The story I heard is that revolutionaries thought that judges were corrupt and thus should be left to interpret the law, and thus should closely follow codified rules. Is that historically accurate?

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    I’m voting to close this question because history questions belong on history.stackexchange.com Jan 11, 2021 at 1:12
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    @BlueDogRanch no, the history of law is on topic here
    – Dale M
    Jan 11, 2021 at 3:11
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    This is history of French politics, though, not French law - the changes were led by sociopolitical reason, not legal reason.
    – user4657
    Jan 11, 2021 at 20:16
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    I have to agree with @DaleM. What do people get from deletionism? If you don't find a question of interest then just skip it over. Why do you have to advocate for the elimination of something that others may find of interest, and think up reasons to support why it should be deleted or ejected from the site? It would understand if it had nothing to do with legal systems at all but some very rich discussions of legal history have been had here and I was very grateful to have read them. Jun 2, 2022 at 21:35

2 Answers 2



France invented the civil law system and adopted it in connection with the French Revolution. Napoleon commissioned it in 1804.

The summary of the story is here. As Wikipedia explains:

Before the Napoleonic Code, France did not have a single set of laws; law consisted mainly of local customs, which had sometimes been officially compiled in "custumals" (coutumes), notably the Custom of Paris. There were also exemptions, privileges, and special charters granted by the kings or other feudal lords. During the Revolution, the last vestiges of feudalism were abolished.

Specifically, as to civil law, the many different bodies of law used in different parts of France were to be replaced by a single legal code. The Constituent Assembly, on 5 October 1790, voted for a codification of the laws of France, the Constitution of 1791 promised one, and the National Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution on 4 September 1791, providing that “there shall be a code of civil laws common for the entire realm.” However, it was the National Convention in 1793 which established a special commission headed by Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès to oversee the drafting process. His drafts of 1793 (for which he had been given a one-month deadline), 1794, and 1796 were all rejected by a National Convention and Directory more concerned with the turmoil resulting from the various wars and strife with other European powers. The first contained 719 articles and was very revolutionary, but was rejected for being too technical and criticized for not being radical or philosophical enough. The second, with only 297 articles, was rejected for being too brief and was criticized for being a mere manual of morals. The third, expanded to 1,104 articles, was presented under the Directory, a conservative regime, but never even came up for discussion.

Another commission, established in 1799, presented that December a fourth scheme drafted in part by Jean-Ignace Jacqueminot (1754–1813). Jacqueminot's draft, the so-called loi Jacqueminot, dealt almost exclusively with persons and emphasized the need to reform the Revolutionary divorce laws, to strengthen parental authority and increase the testator's freedom to dispose of the free portion of his estate. It was, of course, rejected.

Napoleonic reforms

Napoleon set out to reform the French legal system in accordance with the ideas of the French Revolution, because the old feudal and royal laws seemed confusing and contradictory. After multiple rejected drafts by other commissions, a fresh start was made after Napoleon came to power in 1799. A commission of four eminent jurists was appointed in 1800, including Louis-Joseph Fauré and chaired by Cambacérès (now Second Consul), and sometimes by the First Consul, Napoleon himself. The Code was complete by 1801, after intensive scrutiny by the Council of State, but was not published until 21 March 1804. It was promulgated as the "Civil Code of the French" (Code civil des Français), but was renamed "the Napoleonic Code" (Code Napoléon) from 1807 to 1815, and once again after the Second French Empire.

The process developed mainly out of the various customs, but was inspired by Justinian's sixth-century codification of Roman law, the Corpus Iuris Civilis and, within that, Justinian's Code (Codex). The Napoleonic Code, however, differed from Justinian's in important ways: it incorporated all kinds of earlier rules, not only legislation; it was not a collection of edited extracts, but a comprehensive rewrite; its structure was much more rational; it had no religious content, and it was written in the vernacular.

