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Coutumes of France in the Law Library of Congress

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The following is a guest post by Dr. Meredith Shedd-Driskel, Law Curator.

With the rise of feudalism in medieval France, the country had evolved into two judicial territories.  The provincial parliaments in northern France, acting as sovereign judicial bodies independent of each other and claiming independence from the king, applied droit coutumier, or legal principles derived from local customs and privileges.  The parliaments in southern France, on the other hand, applied droit écrit, or statutory law based on royal decrees that embraced mostly by Roman law.

The coutumes, a combination of Germanic rules, Roman law, Canon law of the Catholic Church, and local usage, were originally unwritten local customary laws.  Beginning in the thirteenth century, private compilations of laws appeared which collected the local coutumes in writing.  These are commonly referred to as anciennes coutumes.  By the fifteenth century, the confusion created by nearly 400 local coutumes in force moved King Charles VII in 1453 to order the preparation of codes to embrace them in a systematic fashion.

The king’s decree began the long process leading toward codification of the French civil law, a goal not realized until 1804 with the promulgation of the Napoleonic Code.  It involved a fusion of various sources, the most important of which were the local coutumes, Roman law, royal ordinances, revolutionary law, decisions of the prerevolutionary parliaments, and Canon law.

Coutumes provide one of the best written records of the diverse legal practices of local feudal jurisdictions and give insight into the social and political conditions of medieval France.  They are also important to the comparative legal scholar for their influence on other legal systems, particularly common law and Roman Dutch law.

The Law Library’s collection of coutumes is one of the finest outside France, including 700 volumes of French coutumes and more than 100 from other European countries.  Of these, none surpasses the Coutume de Normandie, a 15th-century illuminated French manuscript, in both legal and paleographic interest.  It contains what generally is known as Le grand coustumier de Normandie.  The text is valuable to the comparative law scholar because it contributed directly to the development of English common law, and it is still the law in force in the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey.

From an artistic point of view, the manuscript is one of the most significant works in the Law Library.  It is written on 240 leaves of parchment and illustrated with seven exquisite miniatures surrounded by frames of rich floral design, and numerous rubrics and initials with elongations in red, blue, and gold leaf appear throughout the text.  The volume, formerly in the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (Ms. 251), was purchased by the Library of Congress from W. H. Robinson in 1947, and is listed as Item “N 6” on p. 115 of the Supplement to the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada by C. U. Faye and W. H. Bond (1962).

Rare book service is available on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and as always, we welcome your inquiries.  For  an appointment or further information, please contact Dr. Meredith Shedd-Driskel, Law Curator, at [email protected].


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