The Last Will & Testament of Elie Chastain

St. Pierre’s Church and Cemetery, the final resting place for centuries of Chastains in Vesc, France.

Last summer, as detailed in this post, I finally discovered Pierre Chastain’s parents—Elie Chastain and Lucrèce Dubrotier. Up until that point, Pierre, my 7-times great-grandfather, was my earliest known Chastain ancestor. In a later post, found here, I discussed other Chastains, like Pierre, found fleeing into Germany from Vesc, France after 1685.

Below, from the Departmental Archives of the Drôme, is the Last Will and Testament of Elie Chastain, Pierre’s father. In it, along with some other fascinating passages, is proof that the other Chastains from Vesc found in Germany were, in fact, Pierre’s siblings. Two additional siblings who I was unaware of are also mentioned.

Below is the will1, transcribed and translated by Transciption Services Ltd.

Etienne NOYER, public notary at VESC

Archives Départementales de la Drôme (France)
Ref. #1 : 2E11971 (register of E. NOYER)
Ref. #2 : copy on micro-film 2 Mi 6386/R1 (2012).

Will of Ellye CHASTAIN of VESC

[Folio 153r]
In the name of God, may all know that today, 8th of November Year 1686 in the afternoon in front of me public notary and witnesses, here present Mr Elly CHASTAIN land owner residing in VESC considering that there is nothing more certain than death and nothing less certain than the hour of passing away and not willing to quit this world without setting his will so that there will be no trouble after his death due to the assets that God provided him with, being lying on his bed due to illness, hearing and understanding well

[Folio 153v]
did and required, does and requires his last will in a loud voice and in the presence of witnesses, which would include his last wish, taking into account the whole assets that God provided him with. In the first place, as a good Christian fellow, he did the sign of the Holy Cross, saying “In Nomine Patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti”, offers his soul to the almighty God, praying him that He would please when He will call him to leave this world to get into His World, that his soul would get into the Paradise by the merit of the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ,

“By the merit of the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a very Protestant thing to say. Remember, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes took place in October, 1685. This was over a year later. At the time of this will, it was illegal to be Protestant. Among other indignities, Catholic priests were often sent to the death beds of Protestants to harass them into converting. Elie, despite the pressure he was under to convert to Catholicism, was still bold in his faith.

his burial within the cemetery of St Peter’s church here in VESC, and regarding his funeral and obsequies let the process in the hands and good will of his heiress mentioned hereafter.

Built in the 12th century, St. Pierre’s is a typical example of Romanesque architecture. In Elie’s time, the 17th century, this was still the Catholic church. Why would Elie want to be buried there? Huguenots were proud Frenchmen, despite accusations to the contrary, and Frenchmen were eager to be buried in the same place as their ancestors.

During the peak of the Religious Wars, the two sides were equally brutal when it came to treatment of the enemy’s dead, “…Catholic authorities and royal courts allowed, even ordered, Huguenot remains to be disinterred and reburied or sometimes just thrown by the roadside. Protestant rioters, in their turn, dug up and burned remains that Catholics considered sacred.”2

Though this attitude and activity never fully ceased, an uneasy coexistence emerged. Or, as scholar Keith Luria has explained, “Despite long years of rivalry and bloody conflict, Huguenots and Catholics living in confessionally mixed communities intermarried, sponsored each others’ children at baptisms, worked together, shared civic responsibilities, and participated in each others’ observances. Sometimes they also buried their dead in common cemeteries.”

This attitude did not come from a modern sense of “toleration” but, instead, from a pragmatism that recognized, no matter how much each side might desire it, neither the Catholics nor the Protestants were going to free the kingdom from the presence of the other.

It also must be said that frequently family and community bonds, as well as tradition, were stronger than religious differences. So it wasn’t at all uncommon for a match to be made between a Protestant and Catholic if such an alliance was favorite to both families.

Bearing all of this in mind, there was still simmering animosity between the Catholics and Huguenots which would occasionally boil over into spasms of violence. And the persecution of the Huguenots steadily grew under the reign of King Louis XIV until 1685 when he revoked their religious freedom entirely. And so Elie’s request, made in 1686, to be buried at St. Pierre’s was likely fraught with tension. But it was made for good reason. He would have wanted to be buried in the same place as his ancestors.

The testator wishes and intends that his heiress shall give alms to the Priors of the current place (Souffretans and MONDENIER), precisely 3 silver pounds that would be delivered only once by my heiress after the death of the testator.

This passage confused me. I had begun to understand why Elie would want to be buried in the cemetery of St. Pierre’s, but why would he bequeath money to officials of the Catholic faith? My only theory was that perhaps he was bribing them to smooth over any difficulties arising from his burial.

Not wholly satisfied with this explanation, I contacted a scholar of French Protestantism and asked for his thoughts. He believes that there was a mistranslation. Instead of Elie giving 3 silver pounds to the priors of Vesc, he believes it says that Elie gave 3 silver pounds to the suffering poor of Vesc.

For further evidence, Henry Martyn Baird, a great 19th century Huguenot scholar, wrote the following about Huguenot treatment of the poor, “The poor were well cared for. There were regular gatherings for their relief at the church door. Annual collections were made from house to house. It might be said that scarcely ever was there a Huguenot will made which did not contain some gift, great or small, for the benefit of the destitute.”3

Then, the testator tackles down his particular legacies:
He gives and bequeaths 5 shillings to Jacques and Pierrot CHASTAIN, sons of the testator and of Lucresse BROTIER his wife. The amount of 5 shillings will be given to each of them, and will be delivered one year after his death, and they will not be granted permission to ask for more regarding the assets of the testator.

