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Using Notarial Records in Canton Vaud

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How do I find these records?

The first problem is to determine if there are any notarial records that might help your research. Since there seems to be no general index, and since notaries could in principle record documents anywhere within the territory of Vaud, some guesswork is involved. The approach that has worked best for me is the following:

  1. Identify the towns where your ancestors probably transacted their business. List all the towns that are connected with them in the church records (where they attended church to baptise their children, where they were married, where they appear as godparents at the baptisms of other people's children, where their parents and in-laws come from).
  2. Identify the districts that contain these towns. If a town is near the boundaries between two districts, list both districts.
  3. Identify the period of interest for each town and district. You will need to study records for the period when your ancestor and his children were in the area, and then work backwards to the earliest date when they may have lived in the area. Documents concerning the settlement of estates sometimes turn up even 50 years after the fact in the records of notaries.
  4. Identify the notaries whose records are most likely to contain information about your ancestral families. There are two sources of this information:
    • The LDS Family History Library Catalogue is available online, and on microfiche or CD at your local Family History Center. If you can get to the old microfiche version of the catalogue, you can look at the subject catalogue under SWITZERLAND, VAUD and the city the district is named after, under the subheading "Notarial Records". The listings contained in this form of the catalogue are arranged mainly in chronological order, so it is a fairly simple task to identify the notaries and the film numbers that you will need to search. If you use the on-line or CD versions of the catalogue, the records will come back sorted by the first name of the notary, so you will have to look at each record to identify the years covered. There is no guarantee that the films are readable or that the notary actually spent most of his time in the district indicated!
    • The inventory of notarial records prepared by the Cantonal Archives is available on microfilm on two rolls. It contains two lists for each district: first, there is an alphabetical list of all the notaries with some information about the years covered, the main towns where the notary worked, and perhaps the offices the notary held. The second list is chronological; this is the one you may want to photocopy and save for reference. Armed with this list, you can scan the LDS Family History Library Catalogue to find the corresponding film. The names and dates in the inventory do not always match exactly with the LDS catalogue, but it is usually possible to match them up.
  5. Plan your search! Make a checklist, arranging the items in an order that makes sense to you. Order one or two films at a time, working backward in time, keeping track of what you have searched, even when nothing is found.
  6. Keep a journal of your search, recording sufficient detail of any transaction that mentions your families so that you will know (a) where to find it again if necessary, (b) who the parties to the transaction were, (c) the date of the transaction, and (d) the nature of the transaction. When you find a record that seems to contain information about relationships, and may be legible enough to be deciphered at least partially, consider making a photocopy of the document, at sufficiently high magnification so that a skilled paleographer might be able to read it at a later date. The skilled paleographer will likely be you, if you pursue your research for more than a few months.
  7. When you copy a document, label it!

How do I decipher these records?

Short answer: a little at a time!

Longer answer: There are several problems to be overcome. First, the state of preservation of the documents may make sections completely illegible, for example from bleed-through, so that the writing on the back of the page has obscured the writing on the front. In such a case, I would not recommend spending a lot of time with the document, because any information you glean from it may be the result of misreading. Second, the handwriting and personality of the notary (or of his clerks, it is common to encounter several different hands in a volume of notarial records) are unique. Each notary has his own style, including handwriting and abbreviations. Third, even when you can make out most of the words, the legal jargon of earlier centuries can be extremely difficult to penetrate. The problem of comprehending some of the documents found in these records far exceeds the difficulty of understanding the typical American mortgage!

In spite of these problems, the records of most notaries can be useful for genealogical research. Each notary may be different, but you will benefit from having studied the church records first to get used to the handwriting of the period and also the surnames and place names of the area. The names you recognize are the Rosetta Stone for decoding the words that are harder to decipher. Sometimes it pays to look over the whole volume first for clues about how the material is organized. You may be able to find documents scattered through a volume that evidently pertain to the same legal issue (for example, a particular inheritance), and comparison of these documents may eventually turn up a clearer reading of a doubtful phrase.

Abbreviations and shorthand may be hard to penetrate. There are special forms for certain syllables: a large "p" representing "pro", "pre", or "per"; a large "q" representing "con" or "com"; a "d" with a descending stroke below the line at the end, representing "dit", "dits", "ditte", or "dittes" in compound words such as "prédit" ("aforesaid"); various hooks, loops, or strokes at the end of a word representing any number of omitted syllables. Click here to see some typical short forms.

How do I identify the parties to each transaction?

