The History of Czech Matriky

I was confused about why the matriky in use today are stored in matriční úřady (registrar’s office), not in the farnost (parish). This did not make sense to me. Catholics who get baptized want to still keep matriky books today, because they are a record of a religious ordinance/rites. How can the government justify itself by keeping and holding onto this record?

I decided to try to discover what specific chain of events led to where and how the matriky are kept today, so of course I asked my friend Lukáš, and together we wrote this post. Update: many thanks to my 4th cousin Josef Petr who added some additional insight which was missing before. I appreciate it!

First, what are matriky? The old matriky are church books, or parish registers, and here of course we mainly mean Catholic church books.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) required Catholic parishes to keep matriky records. Previous to then, it was not compulsory, but in some places those registers were kept. It would be amazing if any survived the Thirty Years War for us to be able to see (or touch!) in our day. Remember that resources which we take for granted today, like paper and writing utensils, were not as widespread back then. In fact, though it was technically required by canon law, some places did not manage to start keeping matriky records until Josef II's rules in the 18th century, for example, Hungary.

Starting during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and lasting for long after, many small villages had to group consolidate together to form parishes. Remember, something like 40% of the population of the Czech lands was wiped out during this time period. With so many villages gathering together in one farnost (parish), they became dependent on one parish priest, and maybe one or two clerks who helped him. And they had to record every birth, marriage, and death. You can imagine it was not a welcome task. Parish registers before the reforms of Josef II are therefore not as detailed or complete, if they actually managed to survive through the centuries from the devastation of fires.

Joseph Benedikt Anton Michael Adam, or you could go with his official title, His Royal Highness Archduke Joseph of Austria, Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, Prince of Tuscany, etc. but for short, let’s just call him Joseph II. He was the son of Marie Theresa. These two “enlightened monarchs” made huge reforms which permanently changed the Czech lands forever, and probably for the better. They are still well respected and loved today.

The first official connection between the matriky and the government happened during the reign of Joseph II (who ruled from 1765-1790). The church started keeping matriky for the state’s use (for example taxes, military drafts, etc), so the state regulated “how to keep them”. For example, you will notice that around 1780 matriky start to be kept in separate books for births, marriages, and deaths. Villages which were in the same parish also started to be kept separately, and other changes in record-keeping occurred. This is all because of Joseph II’s reforms.  

The Židovské matriky (Jewish registers) started to be kept in 1784.

Protestants were still recorded in the Catholic matriky, though they keep unofficial “private” matriky for themselves. In fact, this is kind of a parallel to the situation we have today, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

In 1848 Protestants began to be allowed to keep their own official matriky.

~1870 was the first time in the Czech lands when people were allowed to remain “without confession” - aka leave the church. Those outside the church were registered in civilní matriky kept by okresní úřady.

Let’s not forget the vojenské matriky (soldier’s registers), which began in 1768 and were kept by regimental priests for the military personnel. By the way, this system survived until 1950’s.

Some of the darkest times for the Czech lands was during German occupation (1939-1945), when it was officially known as the Protektorát Čechy a Morava, or in German: Protektorat Böhmen und Mähren. It turns out that information is an extremely valuable source of power. Tragically, matriky records were used during this time by Nazis to discover the genealogy of citizens, and how much percentage of Jewish blood they might have. In Josef Škvorecký's book The Swell Season: a Text on the Most Important Things in Life, there is an account of how Danny Smiricky stays up the entire night helping the local parish priest to recopy an entire matriky book in order to conceal the Jewish heritage of one of the locals. Though this is a fictional story, perhaps Škvorecký is drawing from his own life experiences, which is really something that should give us pause.

Enter communism (1948-1989). It should be noted that the communist regime did not want the Catholic church (or any church) to have power, but they had a strong interest in the matriky, again because information is power. Communists used the matriky to prevent certain families from ever reaching a higher social status, or requiring certain students to leave university.

Starting in 1950, new matriky were introduced which were recorded by the matriční úřady (registrar’s office). The matriční uřady were (and are still) a part of the municipal government - obecní úřady (or národní výbor in the past). It was part of the separation of church and state, as well as one of the actions of the communist regime against the churches (and spirituality) in Czechoslovakia (see these other names for this place - something to discuss another day.)

The new matriky were kept for secular and not religious purposes. For example, they record births and not baptisms, or death and not burials. It is interesting to notice that the regional archives all describe the old matriky in secular terms as well, using N, O, Z to stand for narození, oddaní, or zemřelí, aka births, marriages, and deaths, as opposed to baptisms, marriages, and burials.

Along with these trends towards secularization came another significant change: weddings held by church officiators were not recognised as legal marriages. Secular wedding ceremonies became compulsory, though couples could hold a private ceremony with no legal consequences by the state government.

The old matriky  were transferred to the matriční úřady in January 1952. Pretty soon, government officials seemed to realize that there were far too many old books for which the municipal government had no use, which were just taking up space.

(By the way, the old books which were transferred to the SOA might include other parish books which are not births, marriages, and deaths! For example, I found a book of church endowments. My ancestors left money as a fund to pay for a mass for their parents every year on a certain date.)

What to do with all the old, musty, useless books? The next year the government decided that the old matriky (neživé - those books which were closed/finished before 1870) were transferred to statní oblastní archivy, SOA (regional archives). This is where they are physically located today. As time went on, and more of the olds books became “neživé” (closed), they were deposited in the SOA. However, some of the church matriky are still held by the matriční úřady.

The point is that since 1950 the state keeps its own matriky for its own purposes. But meanwhile, the Catholic church (and probably other churches) still continues to keep its own matriky, though they are not official government records. So whoever is born in the Czech republic is entered in the matrika narozených of one of the state offices. After he is baptized, he is recorded in the baptismal matriky of the Catholic church (or some other church). Such Catholic matriky are regulated by canon law and are obligatory for the church, not for Sunday worship, obviously, but to participate in holy rites. All the sacraments - baptism, marriage, last rites/burials etc - are still carefully recorded by the Catholic church though now it is only for their own purposes, while the state records everything separately for its own purposes. If you are going to marry in the Catholic church, you will have to show the same proof of baptism as your ancestors had to +200 years ago.

There is a special matrika located in Brno which is designated for Czech citizens who were born, married, or died abroad, however the events are only recorded there upon request; the record keepers are not obligated to try to discover all of those events around the world.

Keep in mind that most people in the Czech republic today are not baptized or married in the church, and they might not be very interested in discussing the Catholic church, religion, or spirituality for a whole host of complex reasons which are fascinating to me. I think an appropriate analogy would be to liken it to discussing racism in the United States. Sometimes, it can be really hard, uncomfortable, and just plain uninteresting to talk about race issues, though they are obviously a huge part of our country’s history, for which there is a kind of collective guilt. Treading lightly while discussing religion is always a good idea, of course.

The public is entitled to access the old matriky, with some exceptions. If your ancestor was born, married, or died after 1 January 1950, you should search the state matriky. I am not sure what kind of access the public has to newer matriky; there are time limits to which records are open due to privacy laws, and they are not the same for each kind of record. As was noted by several keen observers, the privacy rules today are that birth matriky are open to the public after 100 years after the last record within the book was recorded, and marriages and death matriky are open after 75 years.

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