Iwona's Sources - The First Civil Polish Records

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The Napoleonic Code-The First Civil Polish Records, 1808-1825

[with translation assistance from William F. Hoffman]

For 17 years, Polish civil registry offices registered persons of various nationalities without regard to their faith and descent. In records we come across Wilhelms, Stanislawas, lekos, Paraskewias, Bazylis, and Giedymins. The first civil vital records on Polish soil appeared in 1808, on May 1st, to be precise, in the territory of the Duchy of Warsaw. This was an absolute revolution in metrical registration, inasmuch as since the mid-16th century, metrical registers had been purely ecclesiastical in nature, written in Latin, kept by parish priests, controlled by bishops. Metrical entries before that time had been limited only to basic data, usually in two or three small lines of text; but civil records from the time of the Napoleonic Code were half a page long for birth and death texts, and a full page long in the case of marriages.

Thanks to Napoleon, vital records were written for the first time in our native language, and the information they contained on family members went far beyond the fossilized frames of previous church registers.

A question comes to mind: what did Napoleon have to do with Polish metrical records? The Code was invented and worked out in 1804 by the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, whose armies' battle lines at that time stretched all across Europe. The influences of its reforms were felt in other countries, including what was at the time formally independent Poland, that is, the Duchy of Warsaw.

The Napoleonic Code is a true masterpiece of legislative law that became the model for future metrical registration. The whole Code numbers 2,281 paragraphs, and only some of them dealt with records of the civil registry, with marriages and divorces (previously unknown in Europe!). Other sections dealt with questions of, for instance, paternity, minors, residence, deprivation of free will, the mentally ill, personal freedom, the inviolability of private property, freedom to make contracts, and freedom of religion and work.

Metrical books were to be kept by state officials, but because an appropriate cadre of laymen was lacking, the duties of administrator of the civil registry were frequently performed by local clergymen who, bound by the relevant decree, first wrote out the civil record and then conducted the religious ceremony.

The documents themselves provided much new information. Birth records contained data on the parents' age, profession, social standing, full place of residence, full date of birth and registration (down to the hour), and witnesses' ages, professions, and places of residence.

New data also appeared in the death records, although much depended on the knowledge of the witnesses who came forward. As a rule, place of birth and parent's names were given, the family relationships of the witnesses appearing were described, and, obviously, the exact time and place of death. If the deceased was married, then the names of his or her spouse and of all living children were given. The cause of death was usually omitted; it was given if the person died as a result of an accident, e.g., drowning, a fall, or fire.

The most informative entries were those for marriages. Marrying was subject to specific conditions. A male below the age of 18 or a female below the age of 15 could not contract marriage. (The emperor could give dispensations in exceptional, important situations). A son under 25 and a daughter under 21 had to have their parents' consent; in case of parental disagreement, the father's consent sufficed. If the parents were no longer alive or could not be present, then consent was given by grandfathers or, if applicable, brothers or uncles. Finally, it was impossible to marry a second time without dissolution of the first marriage, and the wedding had to take place publicly before the civil registrar in the place of residence of one of the newlyweds.

The Code also set forth the obligations proceeding from marriage. Newlyweds were obligated to, among other things, live together and support themselves together and to raise children jointly. The husband was to protect his wife, his wife was to obey her husband, the wife could not appear in court without her husband's consent (criminal cases were exceptions) except with support of the court, and the wife could not enter into a second marriage until after 10 months had passed since the previous one was dissolved.

Children did not have the right to demand any estate from their parents, and in cases of parental poverty, were obligated to give them support.

The following example of a marriage record illustrates the store of genealogical knowledge such a document may provide.

