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Article Published February 25, 2000

Vital Records in the Province of Quebec - French Influences, Part I
By Xenia Stanford

Hopefully my recent dissertations on Charlemagne and other French history have demonstrated that more records and more consistency existed further back than many researchers imagined. Definitely the records of New France, early Canada or Quebec were influenced by its French beginnings. This is why even today Quebec records may be mysterious to many. It is not just the language but also the carry-over of French practices and customs that makes the records of the Province of Quebec different from those of other Canadian jurisdictions.


One of the reasons Quebec records are more easily accessible further back than those influenced by British systems, is that from the beginning of the colony of New France record keeping fell under the more diligent French methods.

This has both been a blessing and confusion as Quebec records are more easily and less easily accessible than those of the other provinces. This paradox occurs because the early records were more meticulously kept due to the French influence but were not maintained by one central jurisdiction until 1994.

However due to the French influence, keeping vital records was well established from the early days of the settlement of New France. From long before the establishment of the French colonies in North America, churches in France maintained vital statistics through their registers. There is evidence of vital records back to the time of Charlemagne or earlier. Certainly intact parish registers have been found dating from the 14th century. However, it appears that these registers were kept for church purposes rather than for state reasons and as such were not consistent.

Dates of the ceremony were usually the only dates included. Also what names were recorded varied by which priest was documenting the ceremonial event. The name of the father was not always listed in the record of a baptism unless he was a significant benefactor of the Church. The record of a funeral Mass did not include the date of death or even the age of the deceased.


This changed significantly in 1539 when King François (Francis, according to English history books) enacted L'Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts. King François established a dual purpose for these acts - secular intent was added to the ecclesiastical. He wished to ensure certain vital (civil) information was available but still allowed the church to continue to conduct and record their religious ceremonies.

One significance impact of this ordinance on vital statistics was its decree that clergy must keep a register of baptisms recording date and hour of birth as well as the father's name.

Since the earlier church registers were only concerned with keeping track of church acts or sacraments rather than with vital statistics, they usually only concerned with the date of the sacramental act - i.e. the date of baptism (abbreviated as b. in indexes and repertoires) and rarely were birth dates or ages documented.

Although the hour diminished in importance in later French legislation, the date of birth (abbreviated as n. for né or naissance) was maintained for infant baptisms. However, because record keeping was still in church hands, the baptism date continued to be the one under which the entry was recorded and thus the one by which it can be retrieved. The date of birth was buried within the text and usually in words comparing it to the date of baptism (e.g. day of, day before, etc.) rather than in a month, day and year format. Nevertheless this ordinance was a significant first step in recognizing vital dates.


In addition this legislation required the registers as well as other official documents to be kept in the vernacular (French) rather than the language of the church (Latin). This was both a boon and bane since it makes the later records more accessible to the common people but during the time and today it makes reading these early French documents often very difficult.

There was no consistency in spelling or grammar in Old French. Vocabulary too differed from region to region or year to year. The same word did not necessarily have the same meaning to a priest in Paris as one in Chartres. There was no one form of French that was considered the official version.

Each priest recorded documents in his dialect which, usually though not always, was the language of the parish. The clergy were educated in Latin, the language of the Church until the latter part of the 20th century and there was only one form of classical Latin. Since it was a "dead" language and has remained as such, there are not many differences from century to century or region to region. Thus the records of the intervening centuries might have been more consistent in Latin and more easily read and interpreted by scholars.


However, by the time New France was being founded in the early 17th century, the language was becoming standardized. The movement actually started among poets, such as François de Malherbe, who helped transform literary French into a classical form with consistent grammatical rules like Latin. Since Paris was the capital and the cultural gathering place of many literary figures, Parisian French held sway as the official dialect and formed the basis of the classical French language.

This period also saw the rise of dictionaries in which spelling and definitions were established. The first French dictionary was compiled in 1635 and the first official version was published by the French Academy, which had been established by Cardinal Richelieu.

Handwriting was still a problem. Although Charlemagne in the ninth century AD decreed a standard formation of letters (Carolingian miniscule) from which our current shapes evolved, handwriting styles changed. Many of the documents during the 17th century were written in very small, thin letters with not much variation in shape.

Words were written close together filling most of the page including margins. Both sides of the paper were used as it was expensive and needed to be conserved. The problem for record preservation though is that the ink bleeds through making it difficult to read either side. This was especially true in the days of quill and ink.

More cursive and precise writing came into vogue by the 18th century. Although most of the language and handwriting reforms took place before the British conquest of French Canada, it still does not mean the records of New France are easy to read.

Individual handwriting still often makes deciphering written records difficult. Registers generally continued to be written on both sides of the page. Bleeding through, ink spots and water or other environmental damage pose problems with reading records.

(Habits to ensure paper conservation still exist in many countries today. When I taught immigrant children in Canada, I asked why they filled up the entire page, wrote small and used both sides - unlike my Canadian students. They said they were taught not to waste paper.)

Unfortunately spelling, handwriting and vocabulary too may still cause difficulty for researchers since illiteracy was high until the 20th century. Although the parish clergy who kept the records were often the most educated in a small community, they were not well rounded by our standards.

Although the language of the records changed to the vernacular, the official language of the Church was still Latin. (Even while I was growing up in twentieth century Canada, Mass was still conducted in Latin!) Thus many clergy in these early days were more versed in classical Latin grammar, vocabulary and spelling than in their own native tongue. Besides they were only human and what we would call "typos" occurred.