A quick note about Pierre’s presence in this will—Pierrot was a nickname for Pierre, a sign of affection, probably for someone younger (Jacquot would have been the nickname for Jacques, this ‘ot’ ending is similar to the ‘y’ ending in English for Joe -> Joey and Dan -> Danny). This fits my theory that Pierre was likely the youngest of the Chastain children. (My somewhat educated guess is that he was born around 1665, making him about 21 when he fled France in 1686 and 52 when he finally married Anne Marie Gautier in Schwabendorf in 1717.)

And here’s where the proof of the relationships begins. Jacques was a name I was looking for as a potential brother of Pierre. And there he was.

And, he gives and bequeaths 20 shillings to Isabeau, Marguerite and Judi(th) CHASTAINGS, daughters of the testator and of the aforementioned DU BROTIER his wife, in addition to what he has already given as dowry assets to both of her within the pre-nuptial agreement. The amount of 20 shillings will be given to each of them and will too be delivered one year after his death, and they will not be granted permission to ask for more regarding the assets and heritage of the testator.


Two other names I was on the lookout for—Marguerite and Isabeau—as potential sisters of Pierre. There they were, along with a third sister—Judith. It turns out that Judith was married to Etienne Noyer, the Royal Notary of Vesc, the very notary who wrote out this Last Will and Testament of Elie Chastain.

And, he gives and bequeaths by the means of the rights bound to a particular legacy, to Marion CHASTAIN, daughter of the testator and the aforementioned DU BROTIER his wife, still single and seeking for marriage, thus he bequeaths what would be considered as fair by his wife.

Marion is a nickname for Marie, another sibling I was unaware of. Like Judith, she had not fled with her other siblings but had remained in Vesc. Due to the nickname, I believe she was the youngest of the children along with Pierre.

So, in all, Elie Chastain and Lucrèce Dubrotier had six known children—Isabeau, Judith, Marguerite, Jacques, Marie, and Pierre. It’s likely there were more children. The mortality rates of the time points to Elie and Lucrèce likely having closer to ten or twelve children overall. But these were the six who survived into adulthood.

On this topic, William Biek, author of A Social and Cultural History of Early Modern France, writes, “One study of infant mortality shows that for every hundred babies born in the seventeenth century, twenty-eight would die in the first year, eighteen more would die between age one and nine, and four more would die between years ten and nineteen. By age twenty, 50 percent of the children would be gone.”4

[Folio 154r]
The money will be delivered by his wife and heiress mentioned hereafter.
Asks and intends that the whole shall be payed and processed as said before.

And, to any other beneficiaries of the deceased, he gives and bequeaths 5 shillings to each of them.
And because any valid will requires the testator to appoint somebody as his heir or heiress, otherwise such will would be nullified, the testator, whatever his other assets could consist of, does appoint his wife Lucresse DUBROTIER ^° , as his universal heiress. She shall pay all his pending debts so that creditors would be satisfied. His heiress shall stick to the following conditions too regarding his inheritance. He asks her to give preference to male as opposed to female for any subsequent will that she would make, provided that they will remain too within this Kingdom, otherwise they cannot be granted anything regarding the inheritance of the testator.

Anyone who fled the Kingdom of France forfeited their rights to their inheritance.

The heiress will have to pay the debts of the testator; She shall stick to the any of requirements contained within the current will. His wife and heiress will never be obliged to provide explanations to anyone about how she is handling the inheritance. Should there be some money available once all the particular heirs would have received what the testator has given and bequeathed to them, his heiress is granted permission to use the rest of the inheritance as she intends to do.

I’m not an expert on French Huguenot wills, so perhaps this is typical language, but I’m wondering since most of his children had fled the Kingdom of France already, if this language was meant to keep anyone from questioning Lucrèce’s handling of the money. That way she may have been able to discretely take their inheritance with her when she herself fled to live with them in Germany once Elie had died.

Should it be that some of the heirs would like to go to court and even if they would argue about the sharing decided by the testator, nothing of this kind is allowed, and his universal heiress shall be respected as such, and the testator requires that any of the quarrelsome will be rejected from the inheritance process as the testator has given within the current deed what any of his heirs legitimately deserve.

#° And he gives and bequeaths £ 50 to Louise CHABRIER his granddaughter, and daughter of the aforementioned Marguerite CHASTAIN his daughter, and she will not be granted permission to ask for more regarding the assets and legacy of the testator provided that she will remain within this Kingdom. The legacy will be delivered when and how the heiress mentioned hereafter will decide.

According to the will, Louise Chabrier was Elie Chastain’s granddaughter. Louise was the daughter of Marguerite Chastain and Moyse Chabrier. Pierre Chastain was grouped specifically with Moyse Chabrier when listed as one of the founding settlers of Schwabendorf in Germany, but Marguerite had died by this point so the relationship between Moyse Chabrier and Pierre was unclear. This definitively proves what I had suspected—they were brothers-in-law.

^° his beloved wife, approving along with parties and witnesses

[Folio 154v]
It is his last will, done in a loud voice and in the presence of witnesses. Thus he requires to nullify any previous will, codicil, donation and any other dispersal that he could have made before this deed. The current will supersedes any of these deeds.

The testator prays and requires the witnesses mentioned hereafter to have a perfect recollection when they will be asked to recite the current will and to state they were here present. He states that he has a pretty good and satisfactory knowledge of any of the witnesses, whose names and surnames and well listed hereafter.
The public notary granted the current deed as required by the testator.

Done in the house of the testator, in the presence of Honest Paul CANDY, Jean DUFOUR (son of deceased David), Jean AUDRAND, Piere BLANC son of Jean, David DESPAGNE, Piere AUDRAND, Jean Andre CHASTAIN, all residing in VESC and Mr Jaques NOYER from COMPS, witnesses. The aforementioned NOYER CANDY DUFOUR CHASTAIN BLANC DESPAGNE and Pierre AUDRAND signed the deed. The aforementioned Jean AUDRAND stated he is not able to write, and although required to sign, the testator said that due to he great weakness he will not sign the deed.

Being 80 years old and quite ill, Elie was too weak to sign his name. Luckily, I’ve been able to find his signature on earlier documents.

