Villers-Cotterêts has historically been a centre of literary activity. But the town did not wait for the great writer Alexandre Dumas to be born there to leave its mark on the history of the French language. As early as 1539…, it was already playing a role in the development of the French language.
What was the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts?
Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts © Archives nationales
The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts is the oldest law still in force in France: it has survived twelve successive regimes! But what is it exactly?
In August 1539, in the royal Chateau de Villers-Cotterêts, King Francis I signed this ‘general ordinance on justice’. Articles 110 and 111 of this decree stipulated that French should be used in all legal texts in the French kingdom’s administrative services and justice system.
“We now want all rulings and all other procedures [...] to be declared, recorded and given to the relevant parties in the mother tongue of French and not in any other way.”
Use of French therefore supplanted use of Latin, the language of the Church, which was deemed less accessible.
The reason why the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts is now so well-known – and interpretation of it remains a subject of debate today between historians and jurists – is because it marked an initial turning point in the rise of the French language.
First, the ruling made the French language a tool wielded by a justice system and body of administrative services in place throughout the entire kingdom of France. This helped it gradually gain ground to the detriment of Occitan and other regional languages.
From the 17th century, French became the language of the aristocracy and the educated in Germany, Poland, Russia and all countries of northern Europe.
And from the 18th century onwards, French was considered the language of diplomacy. All international treaties were written in French from the Treaty of Rastatt (1714) to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
Congress of Vienna, Engraving by Jean Godefroy © Gallica BNF
But though the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts helped give the kingdom of France political unity in the long term, it only had a limited effect on the everyday language of French people, who were, at that time, still using regional languages: Breton, Norman, Occitan, Gascon and others.
It was only from the French Revolution onwards, but especially from the Third French Republic and the Jules Ferry laws that the French language spread and was used widely throughout France, until its status as the country’s official language was written in the French Constitution of 1992.
From the signing of the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts to the creation of the Cité internationale de la langue française, Villers-Cotterêts has continued to be a symbol the French language.