I only recently started appreciating the differences between Civil Law and Common Law.

The following map on wikipedia shows the distribution of different legal systems around the world, which makes a distinction between Napoleonic law and Germanic law:

Map of the Legal systems of the world (en).png

The respective articles articles on wikipedia are a bit too obtuse for my limited intelligence.

In layman's terms, what are the main differences between Germanic and Napoleonic law systems, and the main implications of those differences?

  • You mean, apart from one is of French origin and the other is of German origin?
    – Dale M
    Aug 21, 2015 at 6:15
  • Of course! I'm French, and I certainly know who Napoleon is. :) Why make the distinction in this map of today's world if there are no practical differences beside historical considerations?
    – augustin
    Aug 21, 2015 at 6:27
  • 1
    "... who Napoleon is"? Do you mean "was"? After all, he may have been important but he's not Elvis :)
    – Dale M
    Aug 21, 2015 at 6:49
  • @DaleM Haha! :) From what I heard, Elvis was Napoleon's middle name! ;) Thanks for correcting my mistake and for your answer. +1
    – augustin
    Aug 21, 2015 at 6:53

3 Answers 3


Both Napoleonic and Germanic law are subdivisions of Civil Law and both are inheritors of late empire Roman Law plus ecclesiastical law and traditional law.

The main differences between them are their route from the Roman Empire to the modern world. Napoleonic law was codified in 1804 under Napoleon I, unsurprisingly; and drew together the feudal laws of France. Germanic law came through the various Germanic tribes and was codified at various times and in various places.

Do these historical distinctions matter? Probably not; they are both code based laws so you must know the code for the particular jurisdiction. However, knowing the origin of the code, while it may not help you draft a contract, will allow you to understand the mode of thought and jurisprudence behind the laws. In a way, it is like the difference between understanding languages and understanding linguistics.


Thanks to this same map I started looking more into the different laws and I have now describe them all in mostly my own words (took me 16.5 hours in total) here is the section of napolionic law and germanic law. Hope it helps.

Napoleonic Law

In 1804 Napoleon I (Napoléon Bonaparte) established a new civil code which among other thing forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion, and specified that government jobs should go to the most qualified. The Code, with its stress on clearly written and accessible law, was a major step in replacing the previous patchwork of feudal laws and leftovers from Roman Law, which in turn was used heavily as basis for the code. It was the first modern legal code to be adopted with a pan-European scope, and it strongly influenced the law of many of the countries formed during and after the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). The Napoleonic Code as the law is more commonly known as, was very influential on developing countries outside of Europe, especially in the Middle East, that were attempting to modernize their countries through legal reform. Also counted to Napoleon Law are four later written codes which are the Code of Civil Procedures, the Code of Commerce, the Code of Penalties and the Code of Criminal Procedures.

Germanic Law

Germanic Law refers in the first to those law codes written by the Germanic people in the early middle ages (400-1000) which were influenced by roman law, ecclesiastic law and tribal customs, and in the second to the different legal codes written in the 18th century primarily the Codex Maximilianeus bavaricus civilis (Bavaria, 1756), the Allgemeines Landrecht (Prussia, 1794), and the West Galician Code (Galicia, then part of Austria, 1797). Only after Napoleonic Law spread through the world did Germanic Law become codified in a similar manner as the Napoleonic Code. One of these is the German Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (or BGB) which was in development since 1881, and became effective on January 1, 1900, and was considered a massive and groundbreaking project for its time.


Germanic law as largely inherited from Roman law is an older view I think. As was seeing Common Law beginning with the Normans and somehow being a refinement of Roman-derived systems.

The most influential scholar reforming this view was Patrick Wormald. He roots Common Law origins in Anglo-Saxons, who took their views from Common Germanic customs. To get the flavor of what was common to Germanic groups, look up Thing (Moot, Althing, etc).

The interesting point about the origins of Anglo-Saxon law-codes is that - like many other aspects of their culture - they were quite removed from Roman influence versus say the Franks and other groups on the continent. However, this would be somewhat true for later Scandinavian systems. And, you are also immediately reminded that the codification of customs into written laws had more to do with the Church generally than with the Roman system generally (the Church is a relatively late entry into the Roman system).

Wormald is heavy-going stud,but you can look at summary sources including Wiki and get the basics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thing_(assembly) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Germanic_law https://www.britannica.com/topic/Germanic-law

Though I'm just a ways along in my reading, it seems like at some point a clearer historical view of Germanic culture in history was developing right up into the beginnings of WWII but received a huge setback due to the abuse of Germanic themes by German leadership at the time. Common Law is a great contribution to the world, and Germany is just one of many "Germanic" countries. By all appearances, The Thing, Germanic myth or religion including Wodanism, and the body of literature including the Edda(s) Beowulf and the (related if not Germanic) Kalevala - as well as the system of runes (Futhark, Futhorc) are all part of a central culture originally centered around the North Sea and Baltic coasts (originating in maybe what is now Southern Sweden and Denmark, but spreading into the Continent and the Isles).

I think suggesting that the Common Law and Napoleanic or even Roman law are just indistinguishable parts of a synthesis misses discovering the relative and unique advantages and disadvantages that come from and are tied to the cultures originating, adopting and refining these different systems.

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