spacer.gif (896 bytes)

note.gif (721 bytes)

Traité de généalogie

bar.gif (1570 bytes)

Book Review: René Jetté's Traité de généalogie

By Gail F. Moreau-DesHarnais and John P. DuLong, Ph.D.


Since publishing this book review in 1993, we have had the great pleasure of working with René Jetté, who has been a wonderful mentor and has become our kind friend.   He spearheaded the Baillon and Le Neuf research projects.  His Traité de généalogie became our unofficial methodological guide for these two projects.  In this research we watched him handle with grace and elegance heraldic images, seigneurial land records, cartularies, and other records for conducting Medieval genealogical research.  Obviously, he was applying the principles found in his Traité de généalogie to these diverse records.  We have learned so much from him and we appreciate his eagerness and willingness to share his expertise with us and so many others.  Our colleagues, Roland-Yves Gagné and Fr. Joseph A. Dubé, join us in thanking René for sharing his ideas and expertise with us.

For some time now we have felt that it was unfortunate that René's Traité de généalogie is not better known among Anglophone genealogists.  We hope that publishing this book review on the Internet will lead to renewed interest in his masterpiece.  Ideally, we would love to see it translated and published in a new English edition so it can reach a wider audience.

Lastly, it is necessary to point out that the original theory regarding Catherine Baillon ancestry, as published in the Traité de généalogie, has been replaced with lineages better grounded in documentation.  Her ancestry back to Charlemagne and the Byzantine emperors can be found in the following work:

René Jetté, John Patrick DuLong, Roland-Yves Gagné, Gail F. Moreau, and Joseph A. Dubé.  Table d'ascendance de Catherine Baillon (12 générations).  Montréal: Société généalogique canadienne-française, 2001.

The fact that René remained diligent in studying her lineage, and joined in a team with other researchers, is a measure of the man.  He would not hold on to a proposed lineage once the facts contradicted it.  He willingly examined other theories even though they diverged from what he had published in his book.  We have been impressed with his eagerness to delve deeper when the evidence suggested more research was necessary.

This review was originally published as:

Gail F. Moreau and John P. DuLong. "Book Review: René Jetté's Traité de Généalogie." Michigan's Habitant Heritage 14:3 (July 1993):102-105.

Only a few slight modifications have been made to improve the grammar and point to specific pages.


The publication facts for the book review here are as follows:

René Jetté. Traité de généalogie. Montréal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1991, 716 pp. Order from Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2910, Boul. Édouard-Monpetit, Montréal, Québec H3T 1J7, (514) 343-6929, ISBN: 2-7606-1552-9, $72 Canadian. French text.

René Jetté is already famous among Franco-American genealogists because of his valuable Dictionaire généalogique des familles du Québec. Now he has gone beyond a genealogical dictionary of ancestors and has written an in-depth work on genealogy. His new book promises to become a cornerstone for the development of the art and science of genealogy. This ambitious book is difficult to categorize because it sets out to accomplish something different from most other works on genealogy. Although it is not a general introduction to doing genealogy, it does coincidentally contain useful information for novices. It is an attempt to define what genealogy is, clearly explain its many facets, and then reinforce this discussion with examples from genealogical research in Québec. This book contains a wealth of information on Québec research, but again, that is not its main purpose.

Jetté uses Québec genealogy as the basis for building his arguments about genealogy in general. His main reason for concentrating on Québec is that he is familiar with the sources and approaches to genealogy in his homeland. No genealogists can move far beyond the records he is accustomed to working with without losing credibility. Most of the principles he discusses will apply to genealogy in any country. Nevertheless, his concentration on Québec, with only limited discussion of other ethnic, regional, and national genealogies, does lead to some peculiar omissions. For example, land records that play such an important role in American genealogy, especially in the southern states, are barely mentioned. He also lacks an in-depth discussion of naturalization records, another taken-for-granted record source for American genealogists. Another consequence of his concentration on Québec is that he is describing for many other genealogists an unbelievable collection of records and approaches. An Irish-American genealogist who has struggled with the loss of records in Ireland might find it hard to believe how easy Québec genealogy is because of the preservation and organization of the records. These omissions can be excused because Jetté’s main concern is to use the record sources he knows best to establish sound theoretical rules for the general conduct of all genealogical research.

Jetté often refers to knowing the whole population. That is, knowing all the people with the same name living at the same time and in the same area. This is usually narrowed down to a parish or a group of contiguous parishes. This is obviously a result of the genealogical environment of Québec that he lives and works in. The records there allow him to know most of the possibilities, then systematically eliminate some, and then focus on the remaining few. Other genealogists in countries without such rich record sources have a more problematic situation. For them the lack of adequate records makes it impossible to completely reconstruct the population of even a relatively limited areas, such as, a single village. Nevertheless, even a partial reconstruction of the population of an are remains a valuable approach that can be used to help solve difficult identity problems.

