The Introduction of the Code Napoleon in Poland

John Stanley


The Code Napoleon, proclaimed in 1804, was one of the “blocks of granite” with which Bonaparte consolidated his rule. The code travelled with Napoleon as he conquered: French rule meant the institution of the Code Napoleon. Poland, however, was no tabula rasa waiting for the received order of a French emperor. Prior to its destruction in 1795, Poland had a system of common law and parliamentary statute, similar to the legal system in England. After 1795, the legal systems of Austria, Prussia, and Russia were extended to the conquered Polish lands. The law in Poland as in its neighbours was based on class, intended to bolster the political, economic, and social systems in Eastern Europe.

The constitution that Napoleon gave to the newly established Duchy of Warsaw in July 1807 made the Code Napoleon mandatory in the new Polish state. However, Polish society was uncertain about the new, French law. The greatest reservations concerned the code’s effect upon serf-lord relations.

Nonetheless, the duchy’s Minister of Justice, Feliks Ł ubie ń ski pushed through the code’s implementation. On 1 May 1808, the Code Napoleon was implemented as the duchy’s civil law code. A new judiciary as well as the French civil procedure were confirmed by a royal decree of 4 July 1808. The French commercial code was introduced on 24 March 1809. The French criminal code and code of criminal procedures were put forward by the government at the Sejm of 1811, but it was defeated and the French authorities did not insist on its passage.

Despite the Napoleonic legal system’s revolutionary content, in the Duchy of Warsaw, the Code Napoleon paradoxically re inforced a feudal social structure. Contrary to the constitution’s insistence, serfdom was not abolished and the nobility maintained their political, economic, and social position and privileges.

In Poland, the Civil Code lasted until 1846, the Code of Civil Procedure was maintained until 1864, the judicial system until 1876, and the Commercial Code until 1934. Its long tenure transformed the Code Napoleon into the “Polish” legal tradition. The adoption of the Code Napoleon became a concrete demonstration of Poland’s ties to the West despite its division once again among the three Eastern absolutist powers after 1815.


Dr John Stanley is a Senior Policy Advisor to the Government of Ontario in Toronto.  He received the Ph.D. from the University of Toronto for a dissertation on the Duchy of Warsaw. He subsequently received a post-doctoral grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to continue his research in Poland.
He has published many articles and reviews in such journals as Canadian Slavonic Papers and Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, recently co-edited Nation and History: Nation and History:  Polish Historians from the Enlightenment to the Second World War (University of Toronto, 2006). He is currently writing a book on the Duchy of Warsaw.