The Napoleonic Code

The 1804 Napoleonic Code influenced civil law codes across the globe. It was very influential in developing countries outside Europe, especially in the Middle East.

  • It replaced the fragmented laws of pre-revolutionary France.
  • It recognised the principles of civil liberty, equality before the law for men (not for women in the same sense), and the state's secular character.


The Napoleonic Code | History of Western Civilization II

Before the Napoleonic Code, France did not have any set of laws. Instead, law consisted of local customs. Napoleon wanted to reform the French legal system in keeping with the French Revolution. 

During the Revolution, the last traces of feudalism were abolished. A new legal code was needed to address the changes in the French's social, economic, and political structure. The code was published in 1804 and named the Civil Code of the French but later renamed the Napoleonic Code.


  • The development of the code fundamentally changed the nature of the civil law legal system. It stressed clearly written and accessibly law.
  • The laws could be applied only if they had been promulgated and then published officially. No secret laws were authorised.
  • It prohibited laws that apply to events that happened before their introduction.
  • The codes also prevented judges from refusing justice based on insufficiency of the law, meaning they had to interpret the law.
  • It forbid judges from passing general judgments of a legislative value.


The Code was adopted in many countries occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars and became the foundation of the law systems of Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and their former colonies, and Poland.

Romania also used a civic code with strong Napoleonic influences until 2011. Thus, the civil law systems of the countries of modern continental Europe have been influenced by the Napoleonic Code (except for Russia and the Scandinavian countries).


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