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French Civil Code of 1804: Images from the Foreign and Comparative Law Webinar by Nicolas Boring

On January 28, 2021, Foreign Law Specialist Nicolas Boring discussed the Napoleonic Code’s history, evolution, and legacy in an installment of the Law Library of Congress’ foreign and comparative law webinar series.


The webinar discussed the prehistory of the French Civil Code, its drafting and adoption, its contents, and the history of its immense influence on the laws of other nations around the globe.

Image of French Civil Code of 1804

The first edition of the French Civil Code, published in Paris in 1804. Photo by Robert Brammer.

In this post, I want to share with you a few images of early editions of the French Civil Code and the codes of law it influenced from the Law Library’s collections, including its first publication in France, and then its appearance in select other nations over time. These images–and more!–can be found in Nicolas’ webinar, which the Law Library has recorded and posted, and which you can now watch at your leisure!

Close-up image of the French Civil Code of 1804

An engraving adorns the title page of the first edition of the French Civil Code. It depicts a female figure seated on the throne of the law, and bearing a sword and a balance, the symbols of justice. She is accompanied by a rooster, a symbol of French national identity, and a lion, a symbol of sovereignty. Photo by Robert Brammer.

As Nicolas mentions in his presentation, Napoleon Bonaparte introduced the French Civil Code in 1804 with the intention of enacting a unified synthesis of French law. French law before the revolution reflected a high degree of geographical variation, with regions throughout the kingdom upholding various customary legal systems. The laws of some of these regions were eventually compiled and edited in compilations known as coutumiers. (The Law Library owns a substantial collection of printed coutumiers from the 16th and 17th centuries representing comprehensive geographical coverage of this important legal literature.) In addition to this, legal systems in the southern part of France showed more influence from the medieval reception of Roman law than those in the northern part of the country did. Throughout the period of the Enlightenment, intellectuals frequently criticized the diversity of French law and wished to replace it with a more rationalistic and uniform legal code. During the early years of revolutionary France, several attempts were made to achieve such a reform, but the political instability of the regimes of the 1790s made it impossible to accomplish this goal.

Image of the Code Napoleon, 1807

At the end of 1804, Napoleon had himself crowned as emperor. He subsequently replaced the rooster with the eagle as the symbol of France to reflect his vision of France’s imperial nature. The engraving on the title page of this 1807 edition of the Civil Code shows an eagle standing in the center of Napoleon’s coat of arms. Starting in 1807, the French Civil Code was called the Napoleonic Code. Photo by Robert Brammer.

After the Coup of 18–19 Brumaire (November 9–10, 1799), Napoleon Bonaparte was in a position to create a committee to reform the laws of France. In August 1800, Napoleon placed Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, a close advisor who played a major role in one of the earlier efforts to create a code of law, in charge of a commission of four well-respected jurists to create a draft of the code. These jurists were François Denis Tronchet, Félix Julien Jean Bigot de Préameneu, Jacques de Maleville, and Jean-Etienne-Marie Portalis. Portalis had participated with Cambacérès in the failed attempt to create a code in 1796.

Image of the Civil Code of Haiti, 1826

The Haitian Civil Code, which was enacted in 1825, is depicted here in its 1826 imprint. It was heavily influenced by the French Civil Code. Photo by Robert Brammer.

The commission drafted its proposed Civil Code in four to five months and then sent copies to all the courts of appeals of France, as well as to the Tribunal of Cassation, the predecessor of what is now called the Court of Cassation, for comment. The Conseil d’Etat, or Council of State, then took up discussion of the draft in July 1801. Over 107 sessions were dedicated to discussing the draft, with Napoleon himself presiding over 55 of them, despite having no legal training.

Image of the Polish Kodex Napoleona, 1808

Depicted here is the Kodex Napoleona (Warsaw, 1808), which was first adopted in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, and portions of which remained in force in Poland until 1946. Photo by Robert Brammer.

After a lengthy process in which the legislative assemblies adopted the code section by section in thirty-six separate laws, the Civil Code’s adoption was consolidated into one law on March 21, 1804. It was known as the Loi du 30 ventôse an XII, a name that reflected the so-called “republican calendar” that marked the year 1792 as year 1.

Image of the Ethiopian Civil Code of 1960

The Ethiopian Civil Code, also influenced by the French Civil Code, was enacted in 1960. Photo by Robert Brammer.

Nicolas points out that as Napoleon Bonaparte conquered countries throughout Europe, he spread the use of the Civil Code with him. Among these were Belgium and Luxembourg, which France annexed in 1804. Other nations, such as Germany and many countries in Latin America, used it as a model for their national codes over the course of the 19th century. Nicolas relates specifically the examples of Louisiana, Haiti, and Ethiopia, as well as the countries that experienced French colonization.

One Comment

  1. Elba Matos
    May 26, 2021 at 7:17 pm

    Thank you so much for being so gracious and thoughtful for making this available. I love history and want to be more knowledgeable about this period so i am indeed delighted, excited to have this to view.

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