Throughout Europe, there is generally no overall standard for the beginning of church records. However, in German history there are good historical markers that can help get us started. On one hand we have the Reformation (which started in Germany around 1517) and on the other hand the Council of Trent (which took place in Trent and Bologna between 1545 and 1563 in three big sessions). Both were important and I will show you why.
Marriage Customs & Changes During the Middle Ages
In the Early Middle Ages marriage in the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) was a mundane act and served mainly economic security or political profit. It was not unusual for a woman to marry a close cousin and be given away without her approval. The Roman Catholic Church, wanting more influence and fighting against old pagan laws, started setting standards for marriage. Their understanding of right and wrong was based on old Roman law and led, in the long term, to a transformation of the old German marriage customs.
For example, they invented the need for consensus between the couple who was about to marry and that no incest should be allowed, leading to a closer look at lineages (which reinforced the importance of genealogy). At the 4th Lateran Council (1213-1215) the Roman Catholic Church introduced the act of public marriage and the idea of virginity into canonic law, however in the Late Middle Ages the practice of secret marriages was still present. Even speaking a promise as a couple in secret or simply the act of love-making was considered an act of marriage. The Church was not happy about this because it ignored its perceived sovereignty of the faith and canon law. These problems with marriages touched the daily affairs of the Fathers and Priests and thus the question stayed a topic during the Reformation and led finally to the establishment of church records.
The Reformation as a Catalyst for Structural Changes
At the beginning of the 16th century social problems in the HRE were increasing. Political problems mixed with religious. The crisis reached its climax with the Reformation which started around the year 1517 and was led by priests and scholars like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli or Jean Cauvin. It was directed against a mismanagement of the faith, theoretical questions in the canonic law, and corruption. They wanted to lead the parishes back to a life closer to the kind Jesus lived. The theological debate was soon picked up not only by churchmen but also by the territorial lords, putting the problem onto a political stage.
By choosing the protestant faith the Princes, Counts and Cities who followed Luther (like the Elector-prince John of Saxony), challenged the position of the Emperor whose power –in common and canonical sense- was given by God. And the only Church who saw itself as established by God was the Roman Catholic Church. This led to a fissure of the HRE and finally to war and change.
While the Habsburg Emperors had recatholicization as main goal up to the Peace of Westphalia (which took place in 1648 after the Thirty-Years-War) the first victory over the Protestants in the 16th century didn’t result in a recatholicization and instead, Charles V. tried to bind his princes and principals together by the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555. In this the high nobility was granted the ‘cuius regio, cuius religio’. While the Peace of Augsburg settled that Protestants and Catholics where equal in secular jurisdiction the ‘cuius region, cuius religio’ established the right for the Lord of a land to choose his religion while his subordinates could choose to move into a country where the Lord would be of a shared confession. In the Imperial Free Cities religion was free to be chosen. The migration that followed lead to some major problems when it comes to finding one’s ancestors and is a topic I will come back to later.
Erecting Church Records
While Charles V. of Habsburg was fighting to keep his realm together the Catholic Church realized that it also had to react to the Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) dealt with major topics Luther and other reformers had brought up. I don’t want to talk on these with the exception of the Tametsi Decree- in which a public announcement, a marriage before a priest, witnesses, and the following entry to a book became mandatory for couples. It also bound the priest to keep books on baptisms and marriage and set standards on how to record in them. In 1614 with the publishing of the Rituale Romanum by Pope Paul V. priests were summoned to keep four registers. One for baptizing, one for confirmation, one status animarum (a register for the living souls of a parish) and one for death.
But the Catholic Church was not first in the HRE to keep such records. The protestant reformers had already written Church Constitutions like that of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon for the Electorate of Saxony in 1521 or the Constitutions of Johannes Bugenhagen for the cities of Brunswick and Lubec. Protestant church records -for example- exist as early as 1522 in Zwickau and 1524 in Nuremberg. Sometimes one finds earlier books but these findings are very rare and only with the Reformation came the need to transform old church law into a more standardized form.
It was so useful that the lords of the secular principalities started to adopt the system in the Early Modern Time as a precursor for the civil records by ordering the priests and pastors of every parish to write copies for their administration like ordered in the ‘Visitationsordnung’ of Charles Frederik of Baden-Durlach in 1739 or by the Prussian Civil Code in 1794. In Czechia and Austria the parishes had register office duties up to 1939.
Problems and Questions With German Church Records
Church records where invented because they fixed the holy sacraments to parchment and paper. That it needed fixation came up in the early 16th century and we have seen that the 16th century saw the dividing of the HRE into Protestants and Catholics. So what do we make out of this and how does it effect research for a proper family tree?
