Arnaud Bringé, Pascal Chareille and Isabelle Séguy

Within the framework of a partnership between Généanet and Ined, Arnaud Bringé, Head of the statistical methods department at Ined, Pascal Chareille, researcher at the University of Tours, and Isabelle Séguy, researcher at Ined, present their work and the objectives of this historical research.

How would you present your work and the research you do/done at INED to someone who is not familiar with your particular field?

Isabelle Séguy and Pascal Chareille:  As historical demographers, we are interested in past populations going back as far as two millennia. We study written and material sources (the latter discovered in archeological digs). The aim is to better understand the dynamics affecting these populations from long ago, their ability to confront the crises that we know occurred in their time, and their resilience in the face of socio-economic, cultural, climate-related, health-related, and geopolitical changes of the sort that fuel all societies regardless of observation scale. 

Arnaud Bringé: As a statistician, I analyze collected data to extract information on significant behaviors at the scale of a particular village (in this case) and/or a specific period. And I develop visualization tools that help the public at large understand better what the study of a huge mass of data can reveal. 

Can you tell us something about the research studies done by Louis Henry and Jean-Noël Biraben, what their initial objective was, how they were structured, and what we learned from them?

In the late 1950s, in the wake of recent works by demographers and historians, Louis Henry set out to “learn about the population of France since Louis XIV” (an up until the Bourbon Restoration in 1814). His primary information source was parish registries. Recent genealogical studies had proved useful in analyzing family composition, life expectancy, occupational activities. Henry’s specific aim was to better understand the wellsprings of demographic dynamics at a time when religion weighed heavily on nuptiality and fertility behaviors. Faced with a huge mass of documentation, Henry used judgmental (non-probability) sampling to select a number of locales that, taken together, would account for 1/500 of the population. He then drew up a list of anonymous items of demographic information (type of life event recorded in the registry, person’s sex, age, marital status, occupation, geographic origin), and established a subsample of 40 exclusively rural townships to better identify explanatory factors for observed demographic changes. To attain his objectives, Henry needed to document family trees, which in turn required taking account of names—last names, first names, occasionally alternative names or nicknames the person was known by—and doing an exhaustive study of life event records.

Thirty years later, Jean-Noël Biraben extended Henry’s study backwards in time, examining the very first parish registries kept in France, which went back as far as the late fifteenth century. His objectives were the same as Henry’s, but the extreme age of the registries he was using did not allow for judgmental sampling; for the 1500-1700 period, he simply gave priority to the oldest and best-preserved registries.

The colossal labor of structuration, data collection, and analysis represented by these two historical surveys would not have been possible without the help of several partners, including many INED investigators, field workers, and mathematical demographers.

The findings led to a complete renewal of the demography of the population of France under the Ancien Régime. Louis Henry became one of the founding fathers of historical demography, long the leading discipline at INED. The research led to many discoveries, including variations in age at first marriage over time; heavy mortality among young children, which limited family size; and the important role of widow/widowerhood and remarriage in structuring French rural families and society. 

Your project now is to conduct new research studies based on those earlier ones. What will you be looking for, and what new knowledge do you expect to obtain compared to the initial surveys?

Digital tools now make it possible to reexamine this mass of data, parts of which were underused or have never been used. For example, the technical constraints of the last century led to phonetic standardization of last and first names and therefore to a loss of information that adversely affected some of the studies. What we want to do today, on the basis of a collaborative indexation project, is to

  1. revisit the registries to obtain the most complete information possible from them (e.g, non-coded last and first names, including godfathers’, godmothers’, and marriage witnesses’ last names, first names, and kinship ties);
  2. spatially extend the sample of selected townships to determine the extent to which spouses were recruited from outside the parish (the earlier studies only took into account families where at least one parent had married and lived in the parish), and examine social and occupational networks to produce a deeper, more detailed social mobility study;
  3. analyze families’ demographic behaviors from a transgenerational perspective, determining how family dynamics—and breaks in them—unfolded over the long term in the context of specific socio-economic, cultural, religious, political, and possibly environmental changes; 
  4. and use new visualization tools to develop a kinematics of demographic behaviors at the family and village scales.  
  • Extract of a nominative survey realized on the commune of Échevronne (Côte-d’Or).

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