We are born into this world in a particular place. The location of our arrival is chance and yet it could be no other way. We would not be who we are if we were born elsewhere. Place is the context that bounds our identity. Not just the physical landscape but also what we impose on a place. Our experiences and our memories are rooted in a location.
“Where are you from?” people ask. The question seeks information about our identity. We come from a place and as such location merges with identity. We associate place with peoples and their national or ethnic identities. When we reply “I am from…” we affirm that place matters and tells the questioner and ourselves about our identity.
On June 13, 1546, on the windy coast of Normandy along the English Channel, Guillaume Regnault entered the church of Saint-Jouin-sur-Mer parish. In his arms Guillaume held his infant daughter Catherine (Katharina) Regnault to be presented for baptism. Guillaume’s wife, Marguerite Obourq remained at home for the customary (lying in) period. Guillaume and his daughter were joined by Guillaume Baril, Catherine’s godfather; Catherine Obourq, wife of Philippe Obourq, and namesake of the child who would share godmother responsibilities with Guillaume’s kin, Marguerite Regnault. The nature of the familial relationship between Catherine Obourq and Marguerite Obourq cannot be determined based upon the evidence. Neither can the relationship of Marguerite Regnault and Guillaume Regnault. However, some type of blood or legal relationship can be assumed given the common surnames and the trust placed in their role as godparents to the newborn Catherine.
The baptism of Catherine as recorded in the parish register pictured above represents the oldest surviving evidence of the Regnaults of Saint-Jouin-sur-Mer. The requirement to record the baptisms was a relatively recent innovation. Prior to that, we can only guess about the family origins but this record that now survives in the Archives Départementales de Seine-Maritime identifies a location for the beginning of the documented story of the Regnaults. Though a direct connection to the subsequent Guillaume Regnault (b. 1645) who would settle in Quebec and establish “La Ligne” over a century later cannot be ascertained due to the significant gaps in the inventory of the Saint-Jouin parish registers, it seems safe to conclude that the Regnaults of Saint-Jouin from the 1540s represent a direct ancestry to the Regnaults of Saint-Jouin in the 1640s.
Based upon the frequency of appearance in the surviving 16th Century parish registers noting the births and to a lesser extent the marriages of the community, the Regnaults appear to have had a continuous and extensive presence in the parish. A review of the surviving parish registers from 1546-1551 indicate no less than 13 children with the surname Regnault, though some were from the same father. In addition to these 13 children, the same 5 year period saw 7 children born of women whose maiden name was Regnault, 20 instances in which a Regnault served as either a godmother or godfather, at least three marriages involving a Regnault and the mention of 1 clergyman, the “ancien vicaire de S.-Jouin,” Mathieu Regnault. The number of marriages is probably understated as they were not required to be recorded until 1579. The Regnaults continue to appear in the parish registers of Saint-Jouin throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries with relative consistency.
Due to the lack of documentation, we do not know the origins of the Regnaults but we do know something of the origins of place. The name of Saint-Jouin appears as early as the twelfth century in the documentary history in the Latinized form Sancti Jovini and derives from Saint Jouin (in Latin Jovinus) who was hermit in Poitou. Naming a community after a saint was not a random occurrence. According to A. Lechevalier in his 1897 survey of the communes of Criquetot-l’Esneval, place names of the villages and cities of Normandy that contain the name of a saint, such as Saint-Jouin, are usually derived from the patron saint of the old freehold. Those that end in “ville” (e.g. Gonneville, Heuqueville, etc.) have their roots in the old settlements surrounding the ancient Roman villas. Those places that end in “tot” such as Criquetot derive from the time of the Norse arrival in the valley of the Seine.
The 19th Century archaeologist L’abbé Jean Benoît Désiré Cochet provides additional detail claiming that the 4th century monk from Poitou who founded the abbey of Saint-Jouin de la Marne (far to the south of Saint-Jouin sur-Mer) sent a disciple out to the north, to Jumieges (just to the west of Rouen and about 68 km from modern day Saint-Jouin), to preach the gospels. Presumably, the parish of Saint-Jouin-sur-Mer took its name from the abbey of Saint-Jouin de la Marne. From this account, we cannot ascertain if there was an existing pre-Christian settlement at the site. It should be noted that in the 4th and 5th centuries, what we would consider modern day France was still largely a Gallo-Roman civilization. While the influence and reach of Christianity was growing, there would have been many areas that remained pagan, especially in rural areas like Saint-Jouin. According to the historian Patrick J. Geary, the “countryside could not be fully Christianized until the network of parishes extended into every corner of the kingdom, a development that would not take place until the ninth century.”