Elie Chastain’s signature from a business agreement circa 1679 in Vesc5.

We do know that Elie was, as he had requested, buried in St. Pierre’s cemetery on 10 Dec 1686, a month after making his will, and eighty years after his birth in 1606. He was born during the reign of King Henry IV, who had signed the Edict of Nantes, and he died while King Louis XIV was on the throne, the sovereign who oversaw the Edict of Nantes’ revocation.

Burial record for Elie Chastain from the Vesc Parish Records6.

A visit to Vesc in the Summer of 2015 confirmed that St. Pierre’s cemetery is filled with Chastans (see this post for an explanation of how Chastain became Chastan in Vesc), no doubt distant cousins, all. Cemeteries in Europe, unlike North America, often recycle burial plots. In Vesc, the earliest tombstones only date back to the 19th century because of this. Though his tombstone no longer exists, Elie, along with the bones of centuries of unnamed and unknown Chastain ancestors, are at rest in St. Pierre’s churchyard.


Sources:

1 Notarial Records. Archives Départementales de la Drôme. Valence, France. http://archives.ladrome.fr/
2 Luria, Keith P. (2001). Separated by Death? Burials, Cemeteries, and Confessional Boundaries in Seventeenth-Century France. French Historical Studies, Vol 24, Number 2, Spring 2001, pp. 185-222.
3 Baird, Henry Martyn. The Huguenots and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895.
4 Biek, William. A Social and Cultural History of Early Modern France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
5 Notarial Records. Archives Départementales de la Drôme. Valence, France. http://archives.ladrome.fr/
6 Vesc Parish Records. Archives Départementales de la Drôme. Valence, France. http://archives.ladrome.fr/

A Very, Very, Very Fine House

Five generations of Chastains lived in this house in Schwabendorf, Germany from 1724-1851.

From 1724-1851, five generations of the Chastain family lived in this house in Schwabendorf, Germany.1

In 1724, Pierre Chastain is the first recorded owner of house number 15 on Sommerseite (Summerside) Street in Schwabendorf. Including Pierre, the house stayed in the Chastain family for 5 generations (Pierre, Alexandre, Jean Pierre, Christian, and Peter). In 1851, Peter Chastain, having become responsible for the debt obligations of his siblings, was no longer able to afford living there.

He sold it to a merchant named Salomon Salzenstein, and, in turn, it was quickly purchased by a relative and neighbor, Conrad Aillaud, for 800 thalers. The property was described as such, “residential house with cultivated farm land along with a barn, stables and a yard opposite the house”2.

Peter and family moved into a smaller, more affordable house, number 9 on Sommerseite, just down the street. Here the Chastains lived until 1860 when, because of an increasingly difficult economic situation, they left for America.


Sources:
1 Badouin, Gerhard. Vom Val Cluson nach Schwabendorf : die Waldenserfamilien Aillaud und Vinçon. Rauschenberg-Schwabendorf: Arbeitskreis für die Geschichte der Hugenotten und Waldenser Schwabendorf e.V., 1996.
2 ibid.

The Mayors of Schwabendorf

Dürer, Albrecht. The Adoration of the Magi. Oil on Panel. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. 1504.
The mayor of Schwabendorf was elected annually on the Festival of Epiphany. This holy day is on the sixth of January, the first day after Christmastide, and celebrates the adoration of Christ by the Magi.

The following, an excerpt from Die Hugenotten in Hessen-Kassel1 by Franz-Anton Kadell, translated by Ann Sherwin2, is a fascinating slice of Schwabendorf’s history circa 1750, involving, among others, Alexandre Chastain, my six times great-grandfather.

An unusual dispute arose in Schwabendorf in the year 1750 over the office of Grebe1, in the course of which the Germans and French split into two factions. In earlier times, the colony had elected or reconfirmed the Greben annually on Epiphany. Around 1734, the Rauschenberg district appointed Georg Wilhelm Keseler as permanent Grebe, with no resistance from the colony. Beginning in 1740, the Grebe of Schwabendorf was provided an annual payment of 3 Viertel2 of grain. Then tensions arose between the community, on the one hand, and the Grebe, the treasurer, and Mayor Stiglitz of Rauschenberg on the other. Pastor Riccardi, above all, spoke out in criticism of both sides. The government in Marburg finally ordered an investigation by councilman and advocatus fisci3 Hamel, which resulted in a formal declaration, on July 23, 1742, of the colony’s right to elect its Grebe annually. It stipulated that the office could also be awarded to a German and that the officeholder should receive a key to the church, for access to the clock, but that he had to see that the fire rake was stored elsewhere. Despite the government directive, Keseler did not give up, and in August 1742 he produced a character reference from the Rauschenberg mayor. It took a formal decree of dismissal dated June 28, 1743, and reconfirmation of the colonists’ right to elect their Grebe before he would step down.

In 1750 the matter was resurrected. Keseler applied to the government in Kassel for the office of Grebe once again. In his opinion, the residents had dismissed him earlier out of jealousy. In the period that followed, they had repeatedly elected merchants and businessmen as Grebe, who were always on the road and left the affairs of their office in disarray [it’s very likely Alexandre Chastain, a hatmaker, was one of the mayors facing this criticism]. Keseler therefore asked to be appointed Grebe for life, pointing out that he was bilingual and had served the office well for years. Again Keseler found support for his efforts in Mayor Stiglitz of Rauschenberg, who endorsed the life appointment. In the latter’s view, the performance of the French Greben had been unsatisfactory because of their “negligence” and frequent absence. Furthermore, they ignored sovereign decrees, failed to report revelry in fields and elsewhere, and, finally, did not collect the seigneurial taxes properly.

