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 I of France on August 10, 1539 in the city of Villers-Cotterêts and the oldest French legislation still used partly by French courts.

Largely the work of Chancellor Guillaume Poyet, the legislative edict had 192 articles and 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, and the oldest still in use in the French legislation, called for the use of French in all legal acts, notarised contracts and official legislation 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.

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.

We wish and order that they [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.

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.


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.

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 guilds 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.

See also

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The first manuscript page of the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, 1539.
Title page of the printed version of the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, August 1539.
Printed version of article 111 of the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, prescribing the use of French in official documents.
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