By Leslie Albrecht Huber
I made some changes to the article to broaden its scope to include Western Europe as a whole. Since it originally focused only on German parish birth records, nearly all the individual examples are from Germany. Much of the background information in this section is similar to that included in the Demographics: Marriages section.
Researchers who have spent much time tracing their Western European families know the importance of using parish records. These records contain birth, marriage, and death (or more accurately baptism, marriage, and burial) information for nearly every individual who lived during the years they cover. Many of our ancestors’ names are written in no other original records. Parish records hold the keys to uncovering European family trees. This article focuses on parish birth (or baptism) records.
Some basic knowledge can help you use these records more effectively. First, understanding the historical background can both help you focus your search and give the events more meaning by placing them in their historical context. Then, knowing what to expect in the records can enable you find and understand all the information contained in your ancestors’ entries.
Fertility and Family Size
Despite modern notions that women in the 1800s gave birth to nearly a dozen children each, records tell a different story. In Europe in general, women had an average of five or six children during their lives, although the numbers varied greatly from place to place. In Germany in the 1840s, the average number of children per marriage varied from 5.1 in Württemberg to 3.8 in East Prussia.
Several factors kept family size small. For one thing, women had a relatively short window of time to bear children. Most women didn’t marry until their late twenties when their fertility was already on the decline. Then, high death rates among young women cut short their childbearing years. Death during childbirth was also a significant factor. In the mid 1700s, there were about 1,000 to 1,200 maternal deaths per 100,000 births. Given that each woman had several children, the cumulative probability of dying during childbirth came to close to five percent.
Poor health and nutrition also contributed to smaller families, limiting the number of times a woman became pregnant. Finally, another factor that influenced family size was breastfeeding. In areas where breastfeeding was widely practiced, spacing between children increased, lowering the number of children a couple conceived.
Historians have also found evidence that couples made a conscious effort to limit the number of children they had. These practices started even before the beginning of the 1800s in some areas. Although birth control as we think of it wasn’t available, couples did have some options. By relying on natural means, couples could space their children or stop conceiving children well before the woman became infertile. However, large-scale declines in fertility didn’t occur until near the end of the 1800s. In most cases, women continued having children until they became too old or died.
Illegitimacy was a common occurrence in Western Europe in the 1700 and 1800s, although rates varied widely. Children conceived before marriage were much more common. For example, while only two to four percent of births in England in the late 1700s were illegitimate, thirty-seven percent of first births to a couple followed pre-marital conception. Rates varied from place to place. In 1820, illegitimacy rates in Germany as a whole fell just under twelve percent of all live births. In 1850, about seven percent of births in France were illegitimate, while eleven percent of those in Denmark were.
Despite the abundance of illegitimacy, children born to unmarried parents still experienced some setbacks early in life. For one thing, laws often discriminated against them. In many areas, illegitimate children couldn’t inherit property. However, if the parents married later many of the limitations didn’t apply anymore. Illegitimate children also had a higher infant mortality rate.
Illegitimacy in the 1700 and 1800s took on a much different appearance than illegitimacy today. Although it was common for couples who weren’t married to have children, it was uncommon for these couples not to marry eventually. In essence, many illegitimate children were born into family units, although their families lacked the official blessing of the state church. These couples often lived together and considered themselves families at the time of the child's birth.
Couples delayed marriages for several reasons. Sometimes, they didn’t have the money to pay the marriage fee. Other times, the church was far away or the pastor wasn’t easily accessible. Some German states, in an effort to control the booming population, placed legal restrictions on marriage, making it more difficult. And sometimes, the couple simply didn’t feel that much concern about whether marriage or children came first. Peasant society had its own marriage customs apart from the customs of the state church. In earlier times, the community had viewed living together, making a commitment to one another, and especially having children as basically equivalent to getting married. Despite valiant efforts by churches, stamping out traditions and convincing people to first perform the ceremony in a church proved difficult.
Applying this Information
You can put this information about birth patterns to use as you search for your ancestors. Always begin searching for children born to a couple several years before the marriage. Expect to find a child born every couple of years, but don’t limit your search to this. Remember that it’s possible to find a subsequent child within a few months of the birth of the previous child (babies born prematurely – who often did not survive – are usually recorded in the birth records). Expect wider gaps as the woman gets older and her fertility declines.