Jetté’s writing style is very clear and precise. He carefully defines his terms in each chapter, builds on these terms as he moves through his material, and he even includes these terms in his glossary. He makes it his practice to present the positive and negative features about each record source that he discusses. He presents his material in a logical way that makes reading it a pleasure. Because so much of his work is based on common sense, it is relatively easy to read and follow. The topic you expect him to cover next he inevitably moves to on the next pages. It is interesting that Jetté observes that there are no well done genealogical maps of Québec showing boundary changes. The addition of such maps to the next edition of his work would be greatly appreciated.

What are the main points of Jetté’s genealogical treatise? The unspoken underlying point is that genealogy is a body of knowledge that can be defined, its procedures explained, its tools described and evaluated, and that it makes a contribution to human understanding. Despite his enthusiasm for genealogy, he has a narrow definition of it. For him genealogy is research to expose and establish the kinship relationship between persons. According to his view it is a mistake to include biographical information as part of genealogy. Biography and family history are interesting and may be important, but they are not genealogy. Because of his Québec orientation, Jetté has the luxury of ignoring biography and family history. Although he does discuss immigration patterns and other historic events that might affect a research project, he does not need to rely heavily on biography and family history because his record base is excellent. For other ethnic genealogists sometimes the only way to solve a purely genealogical problem n the lack of standard records is to become thoroughly engrossed in the history of the region, period, and the families of interest or to use non-standard records. Jetté has no real examples of this in his work. Because he clearly defines his topic and limits it to genealogy based on his Québec experience at the beginning of his work, Jetté cannot be severely criticized. Nevertheless, the reader should understand the implications of his choices. Jetté’s definition of his topic absolves him from having to cover areas often found in other genealogical texts, for example, extensive discussions of passenger and naturalization records, military records, and land records. He cannot be blamed for not covering something that he starts by defining as outside his realm of interest.

There are fourteen chapters that cover a wide range of topics. The book starts with a definition of basic kinship terms and discusses naming patterns (chapters 1 and 2). Next, reporting ascending and descending genealogical information is covered (chapters 3 and 4). He discusses the history of genealogy in Chapter 5. Jetté then moves on to general principles of genealogical practice and covers in detail genealogical evidence (chapters 6 and 7). He looks both at proof by fact, direct evidence based on official records, and proof by presumption, indirect or circumstantial evidence based on the preponderance of the evidence. In Chapter 8 Jetté describes the process of conducting genealogical research in Québec. He then focuses specifically on genealogical sources (chapters 9, 10, and 11). He analyzes in detail private and printed sources, registers of the state including parish registers, and other administrative sources including notarial and census records. The last three chapters provide detailed examples of genealogical research (chapter 12, 13, and 14).

There are also five appendices containing practical information to help the Franco-American genealogist. The first is a table of French, English, and Latin kinship terms. The second is a collection of formulas for calculating the coefficient of consanguinity and the coefficient of kinship. There are also some formulas in the chapters, but there are mostly simply ratios and easy to understand. The third appendix is a table of concordance between counties and census districts of Québec, 1792-1981. The fourth contains the addresses of the regional centers of the Archives nationales du Québec and the Judicial Districts. The last appendix has a list of the repartitions of census districts of Québec by the Judicial Districts and by the regional centers of the Archives nationales du Québec.

Jetté ends his book with a detailed glossary and a thorough bibliography. One of the greatest weaknesses of this otherwise well done book is that it is missing an index. There is a comprehensive table of contents, but this cannot replace a missing index. Jetté mentions hundreds of ancestors as examples throughout his book, but because it lacks an index you will find yourself skimming through the book hunting for your ancestors. The lack of an index harms the value of the book. For instance, Jetté discusses adoption several places in his book. Adoption was not recognized in Québec until 1924. Before 1924 there were no standards on how adoptions were recorded. It depended on the zeal of the priest. After 1924 the adoption can be hidden and a new birth record covering the facts issues (see pp. 440-442 and 461-462). For the casual reader, this information will be missed, and it is not in the table of contents.

The key chapters in the book are 6 and 7 because they get to the heart of formal genealogy. Jetté attempts to answer the questions of how do we prove genealogical information? Genealogical evidence must be evaluated for credibility and precision. Jetté defines these terms and discusses examples in some detail. Because genealogists almost always access the facts indirectly, that is, they examine traces of evidence, they have an obligation to contest information. They can accept information as reasonably true only if there exists no other contradictory document and the credibility of the document is proven. If either one of these conditions is not met, then the source must be rejected. Jetté discusses the sources of error and imprecision in various sources.

It is in Chapter 6 that Jetté present his concepts of the document of origin and the document of proof. He believes that we have to move from the document of origin containing the genealogical question to the document of proof containing the answer. For example, if we want to know the date of death of a person whose marriage record we have, which is the document of origin, then we would seek the burial record, which is the document of proof.

