Montécheroux is a small village in eastern France near the Swiss border. My father’s great-great-grandparents, Jean Baptiste Francois Xavier Gaume and Marie Elise Favier, were born there in the early 19th century. Elise’s mother’s ancestors had lived in the village since at least the late 17th century. Before the French Revolution, the town was part of the seigneury of Clémont and was ruled by the Principality of Montbéliard, a holding of the Duchy of Württemberg. I recently had the opportunity to review a collection of birth, marriage, and death records from this town. Viewing the complete collection in an historical context provided insight into its significance.
Several years ago, a fellow researcher in France shared a few images from a collection of what I thought were parish records of the Catholic church documenting births, marriages, and deaths. I recently discovered that through Geneanet.org that I have access to a complete collection of the Montécheroux BMD Records, covering the fifty years before the French Revolution from 1740 to 1790 (see here). I have spent the last two weeks analyzing and translating the records. There are 188 images, and because some are more than one page, I estimate the total to be over 200 pages. As I said, I earlier believed these to be records maintained by the Church. I assumed this because the images shared with me were written in Latin and one of the witnesses was identified by the title prêtre-curé (parish priest). Looking at the bigger picture, I see now that these records were not ecclesiastical, but rather, they were of a civic nature, probably for taxation purposes.
What Did the Seigneur Say?
The first page of each year always begins with a cover sheet denoting the year and the town’s name, which in the case of these records is always Montécheroux. The first item on Page 1 of each year is always a statement written in French in a cursive script that is difficult to decipher. I could pick out the critical parts of each record without a translator, although I will usually use Google Translate if needed. It took me quite a while to decipher this first item on the first page of every year.
I am familiar enough with Latin and French to be able to tell the difference between a birth record and a death record, picking out words for events such as baptism and burial. I know how to read numbers, including Roman numerals. It is essential to be able to read dates in either language. For me, the hardest part about reading 18th-century documents is deciphering the script.
Now, having access to the complete collection of the Montécheroux BMD Records has changed my perspective. Even though, most records were written in Latin, I could tell right away that this was not a church document but rather an official document of the powers that be.
My initial plan was to skim through all 188 images, not exactly attempting to translate each record but to collect and index whatever I could find related to my ancestors and collateral families. Yet, I got bogged down wanting to the understand the context of the records.
As for the initial statement in the difficult to read cursive script, I finally figured out what that was about when I found that in the 1780s, the handwritten statement was replaced by a preprinted form.
Here is the opening statement for 1784 on a pre-printed form:
In English, it reads: We Charles-Jean Rougemont, Esquire, Lord of Vallonne, King’s Counselor, Lieutenant General of the Bailliage (Bailiwick) of Baume, have forwarded and pared this Register, containing six sheets, to support the registration of the acts of Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials of the Parish of Montecheroux during the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty-five. Composed in our administrative hall at Baume, on the third day of December, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-four.
I fail to understand why Le Seigneur needed to supply the paper necessary for the local officials to record the BMD records. Yet that is the way it was for every year for 50 years. Some years the number of pages sent by the seigneur was three instead of six. In the days of the Ancien Regime, the ordinary citizens were taxed and prohibited in several ways by the Seigneur or Lord of the manor. Did that also involve limiting access to paper?
The seignorial system was a feudal system that existed in France from the 11th century to the 18th century. Under this system, the land was divided into seigneuries, which were owned by nobles. The citizens of Montécheroux lived in the seigneury of Clémont which in the late 18th century was owned by the Seigneur of Vallone whose “hôtel” was situated at Baume, a town about 20 miles west of Montécheroux; now called Baume-les-Dames.
Unlike neighboring Franche-Comte where the peasants who lived on the land were serfs, and who were required to work for the nobles in exchange for the use of the land, the citizens of Montbéliard were allowed to own land. Still, ordinary citizens of Montbéliard under the seignorial system were treated poorly by modern standards. They were often exploited by the nobles, and they had very few rights. Even though they could own land, they could not leave the seigneurie without the permission of the noble. In addition, as only the nobles were allowed to hunt, the farmer who owned his own property was not even allowed to kill rabbits or deer who invaded his fields. They were also subject to a variety of taxes and fees imposed by the Seigneur. They were subject to tolls on roads, and tolls to cross the river to carry their produce to the market, the fair, or the mill where they had to pay fees to the Lord.
