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Everyday from March 1st to Nov. 30th.
9:30am - 12:00pm
and 2:00pm - 6:00pm

Everyday in July and August
from 9:30am - 6:30pm

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Finding your Huguenot ancestors

Civil Status during the Old Regime

All genealogists who are confronted with Huguenot (French Protestant) descendents under the Old Regime (the political and social system under the French monarchy before the Revolution in 1789), are troubled due to a lack of traces, a consequence of the civil status problem for the Huguenots.

After a brief explanation of the historical events surrounding this period, we will see how to try to find the missing links.

To understand the situation, it is necessary to go back in history to the Edict of Nantes (1598), signed by Henri IV, allowing a certain liberty to the Protestants in France.

At that time civil status was managed by the churches. The registry offices were held by the priest of the parish or the pastors for the Protestants.

King Louis XIV, with his statement « one king, one law, one religion » did not have the same openness as Henri IV. With the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, he abolished freedom of worship for Protestants and also Protestantism with all its functions. There were many consequences : several Huguenots fled France to refugee countries where they would be able to live out their faith which was forbidden in France.

Those who stayed became ‘New Converts’, due to an avalanche of royal edicts limiting their social, religious and professional freedom, or because of the dragonnades which obtained abjurations with the use of violence. Many of these abjurations from ‘Calvin’s heresy’ were recorded in the Catholic parish’s registry.

Despite appearances, many Protestants were forced to renounce their faith even if they didn’t want to and their faith continued to burn in their hearts. An underground church, called the ‘Desert Church’ rose and in hiding, held forbidden worship services in isolated areas.

Here we find two ecclesiastical organizations side by side : one official, the other forbidden, chased down, condemned but stays alive until the French Revolution establishes freedom of conscience. The only recognized civil status from now on is run by the Catholic church. Many Protestants refused to baptize their children or to celebrate a wedding with a parish priest. That would be affirming a belonging to a doctrine that they reject. Baptisms and weddings were then celebrated by ‘Desert’ pastors who would record them on registers with no legal value.

However anyone caught in possession of one of these forbidden certificates was condemned : as galley-slaves or prisoners, heavy fines (often 1,500 to 2,000 pounds, or 7,000 to 10,000 € today) or family separations, considered to be concubines. Their children, considered to be bastards, were withheld from family inheritance. Families were forced to baptize their children with punishment of kidnapping them and placing them in convents.

Some Protestants would still go to the priest to celebrate a baptism or a wedding, giving a legal existence to the child or couple, and then they would go to a clandestine gathering where the pastor would make it official for the Reformed church.

They had to wait until November 1787 for Louis XVI to sign the Edict of Tolerance, which recognized Protestants and gave them a legal existence. To make this possible, civil status became the state’s responsibility, the first signs of a post-revolution organization.

Protestants could register their clandestine civil status by showing their documents, which up until then had no legal value.

To find names, dates and places in France, it is advisable to search through the elements left by these clandestine Protestants. Pastors’ registers, wedding and baptism certificates, notary acts, a mention in a Bible, a condemnation trial ‘for religious reasons’, legalization of illicit certificates from the Edict of Tolerance (1787) and on ….

There is the option of consulting lists of refugees for religious reasons to foreign countries where they could freely live out their faith (Switzerland, Germany, Holland, England, all the way to South Africa, passing through Canada or "Surinam"). These lists are available from the Huguenot Societies.

You can also contact the ‘Service Généalogie de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français’, 54 rue des Saints Pères à Paris (75007). Many names quoted in Protestant museums are registered here.

The ‘Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français’ publishes Bulletins Historiques, since 1852. An index for names allows one to find the article quoting the person he is searching for.

We have two lists available online, constituted from sources in our possession : the list of galley-slaves for the faith, and the list of Protestant women imprisoned in the Tower of Constance.

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