France in the closing years of the 18th century was in total chaos. The Terreur (terror) reached its height with the execution of the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre in the summer of 1794. In the years that followed, the Consulate took control led by Napoleon Bonaparte. The young Napoleon set himself the task of clearing away all the old laws and the rag-bag collections of local regulations (“coutumes”). He replaced them with the “Code Civile” that set out the rules for a constitutional reset.
The code was secular and written in ordinary French. It detailed what was expected of citizens — considering men to be equal before the law, while assigning women the role of dowry-bearers, facilitating the transfer of property and assets between families. Because of the contractual importance of marriage, there were elaborate requirements to ensure that men were legitimate before they could be married. The husband owned his wife’s dowry, but not her paraphenalia.
The code also laid out commercial frameworks and set standards for product liability. For instance, artisans and craftsmen were required to give a ten-year guarantee on their work. When selling land, sellers were obliged to include the oxen teams and equipment needed to work the land. And those acquiring livestock with a farm were required to keep the animals exclusively on that farm, keeping the dung on the holding. It is worth remembering that rural France was heavily populated in those days, but over the coming century, this was about to change. The Code applied to both town and country, as well as to those on their travels. For example, innkeepers had a legally enforceable duty of care for their guests’ goods and chattels, which extended to those working on the premises, protecting them, too, from light-fingered interlopers.
The March 1804 version of the Code Civile had more than 1800 paragraphs and was the largest version to be put up for adoption. There were prolonged debates about all three circulated versions, each with different numbering and paragraph counts. Some of the articles in the Code Civile still apply to this day, often heavily modified. The administrative commitment to a document-based system put a greater priority on literacy. Deaf or visually challenged citizens who could read had protected access to the provisions of the code unlike non-readers who made their mark to sign off documents they could not read.