On 29 December of the year 1810, before us, Mikolaj Zukowski, performing the duties of Civil Registrar for Punsk gmina, Sejny pounat, Lomza Departament [civil jurisdictional subdivision based on the French departemeni, roughly comparable to a province], the Honorable Otto Salamon Sztermer appeared, a bachelor, age 30 according to a metrical record presented to us and extracted on 20 May 1806 from the books of the church in Margienburg [sic, surely should be Marienburg, the German name for the city of Malbork] in the country of Prussia, who till now has lived with his future in-laws at the government-owned folwark [manorial farmstead] called Pelele located in Punsk gmina, the son of townsmen, the married couple the Sztermers, his deceased father, Salomon Godlib, and his living mother, Anna Regina nee Sztramb, who resides in the city of Marienburg and the same gmina in the country of Prussia, as well as the Honorable Fryderyka Ernestyna Lukebach, a maiden, proving with a certificate extracted on 10 October 1809 from the books of the church in Gombin [old name for the town now called Gqbin] that she is completing the 21st year of her life, who till now has resided with her parents, still living, at a house at the above-mentioned folwark Pelele, the daughter of the married couple and townsmen the Lukenbachs, the Honorable Johan Henrych and Ernestyna nee Szyperek, formerly residing in the town of Go[m]bin in Prussia, of the same qmina, but of late residing in the Duchy of Warsaw, leaseholders of the abovementioned Pelele folwark, located in Punsk gmina-and in the presence of their parents they showed us an akt uszanowania * drawn up at the notary public's office in the county seat of Sejny on December 27th of the current year before the notary, the Honorable Kazimierz Olechnowicz.

The appearing parties requested that we proceed with the celebration of the marriage being contracted between them, the banns of which were issued before the main doors of our Gmina House, to wit, first on the 9th and second on the 16th of December of the current year on consecutive Sundays at 12 o'clock noon. Inasmuch as no impediment to the aforesaid marriage arose, and the parents of both parties gave permission, we-after having examined the above-mentioned acts of respect, from which it is clear that the formalities demanded by law have been observed-acceded to the above-mentioned request, after reading aloud to the parties and the witnesses all the above-mentioned papers, as well as Chapter Six of the Napoleonic Code, in the section on marriage, and we asked the future husband and wife whether they wished to be wed, to which each of them responded that such was their desire.

We proclaim in the name of the law that the Honorable Otto Salomon Sztermer, tenant farmer of Lornza departament, bachelor, and the Honorable Fryderyka Ernestyna Lukenbach, maiden, are joined in the bonds of marriage. We drew up a record of all this in the presence of Reverend Stanislaw Monkiewicz, age 70, residing in Sejny in Lornza gmina; of the Honorable Fryderych Wilhelm Sztermer, age 25, the full brother [of the groom], administrative clerk of Huta in Suwalki qmina, as witnesses for the Honorable Otto Salomon Sztermer, the bachelor contracting marriage. The witnesses for the bride were the Honorable Kazimierz Buchowski, age 26, a Professor of Mathematics at the Sejny Liceum located in Lornza gmina, and the Honorable Jan Myszka, age 35, an accountant in the departament of Lomza, Punsk gmina-both of whom are brothers-in-law of the Honorable Fryderyka Ernestyna Lukenbach, the maiden contracting marriage. This record was read to the declarants and was signed by us and by all persons mentioned in this document, in their own hand.-M. Lukomski, Civil Registrar of Punsk gmina.

[Signatures follow:] Otto Salomon Stoermer, Ernestine Fridrika Lukenbach, Friderik Wilhelm Stoermer, K. Buchowski, Jan Myszka, St. Monkiewicz.

*Literally "document of respect," in French acte respecteux et formel, a document required by the Code, proving that the newlywed had advised his or her parents of the intent to marry and had asked for their counsel.

An interesting point in this document is that the newlyweds got married outside the borders of the country where they were born. If not for the Napoleonic Code, seeking further ancestors would be very difficult, perhaps as in the proverb "seek the wind in the field."

The majority of records from the period of the Napoleonic Code gave exact birth dates for the couple according to entries from the registers of their home parishes.

Note also that the groom's name provides an example of a Polonized form of a German surname in Polish records: Sztermer = German Stoermer. From 1826 on, metrical documents were once more church records in nature, but their form remained true to that of the Napoleonic Code. There are those who think this Code was the most enduring of Napoleon's achievements-to the great joy of contemporary genealogists.

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Last Updated on November 19, 2011