At the behest of the government, Frankenberg mayor J. H. Crause went into the colony, interrogated the head of every family individually, and recorded the opinions of the 16 French and 8 German men. The French unanimously favored an annual election of the Grebe. That way, they said, a Grebe could not become too autocratic and the colony would be able to reconfirm a good one. They made harsh accusations against the applicant Keseler from the time he held office. What bothered them most was his domineering nature and that “the colony had to do whatever he said.” In all community and church matters, he insisted on his own way and tried to force them to abstain from work on Lutheran holidays, even though most of them were Reformed. He oppressed the French, strove to increase the German population, and “no colonist dared open his mouth against him.” The French seemed especially incensed that Keseler had brought the fire rakes into the church, contrary to consistorial regulations, thus incurring a fine of 60 Reichstaler for the colony. In general the French were of the opinion that everything in the colony had been “much more calm and peaceful” before Keseler had come to office and that the colony had also paid less in taxes. But then quarrels often arose with the pastor, elders, schoolmaster and the other residents, because Keseler wanted to punish the poor and especially the French residents for every trifle.

The Germans were less unified. A few declared that they didn’t care whether the Grebe changed or remained permanently in office, nor whether Keseler or someone else held the office. In addition to these, there were staunch Keseler supporters. In their view, a permanent appointment would better ensure the safeguarding of sovereign interests, especially since annual election would allow people to gain office who cared little about sovereign rules. For example, they said, Alexandre Chastain and Pierre Daniel Aillaud had violated forest rules by signing over 4 cords of wood to residents who had come from elsewhere and not taken the oath of loyalty “like other manufacturers.” They said that during Keseler’s time in office taxes had been collected on time, whereas François Joubert had collected the monies but not turned them in, thus failing in the execution. An annual change would diminish the “true welfare” of the colony and facilitate embezzlement. The French would scheme anyway and reach agreement long before the election. The Germans would be outvoted every time, since the French, because of friendship and kinship, would play into each other’s hands. Keseler, on the other hand, is “a very honest man” and, because of his knowledge of German, can follow orders precisely, unlike the French. As a man of means, he has no need to “see to his sustenance more than to his office,” and therefore during his time in office, things “things went very well” in the community. According to the Germans’ view, Keseler would have more support if he were not a Lutheran and “were not accurate to a fault in the performance of his duties.”

The French reacted to the interrogation by the Frankenberg mayor with a petition to the government, in which they appeared to have been alienated by the sending of the mayor and spoke out against Keseler once again. On Sept. 1, 1750, the government put an end to the dispute by barring Keseler from the office of Grebe and confirming the right of free election.

1 mayor of a rural Hessian village (plural: Greben)
2 old unit of measure; as a dry measure in Hesse, it may have been close to a peck. It was ¼ of a Scheffel, which is usually translated “bushel” but is not an exact equivalent.
3 state attorney for financial matters


Notes and Sources:
1Kadell, Franz-Anton. Die Hugenotten in Hessen-Kassel. Darmstadt und Marburg, 1980, pgs 627-630.
2Provides translations of German text and transcriptions of old German script. http://asherwin.com/

Tears and Toil

A few years ago, as I was walking by a cemetery, I saw a backhoe digging a grave. This is a sight I’d seen plenty of times before. Normally, besides momentary pity for the grieving family, I had never thought much about what I was seeing. This time, however, I frowned. Continuing my walk, I was unable to name the cause of this consternation. Finally, after several minutes, I hit upon the matter. We should be buried, not by unknowing, unloving, cold machines, but by the tears and toil of our grieving loved ones.

Machines and technology are both a blessing and a curse. They improve our lives with comforts undreamed of by our ancestors, but, as they liberate us from our responsibilities to each other, they also increase the distance between ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.

This was back in those heady days when I fancied myself a writer. The incident so moved me, I did what anyone would do, I composed a few verses. The first two stanzas are enough to convey what I was going for. (Since I’m currently in a merciful mood, I’ll spare you the rest.)

The tree lifts its arms high in praise
Shading the hushed and shrouded graves
The mournful music swells and sways
Through cracking branch and rustling waves

We bury our dead now with machines
Progress—that two-faced, craven thief
The dignity of man, to me, it seems
Deserves loving toil and heroic grief

Not just any grief but heroic grief. I pictured myself with shovel in hand, digging for hours in a downpour, numbed by my loss and the cold, barely able, by the end, to lift the shovel higher than my knees. Perhaps, in this daydream, I wanted to contrast this simple shovel in the hands of a caring, feeling human against the mechanical complexity and cold indifference of the backhoe. Because it wasn’t just any shovel. It was an old, sturdy shovel, in the family for generations, hallowed by decades of good, honest work, caked with soil from home. You get the idea. I was quite transported.

Not long after, I was reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. In it, the main character, a seminary dropout and barber, also doubles as the gravedigger for his small community. He knew each and every one he buried and condemned the use of machines for burials as “not at all the right way to do it.” Hear, hear! Berry’s fiction always emphasizes communal bonds. Those bonds don’t end with death.

It was with these romantic notions of grave digging firmly implanted that I approached a new development in my family history research. Upon receiving The Schwabendorf Book of Families by Gerhard Badouin1, a publication that details all families in the church records between 1687, when the village was established by Huguenot refugees (among them Pierre Chastain), and 1925, I paged through to examine the Chastain family. Along with dates of birth, death, marriage, and the names of spouses and children, the book also lists occupations. Next to Alexandre Chastain’s name (second son of Pierre born 1727) were the occupations ackermann and hutmacher. These were easy enough—farmer and hatmaker. But then there was a more mysterious word. One that I couldn’t translate satisfactorily—grebe.

Grab translates to grave and greben to dig. These were the closest words I could find. On these shaky grounds, I concocted the theory that Alexandre Chastain was a gravedigger and that his fellow villagers had, like Wendell Berry, a high view of this office. Clearly our ancestors, living pre-Industrial Revolution, understood the importance of such work. As time passed, I forgot how weak my translation actually was, and I became very proud of my gravedigging ancestor.