If you like to go back to the 18th, 17th and even 16th century you should always have in mind where your ancestors came from. Were they Protestant or Catholic? Was the country Protestant or Catholic? This question is very important because during the religious wars following the Reformation the affiliation of a region could change from catholic to protestant and back to catholic. If a town or village had a large population of Catholics the minority of Protestants could be listed at the end of the local (and only) church book and vice versa. In the parish of Krefeld the church book has a list at the end showing on top the writing AKath which means ‘a catholic’ with the non-Catholics written below. So if you don’t find a protestant church record for your protestant forefather it could be that they are listed in the catholic church book.
Sometimes a village was so small that they would go over to the next parishes’ church to baptize the children and by that I mean all of the children of the year. You would have to look not only for the birth or baptizing date but also check the records for the whole year and maybe the next. And while the Catholics would baptize their children on the day of their birth or two or three days later, Protestants could baptize their children promptly or any time later in the year.
Movements are another problem we have with the religious conflict. A friend of mine traced his ancestors back to the 18th century to Danzig (Gdanzk, today Poland) and asked me if I could read the church record for him. He couldn’t believe what he had read. So I read it again. His forefathers came from Salzburg (today Austria) all the way up north. For him it seemed to be a too far journey to be real and he needed verifying proof to continue with his search. After further research on the time period and place later, the situation became clear. In 1732 the Protestant citizens of the town of Salzburg were driven out by the Catholic bishop and left for Prussia. So his story was quite plausible, and it led him to a totally new direction in his research. That is why you should always keep in mind that the historical circumstances are not only nice to know but the reality of your forefathers.
It is the same with convents. The recatholicization in Bohemia or other places forced Protestants who had been Lutherans back to Catholicism in order to keep their lands and homes. If you see a hint that your Catholic forefather might have changed his confession just follow it and try your luck with the Protestant church book.
Another problem is the different start of the church books. While the official announcement is bound to a specific date the news about that spread much slower than the authorities were happy with. And the orders of the territorial lord was often not welcomed by the churchmen. So a lot of books started later than the orders were given, due to the spreading of the news or depending on how much a Father or a Pastor was in the mood or able to follow the orders. So always check when the church books start for your parish or region or ask a professional if there are additional sources.
Additionally, books were burned in town fires or during the wars the German lands have suffered. I mentioned the thirty-years-war, it was a conflict that took place between 1618 and 1648. During this period a lot of cities were put to the torch and the written tradition suffered. What survived was sometimes later destroyed during WW2. That is especially true for some Regions in the former German land in the East when you have to turn to the Mormons who travelled Germany in the 1930th filming a lot of church books who thus survive the war by being preserved on microfiche. By this comment you may realize that there are some additional sources to the books of old and I will tell you how to find them.
How to Find Church Books Nowadays
While you should always have in mind that church books in Germany can be lost, there is also a lot of traditions which have survived against all odds. The villages and towns were utterly proud of their written tradition. Writing was holy and books were precious in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times and the people tried to keep them safe. That is the reason why you can find a lot of written tradition in the church archives who still keep the church records today.
In terms of research in the former German lands the Mormon films are very useful (and easy to get in the US) and there are two very important archives in Germany. The EZAB (Evangelisches Zentralarchiv Berlin = Protestant Main Archiv Berlin) and the ‚Deutsche Zentralstelle für Genealogie‘ (DZfG), which belongs to the State Archive in Leipzig. They collect and keep copies of church books from the former regions in the east.
There are also some great online projects regarding the church books like the database at Ancestry.com or the newly established German platform Archion.de. While Ancestry has copies of the state administration records, Archion will offer photos of the original church books of the Church Archives who participate in the project. And like in Germany the archives in Poland and Austria have their own projects. There are even projects supported by the EU like ‘Matrikula’. Information is none the less limited by accessibility so you have to mix your sources. In some cases there is a much older tradition then the sources Ancestry offers. You could use Archion but not everything is uploaded yet. If that is the case you have to come back to the main church archives.
We have 25 Protestant and 28 Catholic archives in Germany. They cover the dioceses and church districts of old. Once you find out which diocese the parish your ancestors came from belonged to, it is quite easy to find the main archive. But always keep in mind: history changed borders. For example some of the Catholic dioceses are younger, like the dioceses of Freiburg, Rottenburg and Stuttgart in Baden-Wuerttemberg. They are the descendants of the old medieval diocese of Constance.
And if you have the feeling you are getting lost, just contact us professionals. We will gladly help you out.