Sunday, May 26, 2013

Luxembourg Records: A Little Practical Advice

In some ways, bringing the Luxembourgish branch of my family history to life is much more challenging than the American or English. It is much more difficult to find sources relative to remote regions of Luxembourg, and when I do find them, chances are they aren’t in English. On the other hand, the primary research is often much easier. Once I made it over the hurdles of learning to read Gothic script and understand records written in French, German, or Latin (none of which I studied in school), it turned out that the primary sources are very easy to navigate. Although the names are often variously spelled in their French, German, or Latin counterparts, the records leave very little room for doubt about a person’s identity. They consistently refer to women by their maiden names even when married, and often identify age, birthplace, and parents. Sometimes a document will record even more information than that.

Now that so many of Luxembourg’s civil records are available for free online at FamilySearch, the potential for research on your Luxembourg line is immense. However, the task looks daunting at first glance. The records are not only unindexed, but they are in another language—some in French, some in German, some in Latin—and both the handwriting and the typeface is difficult to decipher. All your experience in interpreting nineteenth century American handwriting will help you little, because this is an entirely different kind of script. Known as Gothic script, it can be extremely challenging for the modern genealogist, accustomed to our Roman style, to read.

Fortunately, a period of unemployment a couple years ago furnished me with ample spare time to devote to going through these Luxembourg records and teaching myself to read Gothic script. I found the chart in this piece of immeasurable value in understanding both the script and the typeface. Even the preprinted parts of the records can be difficult to understand without aid.

Practice Gothic Script

I am not going to reiterate all that has already been said on reading Gothic handwriting; it has already been said very well and succinctly at the link I mentioned before. I will, however, share a few of my experiences and some hard-won advice in the civil records from Luxembourg specifically.

I recommend beginning to familiarize yourself with some of the later records first, because it can be easier to translate the printed portions of the records rather than immediately diving in and trying to figure it out in Gothic script. Often what was customary to write in the blank spots in the earlier records became pre-printed in the later records. Therefore once you know what you’re looking for, such as “geboren zu (born in)” or “wohnhaft zu (residing in)” or “sohn der (son of), ” and realize approximately in what order the information is likely to appear, it is much easier to locate the pattern of words in the handwritten portions. The letters that were once indistinguishable as s, f, or h begin to organize themselves into coherent words.

A rather simple example of later typewritten records clarifying earlier handwritten records, but it serves to show the concept.

Often, although the record may be written in Gothic script, the names will pop out easily in Roman script. This can be exceptionally helpful in scanning through the records for your ancestors. In birth records, I usually look for the name following “erschienen,” as that is almost always the name of the father, to see if a record is relevant to my search. The signatures, in the eternal nature of signatures, are often much more difficult to read. They do not follow the pattern of names being in Roman script, as the people sign however they are accustomed to write.

Occasionally, a completely handwritten record will be tucked in the pages. Now that you are used to German, this record is unaccountably in French! Don’t despair. Firstly, it is likely in Roman script, easier to read. Secondly, although the words are different, it tends to follow the same pattern. Usually I scan these for relevant names and, if I find something of interest, I return to them later. It can be difficult to switch back and forth between French and German, Gothic and Roman script, so I look at them when my mind is not so full of the Gothic German.

If you do not speak French or German or Latin, don’t give up! You may have gleaned from the preceding paragraphs that I am not fluent in any of those languages. As a matter of fact, prior to this experience I had no training in any of those languages. I did, however, take several years of Spanish, and my passing familiarity with that grammar served me in the challenge of comprehending another grammar. As long as you have tenacity, a modicum of language ability, and access to Google translate, you will be able to figure out the records more or less successfully. I used a combination of Google translate and a physical printed German-English dictionary in my translation. This was partly because of the well-publicized deficiencies of computerized translators. (Just translate a sentence from English into German and then back again and see what you get!) You have to use your brain in combination with the help from the translator. Sometimes it will get hung up on word combinations that are probably legalistic and don’t make sense to it. I had to often frequently cut down the sentences and translate a phrase rather than the entire sentence in order to get to the meaning of the sentence. The physical dictionary also helps in occasions where a word is spelled phonetically or dialectally. The online translators cannot help you there, but a physical dictionary provides a word list from which you can often pick out what was meant.

Helpful Lists

Make a list of the months of the year, the numbers from 1-10 and the tens from there, days of the week, and the ordinal numbers—first, second, third, etc.


I also keep a list of Luxembourg place names in their French, German, and Luxembourgish stylings. Every once in a while if you cannot identify a town, you will find it is written in its Luxembourgish designation. This list is comprehensive; I prefer to make a smaller list of my own, including only the towns that I have found relevant to my search and referring to the larger list only when stumped. Also helpful to refer to a list of German occupations such as the one found here.

French Republican Calendar

Once you get back to a certain period before 1804, you might come across another surprise: suddenly the records you were expecting to see in German are written in French. Or, perhaps more surprising, the records written while under French rule are written in German. I found one such marriage record for Henri Mertz (AKA Heinrich, etc) and Catharina Audrimont. The date was puzzling to me because no matter how I looked at it, all I could get for the year was “11” and for the month “Nivos,” which means nothing in either French or German. Finally I discovered that during this period of time Luxembourg was under French Republican rule and was compelled to use the French Republican calendar, which, believe it or not, is a metric calendar. Ten days in a week, and months that one British wit once translated to “Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety.” The years are dated from proclamation of the French Republic. Therefore, the year I was reading was correct—it was the year 11, which roughly translates to 1803. (However, due to the non-coincidence of new year’s days, part of FR 11 was in 1802.) The month was a misspelling of the month Nivôse.

Dates found in the French Republican calendar (and a number of other calendars, for that matter) can be looked up on this calendar converter. However, before you use the converter, make sure you read a little about the French Republican calendar so that you understand how it works (i.e. what the décades are) or you will end up with the wrong date.

Don’t Give Up!

Although looking at the original Luxembourg records can be challenging at first, it is well worth the effort. Each record is likely to contain a wealth of information. That same marriage record of Henri Mertz and Catharina Audrimont which I mentioned above yielded results I hadn’t dared dream to anticipate:

Henri Mertz
Catharina Audrimont
b. 28 Jan 1780 in Keispelt
b. 19 Nov 1774 in Medernach
Occupation: nurse

Parents: Theodor Mertz and Susana Trauscht of Keispelt
Parents: Peter Audrimont and Margreta Arens of Medernach

This was in addition to the expected information about the wedding itself: the date, place, and witnesses, and it was all new information to me.

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