Nonetheless the records of France from the time of L'Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts and therefore the colony of New France have been maintained in the language of the people not the language of the church.


Two further sets of legislation in France dictated the keeping of vital records by the church. In 1563 the Council of Trent added godparents' names in baptismal entries as a requirement. After 1579 the registration of marriages and deaths (burials) were also no longer voluntary. L'Ordonnance de Blois in that year mandated these acts be recorded in parish registers and that three banns before marriage be publicized.

Again we must remember that the church maintained the registers not the civil government. Therefore, though we may call these records "civil" because they were decreed by the state, the religious structure of the registers remained.

Thus the death date (abbreviated as d. for décès) was to be recorded according to state authorities but the church buried this date in the funeral record just as they did the date of birth in the baptism records. The date most obviously recorded was the date of Sèpulture (abbreviated as s.), which was the date of the funeral service or Mass. (If we think of the s. for funeral service this may help us remember what the s. stands for in an index or repertoire of French records.)

It was not to be disobedient that the clergy did this. The state did not dictate that churches change the date of the service or that they change the date on the register to the date of death. Simply the date of death must be recorded in the register. Doing so in the body of the text using comparative words, such as yesterday or day before yesterday or three days ago was fine.


Thus in most cases, the date of death must be calculated by subtracting a number of days from the date of the service. In some cases it would be inferred from a more specific number for the day but where the month and year are assumed from the date of the service. An example of where an inference must be made is where a register may state the person died on the third of this month. If the service was dated June 7, 1658, then we can infer the person died on the 3rd of June1658.

A more difficult means of calculation is required when the record gave the date of the service as March 1st and the death as occurring two days earlier. It must be determined if this was a leap year or a regular year to correctly establish the date of death.

Other difficult entries state the person died last Tuesday or other day of the week. Then we must find a calendar for that year or perpetual calendar to determine the exact date the vital event occurred.

Ah the challenges these long-ago priests presented us by complying with state legislation but never thinking of the date of death (or in the case of baptism records, the date of birth) as significant as the date of the sacramental act!


Although the church sacrament was L'Acte de Sèpulture, which now translates as act of burial, the date recorded is not necessarily the date of burial. If the date of interment in the cemetery or ground is important to us, we must not assume it was the date of the service. Just as today many interments occurred the day of the funeral service or Mass.

However, this was not always the case. Enough caskets and enough plots must be available for the person to be buried that day.

Many times the bodies had to remain "stacked like firewood" according to one early chronicler of New France, until the spring. Those of you who saw the episode of "Northern Exposure" where not enough coffins had been made or holes dug before winter, know that any extra bodies were not buried any time soon after death.

Also when epidemics occurred in New France, whether it was winter or not, coffin-makers and gravediggers had an often-impossible task of keeping up. Often the survivors were too ill themselves to even try. Then too wars and Indian raids created problems of large numbers requiring burials.

Mass graves were often used during these cases and unfortunately the laws of the state were ignored during this time in the early days of the colony. If there were too many people to name individually, registers often show the number of souls who died and little else. Sometimes they indicated numbers of men, women and children of each sex. There were times when even this was too much of a task for the priests or those left after the massacre or worst of the disease was over.


In fact, I found out even with modern records not to make assumptions. In a list in the office of the Cimitiere Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges in Montreal I found the name of a great aunt. A date was given under the recep. (received) column but the date of "naiss." (naissance or birth), "deces" and date of "inhum." (inhumation) were blank.

This is not unusual, as the other dates were not recorded on the cemetery list until after 1980. For those who died after 1980 usually all the above columns are completed.

Further I could not find a tombstone for her. However, undaunted and armed with the date the body had been received by the cemetery and thus probably interred, I searched the records at Salle Gagnon (library in Montreal) expecting to find she had died a few days earlier. I found the record but her death was listed as six months earlier!

Since the date she died was not in the winter nor during any known epidemic, I was puzzled until I found her obituary in the Montreal Gazette. From this I found she had been cremated. As one relative to whom I related this story said "she must have sat on someone's mantle for the intervening months".


A frequent dilemma for record searchers is the destruction of the church and the records with it by fire or some other disaster. Luckily in the case of Quebec records, this is not always a problem after 1674 due to the French influence.

L'Ordonnance de St-Germain-en-Laye (Code Louis) in 1674 mandated that two copies of the registers be kept - one in the parish and one to be sent to the clerk of the court (greffe du bailliage or greffe du tribunal d'instance). Thus the French were ahead of the game in records management by dictating the copying of parish records and sending a set offsite.

The clergy being human, however, did not always faithfully copy the registers and send them to the next level. These second records too could have met with disaster on their way to the repository. The register was not copied daily and submitted but rather once a year. Therefore, if the disaster occurred during the year, the records for that year would be lost. However, in spite of not guaranteeing a complete duplicate set, this ordinance has been a blessing to genealogists.

A further benefit of this dictate was the official format for the recording of acts. This format included recording signatures of the father and godparents for baptisms and of the couple and witnesses for marriages. If one of these parties was unable to sign, this was to be noted. Often the note declares the party stated he (or she) could not sign. It is interesting and, often important, note for us as it shows whether our ancestors were illiterate or not.

These were the main laws affecting records in New France during French control and influencing Quebec methods even under British jurisdiction.

Click here to continue to Part II

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