Renaissance and Reformation French Law and Justice
Michael P. Breen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0403


Law and justice were fundamental to the ideology of royal authority and practices of governance in Early Modern France. For Renaissance theorists, the king was the realm’s supreme judge, whose primary obligation was to provide justice, a view that persisted even as theorists increasingly emphasized his legislative powers. Legal institutions and officers, meanwhile, formed the backbone of the developing state. Early Modern France was honeycombed by seigneurial, municipal, ecclesiastical, and royal courts, many of whose jurisdictions competed with each other. For most women and men, these courts—which often exercised considerable administrative and regulatory functions—were their principal point of contact with the state. More recently, scholars have shifted their focus away from the ways authorities, legal elites, and the institutions they staffed used the administration of justice to impose official, learned law on the broader populace. Instead, they examine how people used the law and its institutions for their own ends, actively constructing law’s meaning and extending its authority throughout French society, even to its colonies in New France, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean. Turning their attention to long-ignored local courts and records of civil litigation, as well as the activities of the lawyers and notaries who mediated between the law and the broader populace, historians have shown that the vast majority of Early Modern men and women were familiar with the law and regularly interacted with the justice system as plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses. In one of the most important and transformative developments, historians inspired by Sarah Hanley’s pathbreaking studies on gender, law, and state formation have shown that, contrary to what legislation, jurisprudence, and legal commentaries implied, women were active users of litigation and other legal resources and eminently capable of using the law to protect their interests, and those of their families. No longer viewed as instruments used by social elites and state officials to control and dominate Early Modern society, Early Modern French law and justice are now understood as mechanisms for dialogue through which men and women at nearly all social levels continuously negotiated the contours of marital life, family relationships, economic interactions, social status, and other matters. Going to court was “mundane,” as Julie Hardwick has put it, precisely because law was so central to people’s economic, social, and political lives. Early Modern French law and justice emanated from below just as much as they were imposed from above.

General Works

The history of law and justice incorporates both formal law—legislation, institutions, and jurisprudence—and their uses by legal practitioners and ordinary men and women within the broader social, political, and cultural environment of Early Modern France. Histories of French law produced by legal historians and jurists can provide useful introductions to the conceptual and institutional framework of Early Modern French law, while studies by historians are helpful in understanding how law and justice operated in conjunction with other social, cultural, and political forces. Primary sources range from legislation to printed commentaries and briefs, to a dizzying array of court records, many of which are increasingly available online, though often not in translation.

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