Eventually, I found a German dictionary compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm2. Yes, the Brothers Grimm. Along with collecting fairy tales, they did extensive linguistic work. This dictionary is filled with the language of the common country folk, much of it not found in typical dictionaries. The word grebe is included. It does not mean gravedigger but mayor! Alexandre Chastain was the mayor of Schwabendorf. Somehow, I was disappointed.


Sources:
1Badouin, Gerhard. Familienbuch von Schwabendorf und Wolfskaute. Marburg: Görich & Weiershäuser, 2002.
2Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Deutsches Wörterbuch, 32 Vols. Leipzig, 1854-1961.

Of Chestnuts and Troubadours

From Recueil des poésies des troubadours, contenant leurs vies, a 14th century collection of poems from the troubadour tradition. Here, the troubadour Perdigon, the son of a fisherman, is seen playing his fiddle. The word troubadour is derived from the Occitan trobador. The troubadour tradition arose in Occitania in the 11th century.

In the course of researching my Chastain family, I’ve stumbled upon an excellent online dictionary of French surnames.

The entry for Chastang translates roughly to the following:

Worn in the Cantal, Corrèze and Lozère, it is a toponym evoking the chestnut tree (Occitan “castanh”). Variants or similar forms: Chastain, Chastaing, Chastaingt, Chastan, Chastand, Chastant, names all encountered in the northern part of the Occitan domain, from the Dordogne to the Drôme.

The Drôme, the area mentioned at the end of the entry, is where Vesc, ancestral village of the Chastains, is located. Chastain is a toponym, a type of surname derived from a feature in the local environment, typically near where the person who was given the surname lived. In the case of Chastain, the name would have been given to someone who lived near a prominent chestnut tree.

Occitan, mentioned in the entry, is a Romance language still spoken in the south of France. This was the language of the medieval troubadours and, centuries ago, was widely known even outside of France. Like any other language, Occitan has several dialects. A feature of the Vivaro-Alpin dialect, spoken in northern parts of southern France, such as the Drôme, is a soft ‘ch’ sound instead of a hard ‘c’. This would seem to explain the evolution of the Latin word for chestnut, castanea, with its hard ‘c’, to chastain and its variants, with their soft ‘ch’, in French (like the ‘ch’ in champagne i.e. an English ‘sh’ sound).

The dialects of the Occitan region. The Department of Drôme is labeled with a 26. This area is part of the region that speaks the Vivaro-Alpin dialect. (Map from Dictionnaire Des Noms De Familles Et Noms De Lieux Du Midi De La France by Jacques Astor.)

A map displaying differences in pronunciation by area. The Latin castanea became castanh in Occitan. Then, in the region where Vesc resides, castanh became chastanh and, eventually, mutated into the variations chastain, chastan, and chastaing, just to name a few. Eventually, chastain made its way into the English language as chestnut. (Map from Dictionnaire Des Noms De Familles Et Noms De Lieux Du Midi De La France by Jacques Astor.)

Switching gears, another resource that’s been helpful in my research is this Dictionary of Middle French. In the course of translating historical documents, I often give this a try if the translation into Modern French isn’t making sense. It’s clarified quite a few passages that were previously impenetrable.

Finally, moving even further into the past, the Etymological Dictionary of Old French is another fascinating resource. (I think I was a linguist in another life). It details different spellings of words in Old French and, citing original medieval texts, gives examples of each spelling variant. This dictionary led me to an old 12th century manuscript titled Liber de simplici medicina. In it, a reference is made to miel chastain, a cold remedy consisting of honey infused with a bitter chestnut flour.

I’m tickled to see my surname, spelled exactly how it is today, in a text that’s over eight hundred years old. The word chastain, having evolved into other forms, hasn’t been a part of the French language for centuries, making my surname, Chastain, a fossilized record of an ancient, extinct word.

Occitania in southern France (Author: Jiròni B.)

The Chastains of Vesc after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes

King Louis XIV quartered dragoons, French Cavalry, in Protestant households as a tactic to force their conversion. The dragoons were free to abuse and torture the Protestants. The dragoons were also a significant financial strain as they had to be supported by the Protestant families whose houses they were quartered in. The Chastains could very well have experienced this before their flight into Germany.

King Louis XIV quartered dragoons, French Cavalry, in Protestant households as a tactic, referred to as the dragonnades, to force their conversion. The dragoons were free to abuse and torture the Protestants. The dragoons were also a significant financial strain as they had to be supported by the Protestant families whose houses they were quartered in. The Chastains could very well have experienced this before their flight into Germany.

Along with Pierre Chastain, I’ve come across a handful of other Chastains from Vesc, France who, attempting to escape religious persecution, emigrated to Germany after 1685. It seemed probable that these Chastains were related to Pierre, but, until now, I’ve had no direct evidence. Recently, the Drôme Departmental Archives in Valence, France sent me a copy of Elie Chastain’s last will and testament, dated November 8, 1686. I was hoping that this document would, among other things, definitively prove these relationships. Before I get to the will, which I’ll cover in another post, I want to review what I knew beforehand.

Pierre Chastain is first found in Germany in June of 1687 as one of the original settlers of Schwabendorf, a Huguenot colony. He is listed in family group number four along with Moyse Chabrier and two of Moyse’s sons. There is no wife listed for Monsieur Chabrier. Right away, I assumed there must be some connection between Moyse and Pierre. Otherwise, why would they be listed together?

Temp

Family group #4 of the original settlers of Schwabendorf, Germany. Pierre Chastain is grouped with Moyse Chabrier’s family. (Source: Marburg Archives.)

For a while, I had nothing else to go on until I found the following, which shows Moyse Chabrier, of Ourches, France and his wife, Marguerite Chast(a)in, in Frankfurt, Germany on May 19, 1686. Moyse and Marguerite had 3 children. The document also notes that Marguerite was pregnant. With them is a Benjamin Gachet of Volvent, France. I’ll mention him again shortly.