The development of the Napoleonic Code was a fundamental change in the nature of the civil law system, making laws clearer and more accessible. It also superseded the former conflict between royal legislative power and, particularly in the final years before the Revolution, protests by judges representing views and privileges of the social classes to which they belonged. Such conflict led the Revolutionaries to take a negative view of judges making law.

This is reflected in the Napoleonic Code provision prohibiting judges from deciding a case by way of introducing a general rule (Article 5), since the creation of general rules is an exercise of legislative and not of judicial power. In theory, there is thus no case law in France. However, the courts still had to fill in the gaps in the laws and regulations and, indeed, were prohibited from refusing to do so (Article 4). Moreover, both the code and legislation have required judicial interpretation. Thus a vast body of case law has come into existence. There is no rule of stare decisis


The story I heard is that revolutionaries thought that judges were corrupt and thus should be left to interpret the law, and thus should closely follow codified rules. Is that historically accurate?

For Prussia, where the General State Laws for the Prussian States (PrALR) came into force in 1794, this would be accurate.

Protokoll Friedrich des Großen [II] vom 11.12.1779
Darnach mögen sich die Justiz-Collegia in allen Provinzen nur zu richten haben, und wo sie nicht mit der Justiz ohne alles Ansehen der Person und des Standes gerade durch gehen, sondern die natürliche Billigkeit bei Seite setzen, so sollen sie es mit Sr.K.M. zu thun kriegen. Denn ein Justiz-Collegium, das Ungerechtigkeiten ausübt, ist gefährlicher und schlimmer, wie eine Diebesbande, vor die kann man sich schützen, aber vor Schelme, die den Mantel der Justiz gebrauchen, um ihre üblen Passiones auszuführen, vor die kann sich kein Mensch hüten. Die sind ärger als die größten Spitzbuben, die in der Welt sind, und meritiren eine doppelte Bestrafung.

Minutes of Friedrich the Great [II] of December 11, 1779
Therefore the judiciary colleges [judges] in all provinces may only give judgements, and where they do not go straight through with the judiciary without any regard for person and status, but put natural equity aside, they will have to deal with His Majesty. For a judiciary that practices injustice is more dangerous and worse than a gang of thieves, one can protect oneself from them, but no one can guard against rogues who use the cloak of justice to carry out their evil passions. They are worse than the greatest rascals in the world and deserve double punishment.

On the 14th of April 1780 Friedrich II commissioned the new law which was compleated in 1792.

Auf Meinungen der Rechtslehrer, oder ältere Aussprüche der Richter, soll, bey künftigen Entscheidungen, keine Rücksicht genommen werden.

In future decisions, no consideration should be given to the opinions of the legal teachers or older statements of the judges.

In some areas, certain portions of this law is still used today.
The last case known to me was in 2011:

  • Zivilkammer des Landgerichts Neubrandenburg vom 15. September 2011 - 1 S 100/10

Essay in English: Allgemeines Landrecht für die Preußischen Staaten (ALR) - Max-EuP 2012
1. Historical background
Allgemeines Landrecht für die Preußischen Staaten (ALR) of 1794 (Prussian territorial law), the French Code civil of 1804, and the Allgemeines Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (ABGB) of 1811 (Austrian civil code) emerged towards the end of the age of enlightenment and the natural law movement. Together, they are the natural law codes (Naturrechtskodifikationen) and the first modern European codifications.
2. Origin
Frederic II became increasingly discontent with Prussia’s judicial system. Yet, his new Grand Chancellor Carl Joseph Maximilian Freiherr von Fürst und Kupferberg did not meet his requests for reform. As a result of the famous Arnold case - Frederic II believed that the rights of the miller Arnold were infringed by partial judges - Frederic II released Fürst in 1779 from his office and appointed Johann Heinrich Casimir Graf von Carmer as his successor.
4. Content
The ALR consisted of 19,194 sections. Prima facie, it appears to be very voluminous. However, in contrast to the Code civil and the ABGB it contained the entirety of private law, the entirety of public law, including constitutional law and criminal law, and it contained also feudal law.


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