Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts

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Title page of the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts

The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts (French: Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts) is an extensive piece of reform legislation signed into law by Francis Ist of France on August 10, 1539 in the city of Villers-Cotterêts.

Largely the work of Chancellor Guillaume Poyet, this legislative edict in 192 articles dealt with a number of government, judicial and ecclesiastical matters (ordonnance générale en matière de police et de justice).

Articles 110 and 111, the most famous, called for the use of French in all legal acts, notarized contracts and official legislation in order to avoid any linguistic confusion:

Nous voullons et ordonnons qu’ilz soient faictz et escrits si clerement qu’il n’y ait ne puisse avoir aucune ambiguïté ou incertitude, ni lieu à en demander interpretacion.
We wish and order that [judicial acts] be drawn up and written so clearly that there be neither ambiguity nor uncertainty nor the possibility of ambiguity or uncertainty, nor grounds for asking for interpretation thereof.
Et pour ce que telles choses sont souventesfoys advenues sur l'intelligence des motz latins contenuz esdictz arretz, Nous voulons que doresenavant tous arretz ensemble toutes autres procedeures, soyent de nous cours souveraines ou aultres subalternes et inferieures, soyent de registres, enquestes, contractz, commissions, sentences, testamens et aultres quelzconques actes et exploictz de justice ou qui en dependent, soient prononcez, enregistrez et delivrez aux parties en langage maternel francoys et non autrement.
And because so many things often happen due to [poor] understanding of Latin words used in decrees, we intend that henceforth all decrees and other proceedings, whether of our sovereign courts or others, subordinate and inferior, or whether in records, surveys, contracts, commissions, awards, wills, and all other acts and deeds of justice or of law, that all such acts are spoken, written, and given to the parties [concerned] in the French mother tongue, and not otherwise.
Printed version of the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, August 1539, prescribing the use of French in official documents.

The major goal of these articles was to discontinue the use of Latin in official documents (although Latin continued to be used in church registers in some regions of France), but they also had an effect on the use of the other languages and dialects spoken in many regions of France (see Languages of France).

Other articles required that priests record baptisms (needed for determining the age of candidates for ecclesiastical office) and burials, and that these acts be signed by notaries.

Another article prohibited guild and trade federations (toute confrérie de gens de métier et artisans) in an attempt to suppress workers' strikes (although mutual-aid groups were unaffected).

Many of these clauses marked a move towards an expanded, unified and centralized state and the clauses on the use of French marked a major step towards the linguistic and ideological unification of France at a time of growing national sentiment and identity.

The first page of the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, 1539.

See also[edit]