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Moyse and Marguerite can be found in Frankfurt again five months later on October 18, 1686. This time with five children, which would seem to indicate they had twins. Unfortunately, of these seven, only Moyse and two of the children made it to Schwabendorf by June 30, 1687. The other children and Marguerite died along the way.

For further evidence of the relationship between Pierre and Marguerite, the below is the second page of a marriage contract between Hector Grimolle and Louise Chabrier in Vesc, France. Louise’s parents are Marguerite Chastain and Moyse Chabrier. Marguerite, like Pierre, was a Chastain of Vesc. Was Marguerite an aunt? A cousin? A sister? If a sister, then Moyse Chabrier would have been Pierre’s brother-in-law.

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Second page of the marriage contract of Hector Grimolle and Louise Chabrier of Vesc.

Isabeau Chastain can be found in the same general vicinity as Pierre after the flight into Germany. Below is a document from September 6, 1686 in Frankfurt, Germany. It records Isabeau Cha(s)tain and Benjamin Gachet of Volvent, France, the same Benjamin Gachet found above with Moyse Chabrier and Marguerite Chastain.

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Iseabeau Chastain and Benjamin Gachet in Frankfurt. (Source: Frankfurt Archives.)

Isabeau can also be found in Louisendorf, Germany as a godmother for a baptism in 1690. Pierre Chastain and his mother, Lucrèce Brotier, were living in Louisendorf at the time. In this entry, Isabeau is the wife of Benjamin Gachet of Marburg, so Benjamin and Isabeau were living in nearby Marburg. (Pierre was a godfather at the very next baptism in the church register.)

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Isabeau Chastain in Louisendorf. (Source: Louisendorf Church Book.)

I was sent a list of the children of Benjamin Gachet and Isabeau Chastain by the German Huguenot Society. The children were Lucrèce, Judith, and Marc. Marc Gachet of Marburg was the godfather of Pierre Chastain’s first son, Pierre, at his baptism in Schwabendorf in 1718. If Isabeau was Pierre’s sister, then Marc Gachet was Pierre’s nephew, and Marc and the younger Pierre were cousins.

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The baptism of Pierre the Younger, Pierre Chastain’s eldest son. Marc Gachet of Marburg is the godfather. (Source: Schwabendorf Church Book.)

Finally, there was a Jacques Chastain from Vesc, France who was in Frankfurt, Germany on April 17, 1686.

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Jacques Chastain of Vesc in Frankfurt. (Source: Frankfurt Archives.)

The below, from the Marburg church book, shows the deaths of Isabeau Chastain, wife of Benjamin Gachet, and her brother, Jacques Chastain, in 1691. She was 45 and he was 35. They were both from Vesc, France.

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Jacques Chastain and Isabeau Chastain both died in Marburg, Germany in 1691. (Source: Marburg Church Book.)

The only explicit relationship is between Jacques and Isabeau—brother and sister. As for the others, Isabeau was likely connected to Marguerite, since Isabeau’s husband, Benjamin Gachet, was traveling with Marguerite Chastain and Moyse Chabrier. And another connection existed between Marguerite and Pierre Chastain since Pierre is grouped with her husband, Moyse Chabrier, in Schwabendorf.

The will of Elie Chastain, Pierre’s father, mentions them all. They—Jacques, Isabeau, and Marguerite—are the children of Elie Chastain and Lucrèce Dubrotier of Vesc, France. Two other children, Marie and Judith, are also mentioned in the will. The fate of Marie is unknown. At the time of the will, she was unmarried and had remained in France. Judith married Etienne Noyer, the Royal Notary of Vesc, and had also remained in Vesc. The Catholic parish records have an entry for Judith’s death in 1718. She remained true to the faith of her father. The entry states that she was buried outside hallowed ground.

Forgotten Books

Old Books

Mmm. Smell that mildew. (Photo: William Hoiles)

I’m currently devouring volume 2 of History of the Rise of the Huguenots by Henry Martyn Baird. The quality of the writing as well as the painstakingly detailed research is impressive. Baird wrote six volumes on the Huguenots (roughly three thousand pages). These books have long been out of print, but, since they’re in the public domain, they can all be found on Google Books for free. There are two volumes each for his three titles on the Huguenots: History of the Rise of the Huguenots, The Huguenots and Henry of Navarre, and The Huguenots and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Baird’s father was a Presbyterian minister, and Baird clearly has an opinion sympathetic to the Protestants. Nevertheless, he is fair and not as blindly partisan as other historians I’ve read.

Baird continues the trend of excellent Huguenot scholarship from the 19th century that I’ve encountered, including the first book on the Huguenots that I read—Reginald Lane Poole’s History of the Huguenots of the Dispersion at the Recall of the Edict of Nantes. Poole’s history holds a special place in my heart and on my virtual bookshelf since it directly led to discoveries about the Chastain family. Another laudable 19th century effort on this subject is History of the French Protestant Refugees by Charlie Weiss.

One thing I’ve learned from my efforts to research my family is how essential it is to read history. The more I read, the more I understand the lives of my ancestors. So read and read and read some more.

A Case of the Hives

A French Notary

An engraving of a French notary. Artist unknown.

In a previous post, I wrote about the signature of my earliest known ancestor, Pierre Chastain. A curious symbol follows his name. And it wasn’t just his. I discovered others whose signatures also included this same symbol. Not sure what to make of this, I asked a good friend for his opinion, and he pointed out that it looked like the number 98. I agreed. And I concocted, what I thought to be, a solid theory based on it being a 98. King Henry IV of France, in 1598, signed the Edict of Nantes, which gave Huguenots a measure of civil rights and religious freedom. I believed that, when signing documents, including a 98 was a way for Huguenots to commemorate this event.

