The first time you encounter a Belgian civil marriage record, your eyes may glaze over, because they tend to be long and contain a lot of so-called ‘legalese.’ But they are worth your close attention, because they are a true gold mine of information.
Since the introduction of the Code Civil in Belgium, most Belgians traditionally have gotten married twice: first at the town hall [voor de gemeente in Dutch], and subsequently in the church [voor de kerk]. The French Revolutionary Law of 20 September 1792 had muzzled the role of the church and from now on the sacrament of marriage, which was made optional, had to be preceded by a civil contractual marriage. The Code Napoléon of 1804 retained this stipulation, and it became the model for the Belgian Code Civil.1
The marriage had to be celebrated publicly before the officer of civil registration in the town of residence of either bride or groom (Civil Code, article 165).2 Most often this was the bride’s village. No minister was allowed to conduct a nuptial ceremony prior to receiving a marriage record issued by the officer of civil registration (Penal code, article 199 and 200).3
Searching the Belgian State Archives (Rijksarchief in België, Archives de l’État en Belgique, Belgisches Staatsarchiv) for vital records can be confusing, especially when you are not familiar with the language. First, there are four possible starting places, depending on your language of preference. But with almost all of them, as you dig deeper, the language in the background switches to either Dutch or French. Second, there is no comprehensive index (although you can always try your luck at https://search.arch.be/en/zoeken-naar-personen), so for now browsing the images town by town is the only way to do exhaustive research, which means you must know the town and approximate date for the vital event. Last, and this very unfortunate, there is no download option, so the best you can do it take screenshots in order to have your own digital copy of the record.
Don’t let this deter you however! There two very good reasons for exploring birth, marriage, and death records at the Belgian State Archives as well as at FamilySearch.
In a previous post I mentioned that Belgian vital records less than 100 years old are not open to the public. This is about to change, and genealogists with recent Belgian ancestry should be excited. The new law will take effect on 31 March 2019.1
Death records will become public after 50 years. I.e. on 1 April 2019 you will be able to request a transcript of the death record for anyone who died before 1 April 1969.
Marriage records will become public after 75 years. I.e., on 1 April 2019 you will be able to request a transcript of the marriage record for anyone who married before 1 April 1944.
The nineteenth-century civil records for Belgium were microfilmed by The Church of the Latter-Day-Saints, and have since then been digitized. They are freely available at FamilySearch.org. Indexing of the records however is very sparse. You will need to browse the records, so it is helpful to have a general idea of time and place before you start.
In this example, we will look for the birth record of my paternal great-grandfather, Constantinus Smets, who was born in Borgerhout, now part of the city of Antwerp, in 1870.
Goethals, Jozef J. and Karel Denys. Searching for Flemish (Belgian) Ancestors. Baltimore, Maryland: Printed for Clearfield Co. by Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007. 81 p. : ill. ; 28 cm. ISBN-13: 978-0-8063-5342-5
This excellent guide to genealogical research in Flanders was produced in 2007 by Jozef Goethals, in collaboration with Karel Denys. It was the first book of its kind published in English since the arrival of the internet, and one to which I will refer often while I am writing this blog. A lot has changed since 2007—many more records have been made available online—and as a result the guide is slightly outdated when it comes to how to access digital images of the records. But the work remains extremely valuable because of its detailed description and analysis of the Belgian records, especially the civil and parish records, and its useful appendices.
Here is the good news for Americans who are tracing their ancestors in Belgium: unlike the United States where some states did not require civil birth, death, or marriage records until the end of the nineteenth century, vital records have been meticulously kept for about 225 years in Belgium, and they contain a wealth of information.