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Genealogy of the French in North America
Geography of France
This article has the purpose of helping you to better understand the geography of France and of the rest of Europe at the time where our ancestors crossed the Atlantique to settle in New France.
Today, France is divided into 96 départements forming 22 regions, and this is very different compared to the map of France when our ancestors left her. While this mapping exists since 1792, the first general purpose dictionary to use it was the Dictionnaire généalogique des familles du Québec, published in 1983, by René Jetté who was the first to use systematically the modern divisions of France. Even Archange Godbout, who has left 10,000 pages of notes from his search in France, was using the provinces to sort his information. If you compare the content of that work with other publications, you will find in many cases the area can be different and even the village names because recent tools allow to find a place with a better match to the place of origin given by the immigrant.
The medieval France used mainly two different mappings: provinces and religious dioceses.
The anciens provinces correspond to the old territories controlled by one lord (earls, dukes, etc.) as they were added to the lands of the French crown. For example, the duchy of Britain (Bretagne), owned by the duke of Bretagne, became the province of Bretagne. Those provinces are tied to the feodal past when the highest local lords reigned, sometimes like kings, over large territories. Also, the provinces correspond to regional nationalisms, even if sometimes the border moved between the province was acquired by the crown and the time our ancestors left it
The dioceses are closer to the area under the control of the large cities at the beginning to the Christian era. France being officially a catholic kingdom, some dioceses were created to watch the heretics and the protestants. This is why there are more dioceses in the south of France and the diocese of La Rochelle was created in 1648, to replace the diocese of Maillezais (with different borders), 20 years after the siege of La Rochelle. The borders of the dioceses are not the same as the provinces. For example, the diocese of Le Mans is not identical to the province of Maine, ditto for Angers and Anjou.
The anciens provinces helped local nobility to organized againt the king. The central government then organized the country with different borders. The provinces (historical divisions) were replaced by regional government (military divisions) and new governments were created from time to time to thank a brilliant officer. Many genealogists are mixing the provinces and those governments, with the side effect of identifying the wrong place of origin.
For example, in the 16th century, Picardie
lost a part of her territory (Soissonnais or diocese
of Soissons, Valois and the south of Laonnois) given to the government
of Île de France. An immigrant coming from that old
Picardie will continue to identify himself as Picard, even if he is
from Soissons. Also, Loudunois, a country (pays,
a subvidition of a province) of the province of Poitou, moved from the
government of Poitou to that of Anjou. The map of governments you
will find in many reference works is thus wrong if presented as the map
The size of the provinces can be large or small. The pays (litterally countries), forming smaller area, are other residues of the feodal era. Some of them were shared among two provinces. The border of provinces and countries, like the governments, were changing with years, depending on the power of the owner, the pieces of lands he sold or purchased, etc.
The regional governments were defined for military
purposes. The governor at their head was the military leader of
The parlements (parliaments) were not Houses of Commons but Courts of Justice. This is why some of our ancestors were avocats au parlement (lawiers at the parliament). A parlement may disappear if the king was to make the high justice decisions by himselves. Justice was using sénéchaussées (most in the South) and bailliages (mostly in the North), sometimes divided into prévôtés.
The whole picture is somewhat chaotic. A bailliage can be used for tax and justice purposes and the justice of a parish could depend on one seignory. The number of gouvernements, parlements, généralités, élections, etc. changed from time to time. So, if you want to make a specific search in France, you have to know the border for that era because the papers could be in different archives.