Meanwhile Back at Montécheroux
In the records for 1740 (all four of them that is), the third entry is for the baptism of Maria Anna Loichot, a daughter of Laurent Loichot and Agatha Maire. She was the sister of Jean Pierre Lachat, my 6th great-grandfather. The record is signed by Jacques Ignace Voysard, another 7th great grandfather, along with the priest and one other witness.
Next is a marriage record, and Jacques Ignace Voysard is also a witness. He appears as a witness on three more records in the next few years. He was the grandfather of the previously mentioned Jean Germain Voysard, and he died in 1743. It appears he held some form of rank, possibly mayor, as did his grandson. However, unlike his grandson, he was not elected to office. During the ancien regime, the office of mayor was appointed by the Seigneury, usually for the life of either man.
The Voysard/Voisard family came to Montécheroux in the early 18th century. According to the Dénombrement (census) of 1704:
Jeanne NORET, veuve de feu Étienne VOISARD, âgée d’environ 60 ans, et son fils, Jacques Ignace VOISARD, âgé d’environ 15 ans établi en ce lieu depuis 4 ans par une maison et quelques terres qu’ils y en a achetées, sont de la religion catholique romaine.
Translation: Jeanne Noret (Noroy?), widow of the late Étienne Voisard, about 60 years old, and her son, Jacques Ignace Voisard, about 15 years old, established in this place for 4 years by a house and some land they bought there, are of the Roman Catholic religion.
In 1741, there were only two records for the year. On both records, the other witness, besides the parish priest, is Jean Germain Lachat, who is later identified as a magistrate or maire. I believe he is the brother of my ancestor Jean Pierre Lachat. The name Lachat or Loichot originated in the town of Schelten in Switzerland. According to my records, Perrin Loichot (1513-1590) was at some point granted a fief in La Scheulte. However, the family suffered misfortune due to the Thirty Years War, and following that horrible war which ended in 1648, the family moved to the Jura region bordering Montbéliard and Franche-Comte.
In the records, I see the surname “Chevrolet”, also a family name from 17th century Switzerland. That ancestor’s name was Anne Francois Chevrolet, she lived from 1680 to 1725, so I wonder whether the person listed in the record of 1740 is a relative. (Note: I have yet to establish a connection to the automotive inventor, Louis-Joseph Chevrolet, who also hailed from northwestern Switzerland.)
The records for 1742 were written in French, and I noticed that none of the records appeared to be signed-off by a parish priest. Then I found a passage in one of the French language records that referred to “le temple de Montécheroux.” Use of the word “temple” instead of “église,” is a clue that these were Protestant records.
My observation was confirmed when for the year 1743 there were two sets of records: one in Latin and one in French, and the first proclamation of the seigneury for the second set referred to “the Lutheran parish” of Montécheroux.
From 1744 to 1745, there were two sets of records: with the Roman Catholic records written in Latin, and the Lutheran records written in French. In 1745, the Lutheran records outnumbered the Catholic records 5 to 1. For years 1746 and 1747, there were only two Catholic records and no Protestant records. For the years 1748 and 1749, there are no records at all. The returns of those years are altogether missing.
As best I can figure, the Lutherans in Montécheroux were refugees from Switzerland. In the Lutheran records, I see surnames that I know are of Swiss origin – names such as Faivre, Quelet, Gueutal, and Huguenot. Also a few of the persons listed are shown as being from Pierrefontaine, a town only a few miles away in the district of Porrentruy in the Swiss canton of Jura. In the 1730s, Jura was the scene of a failed peasant uprising that ended with many families being expelled.
Yet Another War
For most of the 1740s, France and Austria were at war. The War of Austrian Succession was fought over the succession to the Austrian throne after the death of Charles VI. France did not want Charles’ daughter, Maria Teresa, to be Empress. The outcome of the war, fought primarily in central Europe, many miles away from Montécheroux, was that Austria was forced to cede some of its territory to its neighbors. In 1748, in a treaty separate from the one that ended the war, the French king, Louis XV annexed four seigneuries owned by Montbéliard. One of the so-called “Quartre Terres” or “four lands” was the seigneury of Clémont.
