Title page of the Code Civil, first published in 1804, the civil code drafted under Napoleon | Paris, Fondation Napoléon

Power & Resistance
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The Napoleonic Code

The French Period

Kilometres and centilitres, the land registry and the status of notary: things that we take for granted today, come from the period of French rule. The Civil Code – the rules that govern the mutual interaction of Belgian citizens – also dates from the French period. For two centuries the Napoleonic Code from 1804 formed the basis of our civil law.

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Napoleon himself called ‘his’ code his greatest achievement, more important than all his victories on the battlefield. With uniform legal rights for all he put an end to the old society from before the French Revolution.

When Belgium became independent in 1830, the Napoleonic Code remained in force. Gradually it became clear that many adjustments were necessary, particularly because the code was based on a father-spouse who ruled over his wife and children like a little emperor. Women gradually gained equal rights and children protection. A definitive break came in 2003 when Belgium as the second country in the world allowed people of the same sex to marry.

Napoleon in zijn studeerkamer.

Washington, National Gallery of Art

In 1812 Jacques-Louis David painted Napoleon as a leader who is at work in his study until deep into the night for the French people. On the side table next to him are the texts of the Napoleonic Code.

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The French Period

The French Revolution of 1789 had far-reaching consequences, not only for France, but for large parts of Europe and even beyond, in colonies like Haiti. Because in 1795 the Austrian Netherlands and the Prince Bishopric of Liège, together more or less present-day Belgium, were conquered and annexed, the revolutionary reforms applied here too.

The revolutionaries proclaimed freedom and equality and abolished noble privileges. They centralised the economic system, healthcare and education and made short shrift of local particularities. The old principalities were replaced by a new administrative division into départements, precursors of today’s provinces.

When general Bonaparte came to power in 1799 and five years later was crowned Emperor, he abolished some reforms of the revolution. He gave many others a lasting form, such as the registry of births, deaths and marriages and the decimal system. His civil code provoked a legal earthquake. Whereas before the coming of the French there was a chaos of local customs and legal rules, from now on the same law applied to everyone.

In 1815 Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. The former Austrian Netherlands and the Prince Bishopric of Liège were added to the new Kingdom of the Netherlands and after the revolution of 1830 formed present-day Belgium. But many of the French reforms were lasting and the period of Gallicisation also left its traces.

Focal points

Atheneum van Antwerpen.

Antwerp, FelixArchief

The Royal Atheneum of Antwerp was founded in 1807 under French rule as an Ecole secondaire. This first ‘state school’, without the involvement of the clergy, was housed in the former convent of the Black Sisters in the street of the same name. Since 1884 the Atheneum has been established in the ‘Temple of Knowledge’ on the present Rooseveltplaats, a building designed by city architect Pieter Dens (1891-1901).

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Separation of Church and State

A particular target of the French revolutionaries was the Catholic church, which was forced to give up its powerful position. The state confiscated all church possessions. Religious buildings were plundered and abbeys abolished. Many monasteries were actually demolished. Priests who refused to swear allegiance to the revolution were persecuted. The Christian calendar was replaced by the revolutionary calendar. It began with year I of the Revolution (22 September 1792) and had twelve months, each of three ten-day weeks,

Church and state were separated. Marriages and births had to be first registered henceforth with the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Care of the poor and the sick came under government control. In education state schools were introduced, like the Atheneum of Antwerp in 1807, the oldest surviving public school in Flanders. The influence of the church in public life declined.

Because the anti-church policy met with much resistance, in 1801 Napoleon signed an agreement with the pope which restored some traditions and introduced a payment for pastors and bishops as compensation for expropriation of ecclesiastical possessions. A few years later Napoleon abolished the revolutionary calendar.

Massagraf Boerenkrijgers.

Mechelen, Hof van Busleyden

In 2010 archaeologists discovered a mass grave at the St Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen. It contained the skeletons of 41 Peasants’ War fighters, who on 23 October 1798 had been shot at the foot of the tower by the French army.



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Resistance to the Revolution: the Peasants’ War

In the annexed Low Countries the French reforms could count on only little sympathy. Only a small group collaborated enthusiastically with the new regime. Many believed that the French were undermining their religion, traditions and privileges. Many opponents of the revolution fled, but others stayed and voiced their displeasure. In 1798 an armed rising actually broke out: the Peasants’ War. Elsewhere in Europe too there were anti-French revolts.

Many brigands, as the French called the rebels, were day-labourers, tradespeople and farm workers from impoverished areas. When in September 1798 compulsory military service was introduced for men between 20 and 25, many people joined the rebels.

The revolt was not centrally organised, but consisted mainly of small acts of resistance and was most active outside the large towns. In places like Bornem, Geel and Herentals there was severe fighting. But scarcely three months after the start of the revolt the French army defeated the Peasant War fighters near Hasselt. The exact number of casualties is not known, but is estimated at between five and ten thousand.

In 1853 Hendrik Conscience wrote a successful novel about the Peasants’ War, which at one fell swoop anchored the countryside revolt in the collective memory. The novel was designed to awaken the patriotic fervour of the reader in a time of a French threat, but later leant itself well to purely pro-Flemish interpretations.

Wikimedia Commons. Antonius Sanderus, Flandria illustrata, Keulen 1641, p. 211

The Sint-Donaas Cathedral in Bruges, demolished during the French period.

Vierschaar Moregem.
Brussels, Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed, Pascal Van Acker

Ruin of the tribunal of Moregem, today a sub-district of Wortegem-Petegem. Up to the French Revolution the tribunal sat in judgement in the open air. The accused stood in the middle.

De Boerenkrijg van Meunier.
Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Constantin Meunier, The Peasants’ War, 1798-1799 – The Gathering, around 1875.

Goetsbloets De Franse Revolutie.
Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, MS II, 1492, vol. vii, fol. 14r

In his illustrated Tydsgebeurtenissen (Events of the Age) the Antwerp aristocrat Pierre Goetsbloets (1765-1816) showed himself an opponent of the French Revolution. Here he is criticising the hypocrisy of the revolution.

Fort Napoleon.
Herita, Jan Crab

Numerous buildings in Flanders are reminders of the presence of Napoleon. Fort Napoleon in Ostend was designed to protect the coast against England. Napoleon visited Ostend five times.

Slag bij Waterloo.
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, SK-A-1115

Jan Willem Pieneman, The Battle of Waterloo, 1824, with as central figure the Duke of Wellington, the commander of the British and Dutch troops.

Vredegerecht Zandhoven.
Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon wanted to make the law understandable and accessible. The Napoleonic Code introduced, for example, the ‘Justice of the Peace’, where minor disputes could be dealt with in an accommodating way. This court still exists in Belgium. This is the former building of the Justice of the Peace in Zandhoven.

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