Well, thanks to the good folks at the Genealogical Circle of Provençale Drôme, I finally have an official answer. To my great disappointment (for I fell in love with my own theory), it is, in fact, not a 98.

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Pierre Chastain’s signature.

This symbol is an example of a practice referred to as “ruches”. In English, this translates literally to “hives”, which isn’t that helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary is more illuminating. Ruche is defined as “a frill or pleat of fabric as decoration on a garment or soft furnishing.” It’s not hard to see how the term came to describe this ornamental custom.

Hives first appeared in France in the 7th century as the use of signet rings gave way to manual signatures. They could be personalized however the signer deemed fit and, not coincidentally, were a way of demonstrating skill with a feather pen. This practice, which vanished by the 19th century, would have been most prominent among those whose work required the signing of documents on a regular basis, solicitors and notaries being two obvious examples.

Pierre Chastain’s signature is a specimen of hives at its most basic—three interlocking loops. It simply stood for “the undersigned”. Below is a more elaborate signature, though it is, when compared to the most ostentatious examples of hives, still fairly simple.

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An example of hives found in the Vesc notary records.

Manuel de Diplomatique by Arthur Giry is the authoritative work on this subject. A digital copy is available at Gallica, the digital library run by the National Library of France.

The Geography of My Heart

Vesc

A view from Vesc, in the former Dauphiné Province.

This past June, Peter Wortsman wrote a fantastic article for the New York Times Travel section. It’s titled Le Dauphiné, a French Region With a History Both Ancient and Personal. This is the ancient land where the Chastains came from.

Wortsman begins:

Driving along a winding highway in the Alps in Southeast France last August, I thought back to the Romans. When they came charging down the mountains into the Rhône River Valley in the first century B.C., how did they ever maneuver their chariots around some of the hairpin curves I was navigating? Did they ever stall, as I once did, at a pivotal juncture at the foot of the Vercors Massif, drawing the ire of Gallic motorists — or the ancient equivalent — honking behind? (As a recent convert from automatic to stick shift, it was my “baptism of the road,” as my French wife, Claudie, put it.)

One thing I knew: They braked long enough to establish the colony of Delphinatus Viennensis, which would eventually blossom into Le Dauphiné — the one-time French province where personal and ancient history are intertwined for me in a place that Claudie once lyrically called “the geography of my heart.”

My wife and I visited the Dauphiné last June. I hope to write about my own experiences eventually, but, when I do, I doubt I’ll come up with anything as evocative as “the geography of my heart”. The phrase rings true. Memories of the Alps, lavender fields, olive groves, vineyards, markets, and medieval villages are firmly lodged in my mind and my heart.

I came, I saw, I was conquered. For 31 years and counting, I have had privileged access to this charmed enclave of roughly 7,695 square miles in the southeast corner of France, ringed by the lavender fields and olive groves of Provence, the vineyards of the Rhône River Valley, and the plateaus and peaks of the Alps. On past visits we invariably dashed from Claudie’s native town, Valence, near some of the country’s finest vineyards, to arrive in time for dinner at her father’s ancestral village, Les Savoyons, in the Alps. But my beloved in-laws have died. There was no one awaiting us at table this time, so we took it slow.

The French Revolution divided the royal province into three departments — the Drôme, Isère and Hautes Alpes — and though the geography varies from fertile plains to rolling hills, to highlands and vertiginous summits, the regional identity remains distinctly Dauphinois. The mood is laid-back, down-to-earth, modulated by a midday siesta and a chilled sip of pastis.

Wortsman even makes brief mention of the Huguenots in his love letter to the old province.

But behind that mellow mood lie centuries of upheaval.

The area was the Roman military and commercial corridor of choice between the Alps and the Rhône; the Punic general Hannibal passed through with his elephants up from North Africa to challenge Rome, allegedly leaving behind the pintade (guinea hen), a succulent cousin of the turkey, traditionally raised in the Drôme. (It also became our favorite holiday fare, best roasted with chestnuts from Ardèche, across the Rhône.)

In the Middle Ages, the Dauphiné was a quasi-independent principality. Its rulers were called Dauphins, until the impecunious Dauphin Humbert II sold his holdings to the King of France in 1349, when the title fell to the king’s eldest son. The rugged terrain made it an optimal refuge for French Huguenots fleeing persecution during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century. In the 20th century, Jews fleeing the Nazi army and the Vichy Regime hid out here. It is hard for a visitor to square the scenic splendor of gorges like Grands Goulets and Combe Laval with the turmoil that took place on the Vercors where the French resistance made a valiant stand.

Read the whole thing.

My Earliest Known Ancestors: Elie and Lucrèce Chastain of Vesc

Vesc from Above

Vesc, France, the ancestral village of the Chastains, as seen from above. Award-winning photographer: Me. June, 2015.

The genealogy gods are good. A few months ago, I found mention of Pierre Chastain’s mother in the Louisendorf church records. Before this, I had found no evidence for either of Pierre’s parents. Pierre was the end of the line for my Chastain branch. The records for Protestants in France from the 16th through 18th century are, to put it mildly, incomplete. Many were destroyed. Some have been lost. Most are missing. I’ve had better luck with the German records after the Chastain family emigrated from France.

This record from Germany is for the baptism of Elie Relincourt on 9 September 1695 in Louisendorf. The godparents were Pierre Chastain and his mother. To my great frustration, her name was not recorded. It simply says, “Mrs. Chastain, his mother”. I thought that this would be the end of it, and that I would have to be content at least knowing that Pierre had family with him after leaving his homeland behind.

From the Louisendorf Church Book from 1695

The baptism of Elie Relincourt from the Louisendorf Church Book.

In the earliest records I have for Pierre, there is no mention of his mother. He is first found fleeing from France through Switzerland in 1686 and 1687. In June of 1687, Pierre Chastain was in Schwabendorf, Germany as one the original settlers of this Huguenot colony. By August of 1688, he was in Frankfurt, Germany heading towards Geneva, Switzerland—back towards France. Then he shows back up again in Germany by 1690. I had often wondered why he went back to Geneva.