If the couple stops having children when the mother is relatively young (before forty), check to see if one of the parents died or if the family moved. Women could continue having children well into their forties, but a pregnancy at fifty or beyond is highly suspicious - and probably indicates an incorrect conclusion somewhere.
Using the Records
Each pastor had his own method for recording births. Some pastors included a great deal of detail, while others wrote down so little information that it becomes next to impossible to securely link families together. Generally, the further back in history you go, the sketchier the information becomes. Also, the completeness of records varies greatly from country to country. While German parish records in the 1800s generally contain the mother’s maiden name, the same is not true for English marriage records in this time.
Still, many birth records do contain a few of the same basic kinds of information. Knowing what to expect in a record can help you decipher hard-to-read words, understand the meaning of all the details in the record, and extract as much information as possible. Below I’ve listed some of the major types of information found in birth records. You can expect some of these to be found in nearly every record, while other types of information are an exciting bonus for the researcher.
Name of the Child. As surprising as it may sound, not all records include this basic piece of information. Particularly in early records, the entry may simply state that a son or daughter was born to a particular person. Most records in the 1800s will include first names. Also, children who were born dead or who died soon after birth may not have been given a name. The record may simply indicate that the child was born dead.
Names of the Parents. Nearly all birth records contain at least some information about the child’s father. In early records, you may not find his entire name, but only his surname with a title or occupation. Parish records in many countries, particularly in the 1800s, will record the full names of both parents (including maiden names of mothers). The exception is for illegitimate births. In these cases, you may only see the name of the mother.
Dates of Birth and Baptism. Many birth records contain two dates – the date of the child’s birth, followed by the date of the baptism – usually only a few days later. If you find only one date, it’s most likely the baptism date.
Place of Birth. Baptisms were usually performed at the parish church and recorded in the church book there. However, in many countries parishes in rural areas included not only the town that contained the church, but several surrounding villages as well. Often the birth record will record the name of this nearby village where the family lived. It might be recorded as the place of birth for the child or you might make the conclusion yourself based on the residence given for the child’s parents – perhaps written like this: “Father: Johann Tiedeman of Nevern.”
Occupation of the Father. Numerous baptism records include the occupation of the father next to his name. This information can help you verify that you are gathering the correct family. Checking the occupation can be especially helpful in a large parish if your ancestor’s name is rather common. Of course, people did change occupations meaning a father may not have the exact same occupation in the baptism records of all of his children. A farmhand may become an actual farmer several years later. However, be careful when you find suspicious occupation changes. You may be dealing with two different couples with the same or similar names.
Marital Status of the Parents. You can expect that if a child was illegitimate, the record will indicate this in some way. It may simply include the word for illegitimate. Sometimes the child’s name was written upside-down. Other times, only the name of the mother will be given, perhaps with the word “single.” Also, look to see if the child has the surname of the mother instead of the father. (Keep in mind that if the parents later married, the child usually adopted the father’s surname.)
Witnesses. Most birth records include the names of one or several witnesses who attended the child’s baptism. The pastor might have also written down the places of residence of the witnesses, their occupations (usually for men), relationships to the family, or spouses’ names (more often for women).
At first, you may be tempted to skip over this often scribbled mass of hard-to-make-out names. But, the information here can be a great help when assembling families. It’s very likely that one or more of the witnesses was a relative. Sometimes the pastor will indicate if the witness was the grandfather or other relation, but other times he won’t. Don’t assume someone isn’t related just because the record doesn’t state that he or she is. Carefully wading through the witnesses can help you track other family members, clueing you in to other things such as if a grandparent was still alive or if an aunt married and moved out the parish.
Other Information. You never know what other information you may find scribbled to the side or embedded within a birth record. For example, if the child died soon after birth, some pastors included the death date next to the record. Some pastors put a cross beside the child’s name to indicate that the child died. You may also see a note if the child’s parents married after the birth. A scattered few birth records may include other information such as if the family moved.
Take the time to study your ancestors’ parish birth records carefully. You may be surprised at what you can find hidden in these short entries.
For Further Reading:
Sheehan, James J. German History, 1770-1866 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
Viazzo, Pier Paolo. “Mortality, Fertility, and Family.” In The History of the European Family: Family Life in Early Modern Times, 1500-1789. David I. Kertzer and Marzio Barbagli, editors. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), pgs. 157-187.