When I first began researching my ancestors many years ago, I often came across a confusing mixture of place names for their origins in France. Many of the place names referenced a region that was not found on any current French map. Once I began to seriously research the records in France, I realized that records were not available under the names of these regions. It was then that I took the opportunity to understand the evolution of place names in France. Although the transformation of the French administrative regions is much more complex than I've noted here, this page should provide you with a basic knowledge that will allow you to pursue your research in our native country.
Many of the documents that Louisiana genealogists pursue in search of their French lineage date to pre-1790 - a very important year in the evolution of French place names. As a result, many of these documents indicate that the ancestor was from a particular région or province such as Bourgogne (or Burgundy in English). These provinces had evolved over the centuries via the influence of the aristocratic, social and political system established in France from approximately the 14th century to the 18th century. Within these provinces existed the smallest administrative units: the parishes on a religious level and the seigneuries on both fiscal and judiciary levels.
Here is a list of the 'Ancien Régime' or ancient provinces:>
Prior to 1790, France "remained a patchwork of local privileges and historical differences, and the arbitrary power of the monarch was in fact much limited by historic and regional particularities" (Link). In that year, French revolutionaries decided to choose the existing 32,000 French religious parishes as the only basic administrative units and to abolish seigneuries. In order to simplify the whole architecture of larger units, such as French provinces used on a military level, French élections and généralités on a fiscal level, and French bailliages and parlements on a judiciary level, the French revolutionaries decided to merge all those different larger units into only one with about the same geographic area. These were to be called 'departments'. For the sake of simplicity, I like to compare French departments to the individual states within the U.S.
At the end of 1792, they also decided to create a new type of basic administrative unit, called 'communes', with the very same limits as the old parishes. The only difference was that major cities that included several religious parishes were usually formed into one single commune. A commune can be compared to our U.S. cities and towns. Although there are now six administrative levels in France today, a genealogist should note that departments and communes are the two most important administrative levels in France today.
Here are the 6 administrative levels in France. At each level, an entity is normally divided into several entities of the next lower level:
les Régions (22) - Similiar to regions in the U.S. such as the southeast, northwest, etc.
les départements (96) - Similiar to states in the U.S. such as the Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, etc.
les arrondissements (326) - Translates to the English word 'district'
les cantons - chief purpose is to serve as constituencies for the election of the members of the representative assembly in each department
les communes - Towns, cities, hamlets
Each department is assigned a 2-digit number (some French terrorities have a 3-digit assignment). These are also the first two digits on the license plates and the first two digits of the postal codes.
The departments are grouped into regions with each region containing approximately 2-13 departments. Each French region can be compared to regions in the U.S. such as the southeast, northwest or mid-west although the French region names are not related to their physical placement on the map as are those in the U.S. (such as north, south, east or west).
Here is a list of the current regions and the departments within those regions. (The French regions changed effective 1/1/2016. I have made the changes here but not, necessarily, on my individual family pages in my lineage; those are being correctly as I find them.) The regions are in bold:Grand Est
In order to find sacramental records in France, you must know the name of the modern department in which the commune resides because the records are maintained by the archives of each department. Therefore, I now document all French (France) genealogical events in my personal database by the commune and department such as La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime), France and reference the original province only if I need to do so. Anyone familiar with my book - Long Journey Home - will recognize this format although I have not corrected all pages of this website to reflect the format. I have just added the region names (in this case, Poitou-Charente) to each commune/department in my database but my website does not yet reflect it - ex: La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime)(Poitou-Charente), France.
Provinces of France
Administrative Divisions of France
Regions of France
History of the French Communes
Hope this was helpful!