Chapter 7 is the longest and most difficult one to follow because it is here that Jetté tries to arrive at general rules based on his experience of the research process. This chapter is filled with many worthwhile ideas and logical suggestions for structuring an argument of the preponderance of the evidence. Proof by presumption is necessary when no documents have been found that directly proves a genealogical fact. The researcher must then assemble the facts and identify an integral and exclusive convergence of the facts. A theory is considered the most likely explanation until contradicted by any other facts. The key to his approach is how he defines an integral and exclusive convergence. A convergence is integral when all the submitted facts are compatible with the person’s genealogical history. A single divergence ruins this explanation. A convergence is exclusive when the submitted facts exclude other explanations.

For Jetté genealogical inquiry should always go from the known to the unknown. This is why we are obligated to depart from the document of origin that states a genealogical problem and move towards a document of proof that establishes an identity of a person or couple in time and space. The process of connecting a document of origin to a document of proof can be interrupted by inadequate information or the dispersion of information. In his discussion of genealogical research procedure and standards he shows how we can overcome these interruptions.

Beyond the board theoretical portions of the book, there are also many pragmatic sections of interest to Franco-American genealogists. For example, Jetté launches into elaborate and valuable discussions of how to solve date, place, and identification problems. He provides a brief list of average distances between events (p. 345). For another example, there is an average of one year between the marriage of parents and the birth of the eldest child. Or another example, there is on average 1.9 years between the death of a spouse and the remarriage of the survivor. By playing the averages, a researcher can narrow down the period to search for a document. Jetté also makes several common sense research recommendations regarding places. For instance, when running into difficulties with locating the place of an event, he recommends progressing in concentric circles from the last known place.

His discussion of record sources in Québec is extremely valuable. He covers each record type in turn, for example, parish registers, notarial acts, censuses, etc. For each record group he provides the history of their origin and development, rule changes affecting the preservation of records, instruments of research (card indexes, etc.), and an evaluation of both the positive and negative features of each record group. Jetté provides several examples of each type of record.

The examples he uses in his book to prove his points can make for exciting reading. In the course of his research he has found that the following Canadians all descend from Charlemagne: Catherine de Baillon, Marie Martin, Charles d’Aillebourt, Léon Levrault de Langis, Charles de St-Étienne de La Tour, and Jean-François de Billy. He uses these as examples and thoroughly documents these breakthroughs for de Billy, de Baillon, and de La Tour in Chapters 13 and 14. You might disagree with the evidence he produces, but he presents it in detail so that you can evaluate his sources and make your own determination. Jetté only deviates from his focus on Québec when he discusses research in Europe and especially in France. In particular, he has dedicated several pages to discussing published sources dealing with nobles and royals of Europe. He notes that if one hopes to go beyond the sixteenth century, then one must have a noble ancestor.

One of the most detailed examples in the book is how he solves the identity problem of the four couples with the same name—Louis Tremblay and Ursule Simard—who were alive at the same time in Québec. To sort these cases out he looks at how old the marriage is for each couple, the place of residence, mentions of relationship to other kin, other information such as literacy and occupational, and lastly, the genealogical history of the candidate couples. He carefully reconstructs each of the four families assigning the known children to the proper couples. The specific proofs for this complete example are found in Chapter 12.

Although this is a very easy book to read, because it is logical and well organized, and it contains much useful information, it is not a book for novices. There are much simpler guides to French-Canadian genealogical research. However, for anyone beyond the novice level, this is a must read book. Jetté’s thorough discussion of Québec records and the history of genealogy in the province are irreplaceable. This book should also be on the reading list of any serious genealogical amateur and all professionals. It is a substantive contribution to the study of genealogy and raises the discussion of it beyond that of a popular hobby to that of a social science. An English translation of this work would open up its creative information to non-Francophone genealogists, including many Franco-Americans. Lastly, M. Jetté’s editor must be convinced that future editions, whether in English or French, must contain both a name and subject index.

[For those of you interested in the royal lineages, you will want to review the following pages: de Billy (pp. 585-592), de Baillon (pp. 112-114, 250, 274, 276, 278-279, 280, 593-598), and de La Tour (pp. 114-116,  598-615).  Please make sure your consult our most recent publication for the corrected Baillon pedigree: René Jetté, John Patrick DuLong, Roland-Yves Gagné, Gail F. Moreau, and Joseph A. Dubé.  Table d'ascendance de Catherine Baillon (12 générations) (Montréal: Société généalogique canadienne-française, 2001).]

bar.gif (1570 bytes)

top.gif (2188 bytes)home.gif (2244 bytes)email.gif (2288 bytes)

Created 30 June 2001.  Last modified 30 June 2001.