Code Civil des Français

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Code Civil des Français


By: Anonymous

Date: 1804

Source: Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY

About the Photographer: This undated photograph shows the title page of the Napoleonic Code or Code Civil des Français, first edition (1804).


The Code Civil des Français (Civil Code of France), more commonly known as the Napoleonic Code, was first published in 1804. This image shows the title page of the first edition (édition originale). The Code is a systematic collection of laws meant to cover all aspects of private law. It is a "civil" code because it is distinct from criminal, religious, military, and other forms of law, restricting itself to matters of property, marriage, inheritance, loans, and the like.

The Code was promulgated by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), who was originally a general of the radically egalitarian, anti-royalist French Revolution (1789–1799) but later elevated himself to absolute ruler of France. The Code was devised by an expert commission led by Jean-Etienne-Marie Portalis under Napoleon's personal direction in order to clean up the legal chaos that existed in France at the time. Before the Revolution, over 400 local legal codes existed in France; the committees of the Revolution added to the confusion by enacting over 14,000 additional laws in just a few years. The Code, modeled on the civil code of Roman Emperor Justinian (483-565 A.D.) and on existing French law, systematically laid down rules governing all aspects of personal identity (citizenship, guardianship, paternity adoption, marriage, etc.) and all aspects of property: types of property, inheritance, loans, mortgages, contracts, and so on. The Code did not specify criminal law (i.e., types of murder, assault, theft, and the like or their punishments). These and other aspects of law were dealt with in the Code of Civil Procedure (1806), Commercial Code (1807), Criminal Code (1808), Code of Criminal Procedure (1808), and Penal Code (1810).



See primary source image.


The 1804 Code Civil des Français established a uniform French system of civil law, that is, a system of law based on a codified body of fixed rules that are interpreted in court by individual judges. A legal code of this type is distinct from a constitution, which describes how laws are made and what kinds of laws can and cannot be made. (The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, for example, forbids Congress from making any law establishing or restricting religion, abridging the freedom of speech, and so forth.) A legal system based on civil and other codes is distinct from a common law system, which is based on binding precedents laid down by decisions in specific court cases. The United States is governed by a common law tradition with substantial statutory law.

However, civil law systems are common in Europe and elsewhere today, partly because of Napoleon Bonaparte's military success. In a ten-year span, Napoleon conquered most of continental Europe, incorporating conquered territories into a French Empire and imposing French law, including the Code Civil des Français, throughout. The Code was also imposed in French colonial territories worldwide. After Napoleon's defeat and the breakup of the Empire, most formerly conquered countries retained the Code as the basis of their legal system.

The area that now includes the U.S. state of Louisiana was first a French colony and then a Spanish colony, and was finally acquired by Napoleon from Spain in 1800. Only three years later he sold Louisiana to the United States, but an early version of the Code Civil des Français had already been imposed. The Napoleonic Code thus became a unique feature of Louisiana state law and remains so to this day, though the distinctive character of Louisiana has been eroding over time.

Although the Napoleonic Code is often considered enlightened or progressive—it did not criminalize same-sex acts, for example—it did codify the repression of women in important ways, reversing the more gender-egalitarian laws set up immediately after the French Revolution. For example, under the Code, a woman had to reside where her husband resided. Women were forbidden to participate in lawsuits, act as court witnesses, or act as witnesses to births, deaths, and marriages. Married women had little or no con-trol over their own property; wages earned by working women became the property of their husbands. Men were absolved from paternity suits and from the support of children born out of wedlock. Adultery by a woman was punished by fines and imprisonment, but adultery by a man was not punished unless he brought his sexual partner home to live with him. The Code did, however, forbid marriage without consent and allow divorce by mutual consent. No women participated in the writing of the Code.


Web sites

The Civil Code (English translation of the Code Civil des Français). "Information Sheet 80: Piracy." 〈〉 (accessed March 8, 2006). "How the Code Napoleon makes Louisiana law different." 〈〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).