Recently, I’ve been poking through the records available at the Hessian State Archives in Marburg, Germany. One document that came in the mail two weeks ago has triggered an avalanche of discoveries. It is a list of citizens of Louisendorf (then called Hammonhausen) from 1690. In it, we find Pierre Chastain and his mother. But this time her name is given—Lucrèce. The last name is more difficult to decipher but looks like “Broucier”. This record also states that she was a widow.

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Pierre Chastain and his mother, Lucrèce “Broucier”, from the list of citizens of Hammonhausen (Louisendorf), Germany taken in 1690 by Abraham Fontaine, pastor. (Source: Marburg Achives. 5/9832 Bl. 389.)

Broucier does show up as surname in certain places. But it’s rare, and it can’t be found in Vesc. However, a very common name in Vesc is Brottier, Brotier, or Dubrotier. And, in Vesc, I found a Lucrèce Dubrotier, widow of Elie Chasta(i)n. (Elie is French for Elijah. Old Testament names were much more common among Huguenots than Catholics.)

The following is from the article Religionnaires fugitifs du canton de Dieulefit (Dauphiné): Sources Notariales by Jean Sambuc in the Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français. This article reviews information in the notarial records for religious refugees from the Canton of Dieulefit, where Vesc resides.

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(There was an entry for Brotier but it simply stated “see Dubrotier”.) So, here we have a Lucrèce from Vesc, a widow of a Chasta(i)n, who left the Kingdom of France as a religious refugee. The Lucrèce “Broucier” found in Louisendorf is, in fact, Lucrèce Dubrotier of Vesc, wife of Elie Chastain. These are Pierre’s parents, and my eight-times great-grandparents (that’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents) or, to put it another way, ten generations ago. Like I said, the genealogy gods are good. I’m not worthy.

What was Pierre up to when he left Germany for Geneva, Switzerland? He had gone to retrieve his mother and bring her back into Germany with him. Lucrèce was living with a daughter, Marie, in Vesc after Elie died in December of 1686. Some months after this she fled France to, presumably, find her son and other children.

Geneva was the Rome of the Huguenots, and most refugees passed through on their way to other destinations. Lucrèce probably thought it wise to begin her search there. Perhaps, while staying in Geneva, she sent messages on ahead with refugees traveling further into Switzerland and Germany. Or maybe the family somehow remained in contact as some emigrated to Germany and others stayed behind. Perhaps Pierre and his other siblings sent letters back home, notifying Lucrèce of their progress and where they finally settled. Then, once Lucrèce made the decision to follow them, they made plans to meet in Switzerland. Either way, somehow receiving word that his mother had left France and was in Geneva, Pierre is found traveling that way in August of 1688.

The below is a record for Lucrèce Brottier (Brotier, Dubrotier) of Vesc and one son, two months later, receiving aid in Schaffhausen, Switzerland in October of 1688, on their way into Germany, after their reunion in Geneva.

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Lucrèce Brottier and Pierre Chastain in Schaffhausen. (Source: Staatsarchiv Schaffhausen, Exulanten Mappe 26, Nr. 14.)

Here is a rough timeline:

  • 1685 or 1686: Pierre flees Vesc, France.
  • November, 1686: Pierre is in Neuchâtel and then La Neuveville, Switzerland.
  • December, 1686: Pierre’s father, Elie Chastain, dies in Vesc.
  • February, 1687: Pierre is in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, next to the German border.
  • June, 1687: Pierre is in Schwabendorf, Germany.
  • 1687 or 1688: Lucrèce, then living with her daughter, Marie, leaves Vesc and arrives in Geneva, Switzerland. Marie stays in Vesc.
  • August, 1688: Pierre is in Frankfurt, Germany heading toward Geneva.
  • October, 1688: Lucrèce and Pierre are in Schaffhausen.
  • 1690: Lucrèce and Pierre are in Louisendorf, Germany.

The same article that mentions Lucrèce and Elie, also has an entry for Pierre Dubrotier, Lucrèce’s brother and Pierre Chastain’s uncle. He was an apothecary in Vesc. It’s likely that Pierre Chastain apprenticed under him (and was perhaps named after him). Further research has shown that Pierre Dubrotier and Lucrèce’s father, and Pierre Chastain’s maternal grandfather, Estienne Dubrotier (married to Clairette Marseille), was also an apothecary in Vesc. It appears that Pierre Chastain was continuing the family business. Pierre Dubrotier died in his attempt to flee the Kingdom of France.

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Pierre Dubrotier, apothecary of Vesc. Brother of Lucrèce and uncle of Pierre Chastain.

The above also mentions some of Pierre Chastain’s aunts and uncles, as well as two sisters, Judith and Marie Chasta(i)n. Judith was married to Etienne Noyer, the royal notary of Vesc. Marie was unmarried. Pierre had three other siblings who left the Kingdom of France for Hesse—Jacques Chastain, Isabeau Chastain (wife of Benjamin Gachet of Volvent), and Marguerite Chastain (wife of Moyse Chabrier of Ourches). Judith and Marie stayed in Vesc facing the imminent persecution.

Huguenot Families Leaving France.  (Immigration of French Huguenots in Berlin  in the 18th Century. Woodcut after a contemporary etching (1771) by Daniel Chodowiecki from the book "Deutsche Geschichte (German history)" by L. Stacke (Volume 2). Published by Velhagen & Klasing, Bielefeld and Leipzig, 1881)

Huguenot Families Leaving France.
Immigration of French Huguenots in Berlin in the 18th Century. Woodcut after a contemporary etching (1771) by Daniel Chodowiecki from the book “Deutsche Geschichte (German history)” by L. Stacke (Volume 2). Published by Velhagen & Klasing, Bielefeld and Leipzig, 1881