A History of the Napoleonic Code (Code Napoléon)

A Legal System That Still Exists

The Napoleonic Code book
DerHexer/Wikimedia Commons/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Napoleonic Code (Code Napoléon) was a unified legal code produced in post-revolutionary France and enacted by Napoleon in 1804. Napoleon gave the laws his name, and they largely remain in place in France today. They also heavily influenced world laws in the 19th century. It is easy to imagine how the conquering Emperor could spread a legal system across Europe, but it might have surprised many of his day to know long it outlasted him.

The Need for Codified Laws

France in the century before the French Revolution may have been a single country, but it was far from a homogenous unit. As well as language and economic differences, there was no single unified set of laws that covered the whole of France. Instead, there were large geographic variations, from the Roman Law which dominated in the south, to a Frankish/Germanic Customary Law which dominated in the north around Paris. Add to this the canon law of the church which controlled some affairs, a mass of royal legislation which had to be considered when looking at legal problems, and the effects of local laws derived from "parlements" or appellate courts and trials, and there was a patchwork which was very difficult to negotiate, and which stimulated a demand for a universal, equitable set of laws. However, there were plenty of people in positions of local power, often in venal offices, who worked to prevent any such codification, and all attempts to do so before the revolution failed.

Napoleon and the French Revolution

The French Revolution acted as a brush that swept away a mass of local differences in France, including many of the powers that stood against codifying the laws. The result was a country in a position to—in theory—create a universal code. And it was a place that really needed one. The Revolution went through various phases, and forms of government—including Terror—but by 1804 was under the control of General Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who appeared to have decided the French Revolutionary Wars in France’s favor.

Glory Beyond the Battlefield

Napoleon wasn’t just a man hungry for battlefield glory; he knew a state had to be built to support both him and a renewed France. Most important was to be a law code that bore his name. Attempts to write and enforce a code during the revolution had failed, and Napoleon’s achievement in forcing it through was massive. It also reflected glory back onto him: He was desperate to be seen as more than a general who took charge, but as the man who brought a peaceful end to the revolution, and establishing a legal code was a massive boost to his reputation, ego, and ability to rule. 

The Code Napoléon

The Civil Code of the French People was enacted in 1804 across all the regions France then controlled: France, Belgium, Luxembourg, chunks of Germany and Italy, and was later spread further across Europe. In 1807, it became known as the Code Napoléon. It was supposed to be written fresh, and based on the idea that a law based on common sense and equality should replace one based on custom, societal division, and the rule of kings. The moral justification for its existence was not that it came from God or a monarch (or in this case an emperor), but because it was rational and just.

A Compromise Between Old and New

All male citizens were supposed to be equal, with nobility, class, a position of birth all wiped away. But in practical terms, much of the revolution’s liberalism was lost and France turned back to Roman law. The code did not extend to emancipating women, who were subjugated to fathers and husbands. Freedom and the right of private property were key, but branding, easy imprisonment, and limitless hard labor returned. Non-whites suffered, and slavery was allowed in French colonies. In many ways, the Code was a compromise of the old and the new, favoring conservatism and traditional morality.

Written as Several Books

The Napoleonic Code was written as several "Books," and although it was written by teams of lawyers, Napoleon was present at nearly half of the Senate discussions. The first book dealt with laws and people, including civil rights, marriage, relationships, including those of parent and child, etc. The second book concerned laws and things, including property and ownership. The third book tackled how you went about getting and modifying your rights, such as inheritance and through marriage. More codes followed for other aspects of the legal system: 1806’s Code of Civil Procedure; 1807’s Commercial Code; 1808’s Criminal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure; 1810’s Penal Code.

Still in Place

The Napoleonic Code has been modified, but essentially remains in place in France, two centuries after Napoleon was defeated and his empire dismantled. It is one of his most lasting achievements in a country in thrall to his rule for a turbulent generation. However, it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that laws were altered to reflect equality to women.

Wide Influence

After the Code was introduced in France and nearby areas, it spread across Europe and into Latin America. Sometimes a straight translation was used, but other times large changes were made to fit local situations. Later Codes also looked to Napoleon’s own, such as the Italian Civil Code of 1865, although this was replaced in 1942. In addition, laws in Louisiana’s civil code of 1825 (largely still in place), derive closely from the Napoleonic Code.

However, as the 19th century turned into the 20th, new civil codes in Europe and around the world rose to reduce the importance of France’s, although it still has an influence.