The Napoleonic Code is the name for a new code of law introduced in France under Napoleon I in 1804, the purpose of which was to replace the patchwork of feudal laws which had previously existed and unify the French legal system under a more democratic form of rule. Most notably, the code prohibited birthright privileges, specified that government jobs should go to the most qualified candidates, and established freedom of religion.
The code wasn’t the first of its kind in civil-ruled European nations, but it was the most widely emulated. It wasn’t, either, the result of one sweeping overhaul of the existing laws, as we often assume today, but part of a broader restructuring of the French penal system. Additional codes governing the military, civil procedures, and commerce were introduced in subsequent years.
The part of the code which most concerns us began life as the criminal code introduced to the Constituent Assembly by Louis Michel le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau in 1791. Le Peletier drew a distinction between what he termed “true crimes” and offenses informed by “superstition, feudalism, the tax system, and despotism.” The new laws were predicated on the belief that private acts by private individuals were not a matter for state intervention, and blasphemy, witchcraft, heresy, sacrilege, and sodomy were all omitted and subsequently decriminalised. This made the 1791 penal code the first western law to decriminalise same-sex sexual activity since classical antiquity.
The Napoleonic Code was so revolutionary, and so successful, it was adopted by most of the countries occupied by the French, including Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Poland, and several western German regions; and it strongly influenced similar codes in Romania, Egypt, the Persian Gulf, Canada, most of South America, and the state of Louisiana.
What makes the success of the code, in respect particularly to sodomy, so startling is that as late as 1750, men were still being burned to death for sodomy. Perhaps the bloody Revolution sated the public’s taste for unnecessary suffering. Certainly, the introduction of the code made France and, later, much of Continental Europe, something of a safe haven to generations of well-to-do young Englishmen seeking a reprieve from sodomy laws at home.
This wasn’t to say that French queers were perfectly integrated with the rest of society after decriminalisation. Public decency and order laws could still be used to harass young men who forgot to act decorously in the street, and the abiding sentiment for centuries after the code had passed remained one of moral censure. As late as 1960, the Mirguet Amendment was introduced to a bill ostensibly concerning pimping, but which was expanded to include a number of “national scourges” including alcoholism and, thanks to the Amendment, homosexuality. It wasn’t repealed until 1980.
Born on this day: Alison Bechdel (55, American), cartoonist, best known for her graphic novel memoir Fun Home; Karla Drenner (54, American), current Democratic representative of the 85th district in the Georgia House of Representatives, and the first openly-gay member of the Georgia General Assembly; Kris Kovick (1951-2001, American), cartoonist and printer; Jeff Marx (45, American), musical composer, best known for the Tony Award-winning Avenue Q; and Mary Oliver (80, American), Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
Died on this day: Ferdinand I of Bulgaria (1861-1948, Bulgarian), prince regent from 1887, tsar from 1908-1918. Twice-married, neither time seemingly happily, Ferdinand I was noted in his private life as a hedonist who had multiple affairs with men and women, siring a number of illegitimate children and taking regular holidays to Capri. His former Prime Minister created a scandal across Europe in 1895 when he spoke publicly of witnessing Ferdinand with male lovers. Having fought for the losing side during the First World War, Ferdinand abdicated the throne in favour of his son, Boris III, in 1918, and retired to exile in Coburg, Germany. He lived happily for many years, until Boris died under suspicious circumstances in 1943 following a visit to Hitler, and Boris’s son and heir, Simeon II, was deposed by an uprising in 1946. Ferdinand’s remaining son, Kyril, was executed by the people, ending the Bulgarian monarchy. Ferdinand died a broken man, declaring everything had collapsed around him.