In the registers containing "actes de notaire" (as opposed to the "minutaires" or minute books), there is frequently a summary title for each document. When in doubt, copy the title, which should at least name the buyer. When the title lists both parties, it is normally the buyer who is listed first, then the name of the seller, separated by the word "Contre". There is, however, no requirement that the title include all of the parties!

In the body of a document concerning the sale or donation of property, the seller or grantor is normally listed first. In fact, such documents are very similar to modern deeds (and just as dull), having the form, "Jean Favre, knowing what he is doing and informed of his rights, sells, cedes, quits, and transfers to Joseph Favre the following property, towit...", followed by a lengthy description of the property, the price, and a series of clauses that make the transaction binding. The document usually closes with the DATE and the names of two or more witnesses. What makes these documents more interesting is when there are notations about the relationships or circumstances of either the buyer or the seller. The seller may be acting in the name of his wife or of some other person (relationship frequently noted), and may have some relationship to the buyer. The transaction may relate to a dowry, a debt, an inheritance, or a judgement of some kind. The genealogical meat of the document is apt to reside in these details.

Watch out for a series of documents where the buyer or seller is listed only in the first one of the series, the other documents referring back to the first one by a phrase such as "Le vendeur comme dessus" (the seller as listed above) or "Le prédit" (the aforesaid). It is also common for dates and witnesses to be carried forward to multiple documents by similar phrases indicating "the same date as above" or "the witnesses as above".

Always note how each party is identified. Is he a "bourgeois" of a particular town, or is he simply living there? Is his occupation listed? Is he listed as the son of someone, if so, is that person noted as deceased?

What kinds of transactions are included?

Notaries recorded all sorts of contracts, transactions, and debts, ranging from payment for a wheel of cheese to the transfer of feudal rights. (Link: The Duties of a Notary.) Here are some of the types that I have encountered:

  1. Sale of property
  2. Agreements accompanying sales, stipulating terms of payment
  3. Testaments (wills)
  4. Transactions relating to legacies and inheritance, including agreements on how to split an inheritance among heirs ("partage") or disposing of joint interests in specific properties
  5. Marriage contracts
  6. Acknowledgement that the terms of a marriage contract have been fulfilled
  7. Auction of property to the highest bidder for payment of debts, or to raise money for hospitals or funds for the poor
  8. IOU's for services rendered, merchandise, or loans of cash
  9. Refinancing of debts for services, merchandise, or loans
  10. Rental agreements
  11. Agreements for the use of livestock for a season, with payment in cheese produced by these animals
  12. Donations of property, including that of a man's estate to his children before he dies, as well as donations among neighbors and friends
  13. Exchanges of real property (many parcels of land had become so small through division among heirs, that it was useful to exchange parcels of like value in order to consolidate one's holdings)
  14. Releases from responsibility, for example a ward releasing his guardians from further liability after reaching the age of majority and receiving his inheritance
  15. Transactions involving feudal rights, tithes, taxes, etc.
  16. Transactions between towns (communes) and individuals
  17. Grants of bourgeois status
  18. Transactions between towns, often represented by members of the town councils listed by name
  19. Settlements of disputes that came before the town council, a consistory, or a panel of notables appointed to hear the dispute, usually with an account of the nature of the dispute, and the terms of the settlement that was reached (disputes range from disagreements about inherited property to accusations of slander)
  20. Apprenticeships, and releases from apprenticeships
  21. Transactions and agreements concerning vineyards: innumerable transfers, leases, agreements with workers, etc.

What is the meaning of this transaction?

A complete understanding of a complicated legal document from the 16th Century may be no more helpful than a detailed understanding of a 20th Century American mortgage document! For genealogical research, the details of a document about property transferred between individuals may be unimportant; the significance of the document may simply be that it proves your ancestor was alive and in a particular place on a given date.

However, in documents relating to marriage or inheritance, the details may contain information about previous generations. It is helpful to develop at least a little understanding of the legal terminology of the period. Particularly under the feudal regime, the legal vocabulary does not seem to translate well. Some of it can be worked out from contemporary dictionaries. There are a few scholarly accounts of the documents relating to marriage and property, but they are almost as obscure as the documents themselves. When a document seems important, and you can transcribe most of it, but still fail to grasp the nature of the transaction, it may be helpful to post the details on the Vaud query page in hopes that someone with more experience can help you interpret it. Also, since many old legal terms in the French language are derived directly from Latin legal terms, you can sometimes find enlightenment in a good legal dictionary.


Coordinator for this site is John W. McCoy
French translation by Anne Bohy
This page last updated Friday, 14-Feb-2003 12:17:12 MST