The Napoleonic Code
Although Napoleon hijacked the French Revolution, he cemented its core principles and outcomes in the 1804 French Civil Code, which came to be known as the Napoleonic Code, or Code Napoleon. It was the culmination of efforts, begun by the previous Revolutionary governments, to replace the existing patchwork of feudal laws with clearly written and accessible laws.
Before 1789, French courts had operated under different, and often conflicting, legal system, causing Voltaire to quip that a traveler in France “changes his law almost as often as he changes his horses“. Northern France, including Paris, was governed by customary laws derived from Frankish and Germanic feudal institutions, somewhat similar to English common law. Southern France, by contrast, was governed by Roman law. In the meantime, the Catholic Church’s canon law governed marriage and family relations. Simultaneously, a growing body of case law, beginning in the 16th century, developed out of royal decrees and the decisions of various parlements.
Codification became necessary after the French Revolution. The Church had been suppressed, the provinces had been transformed into subdivisions of a new nation-state, and a uniform legal code was required to help unify the new France. Thus, in 1791, the National Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution that “there shall be a code of civil laws common for the entire realm“. Commissions were appointed to begin the codification process, and their work continued, in fits and starts, throughout the turmoil of the Revolutionary government, and its successors of the Directorate, Consulate, and Empire, before a final version was enacted in 1804.
The Napoleonic Code underwent various revisions in the centuries since its enactment, but it remains operative in France to this day. It went on to become the world’s most influential legal code, influencing the civil codes of most European and Latin American countries. Today, the majority of mankind – with the notable exception of the Anglophone countries, with their common law traditions – lives under the Napoleonic Code or derivatives thereof.