de maître is from the 19th cen­tury or whether a façade has been added to an older build­ing. There are con­sid­er­able re­gional dif­fer­ences in France and it will be im­por­tant to ac­quaint your­self with the styles of build­ing in your area.

A start­ing point is the Carte Napoléon, a de­tailed, hand-drawn map of every com­mune, which was cre­ated in the first part of the 19th cen­tury

The état civil With writ­ten records, much will de­pend on the type of prop­erty you are re­search­ing. If the house is old, out in the coun­try and has a name, then you are likely to find rich re­wards in the état civil for your area. Th­ese are the reg­is­ters of births, deaths and mar­riages.

From 1539, parishes were obliged to keep records of all th­ese. Be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion the parish priest kept the records; af­ter 1789, the maire of the com­mune was re­spon­si­ble. Those cov­er­ing the last hun­dred years are usu­ally avail­able in your lo­cal mairie and are de­tailed and in­for­ma­tive. Any­one can in­spect them and the sec­re­tary will usu­ally be happy to pho­to­copy what­ever in­ter­ests you. Older records will be kept in the de­part­men­tal archives and the web­sites for th­ese are easy enough to find (just type ‘ archives dé­parte­men­tales’ into your search en­gine). The dif­fi­culty is that th­ese sites are sel­dom user-friendly and find­ing what you need can be time-con­sum­ing. The état civil can also be ex­am­ined on mi­cro­film at the archive cen­tres.

Once you have lo­cated the records for your vil­lage or town, pre­pare your­self for a long haul. They are un­likely to go back as far as 1539 and there will prob­a­bly be gaps where fo­lios have been lost, but they may well start to­wards the end of the 17th cen­tury and there will be hun­dreds if not thou­sands of records to trawl through.

Ob­vi­ously, the older they are, the more dif­fi­cult they are to de­ci­pher. Some priests’ hand­writ­ing can be lit­tle more than a scrawl; oth­ers are metic­u­lous. Writ­ten French has changed re­mark­ably lit­tle over the last three cen­turies, how­ever, and once you are into your stride you will find them eas­ier to in­ter­pret. In­for­ma­tion in the ear­li­est records is of­ten scratchy. You are look­ing for the names of houses and peo­ple and, in many parts of ru­ral France, the houses bear the fam­ily name of their first oc­cu­pants. Note that spellings can vary con­sid­er­ably and there may be sev­eral names which are con­fus­ingly sim­i­lar.

The records tend to fol­low a for­mula which changes pe­ri­od­i­cally over the cen­turies. The ear­li­est are ba­sic, such as: “third May six­teen ninety-nine so-and-so died hav­ing re­ceived the sacra­ments and I buried him in the church­yard the next day”. Mar­riages are more de­tailed, giv­ing par­ents’ names and where they lived. Most records were wit­nessed and this can give more names, and some­times ad­dresses. Town houses had no num­bers un­til com­par­a­tively re­cently and you have a dis­tinct ad­van­tage if you are re­search­ing a named, ru­ral prop­erty. Not all de­part­ments are avail­able though: some have not yet been up­loaded; oth­ers were de­stroyed dur­ing the two world wars.

Ex­pect the un­ex­pected Other doc­u­ments which might help are lawyers’ records ( archives de no­taires), mil­i­tary lists ( reg­istres mil­i­taires), news­pa­pers, ae­rial pho­to­graphs and cen­sus re­turns.

Th­ese searches of­ten throw up curve balls. For ex­am­ple, a re­cent search of a farm­house in Aquitaine started promis­ingly with the dis­cov­ery of a bricked-up door and win­dow, both of which had cham­fered edges. This, plus the fact that they were in a stone wall nearly a me­tre thick, were a fairly clear in­di­ca­tion of a late Re­nais­sance ori­gin. But the writ­ten records for the parish made no men­tion of the house un­til the 18th cen­tury. The chance dis­cov­ery of a doc­u­ment writ­ten in 1697 by the com­man­der of a nearby hos­pi­tal run by the Knights of St John, how­ever, re­vealed that he and the neigh­bour­ing seigneur had ex­changed two parcels of land in that same year. The house con­cerned was in one of those parcels and the records for its ear­lier years were there­fore in the état civil for the neigh­bour­ing parish.

Good luck!

Lo­cal his­to­rian An­ton Lee lives in Nou­velleAquitaine and blog sf or Beaux Vil­lages Im­mo­bilier beauxvil­lages.com

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