The parish church of Saint-Jouin was first built in the 16th Century likely prior to the baptism of Catherine Regnault in 1546. The church was attached to a pre-existing “sanctuary” which is reported to date back to the 13th Century. The term sanctuary has come to mean the area around the church altar. However, it also is a term used to refer to places either known for their holiness, safety or both. Sanctuary locations could result from either a particular event seen to be religiously significant or those locations that have historically been known to be religiously significant from the pre- or early Christian era. Scholars have noted that Normandy was home to many sanctuaries. According to Felice Lifshitz, “Upper Normandy was positively covered with sanctuaries, much more so than other regions of Gaul;…the type of sanctuary which so abounded in Upper Normandy during the Roman period was the water sanctuary; we will see that the core of the oral traditions associated with Romanus, patron saint of Norman Rouen, connected him with the waters of the Seine.” Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the area had been populated in the Gallo-Roman period. In fact, extensive amounts of Roman red pottery have been found nearby.
Despite the characterization by Lechevalier that Saint-Jouin was one of the bigger parishes in Upper-Normandy, it is likely that the population never exceeded several thousand. Abbé Cochet, in his 1846 Les Églises de L’arrondissement du Havre, claims there were 300 parishioners in the 13th Century. Even as recent as 2006, the population was a mere 1,808. It is not likely it was any more of a population center in the 16th Century.
Given its remoteness and small population base, it is difficult to find mention of it beyond the mentions in Cochet’s work and a few pages that Lechevalier provides in his history of the Canton of Criquetot-L’Esneval. There is a body of 19th Century French sources, many available in downloadable PDF from Google Books, which occasionally refer directly to Saint-Jouin but in name only or as a geographic boundary point. These sources are more valuable for understanding the character and history of the general area by which inferences regarding Saint-Jouin can be made. There is also a body of extant medieval source materials, such as the 13th Century Register of Eudes Rigaud. One could spend years researching these materials and it is hard to determine the degree to which it would help illuminate our understanding of the life of Guillaume Regnault as he took his daughter Catherine to be baptized in 1546. Yet, I would argue that it is essential for this research to be done in order to avoid misunderstanding the origins and lives of our ancestors.
Despite Saint-Jouin’s apparent remoteness, the community was integrated into the larger political economy of Normandy and France. Lechevalier gives a brief but detailed history of the proprietorship of the community which changed hands either through inheritance, sale or dispossession numerous times over the course of hundreds of years. Perhaps the most interesting was when the King of England, Henry V, successfully invaded France in 1415 and took Saint-Jouin from Guy Malet, seigneur of Graville and gave the land to Louis de Robessart. After the conclusion of the Hundred Years War in 1453, Saint-Jouin was returned to the Malet family.
About 40 years prior to the birth of Guillaume’s daughter Catherine in 1546, Saint-Jouin qualified as a “plein fief.” At this time the fief belonged to Louis de Rouville. Upon his death in 1526, Saint-Jouin was sold to Jen du Moucel, who served as an alderman in Rouen in 1547 and was the “keeper of the seals in the Parliament.” Moucel’s eldest daughter Anne married Jean du Fay, sieur du Taillis who would in 1607 become bailiff and captain of Rouen. In December of 1634, Gaspard, son of Jean du Fay, sold Saint-Jouin to Jacques Lecornier, who was an advisor to the Parliament of Normandy.
It should be noted that these transactions did not convey ownership of the land as we might think of it. Having possession of a fief did not necessarily mean that one could do whatever one wished as it only established certain rights and responsibilities. The rights could be anything ranging from the rights to extract in kind payments or revenue from the inhabitants, fees associated with mill grinding, or specific rights to fish or hunt. Other fiefs brought with it the right to dispense justice within the boundaries.
The status of the inhabitants could vary. Some were independent peasants while others were tenant farmers who rented land and did not have the right to alienate land without the concurrence and permission of the seigneur. Even as a tenant farmer’s life could be good during times of good harvests, they surely suffered miserably in times of bad harvests or illness. As for the Regnaults, we can only guess as to what their status was.
Fortunately, with the departure of Guillaume Regnault (b. 1645) from Saint-Jouin-sur-Mer in the 1660s, the Regnaults emerged from the obscurity of history. However, it was not just a person who landed in Québec but an identity that had been shaped by a place. When Guillaume landed in Quebec, he carried a part of a community with him. Through Guillaume and his offspring, the Regnaults of Saint-Jouin became the Renauds of Charlesbourg and River Canard and finally the Renos of Michigan and beyond.