In 1740, Louis XV issued an order “for the entire restoration of the Catholic religion, the extinction of Lutheranism & the suppression of ministers in all the parishes of the four lands.” Yet, following the war Louis did a flip-flop.
While the treaty concluded between the king and the duke of Württemberg in 1748, granted “no new tolerance to the Lutheran worship in the four lands,” in the following year, the king did attempt to “re-establish” Lutheran worship in Catholic churches of “the four lands.” This arrangement was not some new experiment in religious tolerance. This arrangement had been set up a half century earlier by the king’s great-grandfather, Louis XIV.
During the Nine Years’ War, when Louis XIV of France invaded the Electorate of the Palatinate, a Protestant region in western Germany, he introduced the simultaneum, which allowed both Catholic and Protestant services to be held in the same church. At the end of the war, the region returned to Protestant control, but a last-minute addition to the Treaty of Ryswick allowed the simultaneum to continue. It was intended to apply only to the Palatinate, but it was also applied in portions of Protestant Alsace, including the so-called “four lands.” This did not sit well with the authorities at the Parliament of Besançon, the appellate court of Franche-Comte which held the right to check the king on certain matters. Franche Comté de Bourgogne, the Free County of Burgundy did not become part of the Kingdom of France until 1668.
Later in 1786, Louis XV’s grand-son, Louis XVI, facing bankruptcy, also flipped-flopped, and sold the “four lands” back to Montbéliard. An article of the Convention of 1786, stipulated “the perpetual conservation of Lutheranism in nine villages, where the duke of Württemberg yields to His Majesty.”
This further enraged the Parliament of Besancon, and in 1789, a substitute lawyer at the parliament published a 500-page tome dedicated to the Estates-Générale that presented a lengthy argument for why the king of France had no right to restore the “four lands” to the Duke of Württemberg.
The book found at Google Books is titled “The County of Montbéliard Enlarged and Enriched to the Detriment of Franche-Comté by the Exchange Concluded On May 21, 1786 Between the King and the Duke of Württemberg, Relating to the Limits of the Count of Montbéliard and the Seigneuries of Balmont, Clémont, Hericourt , and Chatelot,” and it is “Dedicated To The Estates General Of Franche-Comte“
As fate reason would have it, the arguments advocated in the book were rendered moot on the night of August 4, 1789, when the French National Constituent Assembly adopted the August Decrees, abolishing feudalism, privileges of the nobility, and seigneurial rights. This occurred in the context of the “Grand Peur,” the peasant uprisings that gripped most of France following the storming of the Bastille. Remarkably, the “four lands” did not experience the same level violence that wrecked areas of nearby Franche-Comte in the summer of ’89.
Meanwhile Back in Montécheroux
Back 1751, there were a total of three records including the “banns” or marriage proclamation for Jean Jacques Voisard and Jeanne Antoine Jourot, my 6th great grandparents. Most years, there were no more than three or four BMD records returned for Montécheroux.
Here, from 1755, is the death record of my 6th great-grandfather, Jean Jacques Voysard (1713-1755)
Sometime in the 1770s, all records, regardless of faith, were now written in French. Here is the death record for Laurent Loichot, my 7th great grandfather. He was Marie Angelique Voisard’s, great-grandfather. The record is witnessed by the parish priest and by Laurent’s son, Pierre Joseph Loichat, brother of my ancestor Jean Pierre Lachat. Both the Voisard and Lachat families appear to have held some sort of administrative rank in the village.
Here is a portion of the marriage record of Jean Germain Voisard and Marie Angelique Lachat (5th great-grandparents). They were married on May 30, 1774, in Montécheroux. The record lists his parents, Jean Jacques Voisard and Jeanne Antoine Jourot. The parents of Marie Angelique are also listed. They were Jean Pierre Lachat and Anne Marie Anne Labbe. Notice the phrases “fils de feu” and “fille de feu.” These translate to “son of the late” and “daughter of the late” respectively.
Finally, here is the death record for my 7th great-grandfather, Jean Jourot (1698-1778). He was a “boulanger,” a baker in Montecheroux. Under the seigneurial system, the town baker would have held an exclusive license from the lord.
These are only a few of the items that I extracted from the Montécheroux BMD records. I will try and publish more in a later post.