Unmasking the Bourgeoisie

The Law Behind the Man

A Love Story




Real Life

Greuze, Anita Portrait of Napoleon, 18th Century (Greuze Plate 87)

Napoleon Bonaparte established his own code of laws in 1803. These laws not only repealed and modified previously existing laws, they ensured the rights of man and ignored the rights of woman. The 1792 divorce law was repealed and drastically changed. Where it had been possible for either a husband or wife to petition for a divorce on numerous grounds, Napoleon changed it so divorce could only be petitioned for under mutual consent and incompatibility. There were criteria that had to be met before a husband or wife could petition for a divorce on either of those grounds; if it was because of incompatibility the petitioner had to show proof of cruelty, adultery, or objected to certain humiliating forms of punishment administered by her spouse (Phillips 1988, p. 185). If the divorce was warranted by mutual consent the husband had to be at least 25 years of age, the wife had to be between 21 and 45 years of age, they had to be married between 2 and 20 years, and they had to have their parents' permission.

The Napoleonic Code, as it was called, emphasized the family as a functioning unit. Whereas the needs and desires if the individual had been put ahead of others in the eighteenth century, Napoleon heightened parental authority by requiring their permission in divorce cases and a husband's power by reducing the rights of his wife--"a wife owed obedience to her husband, a husband protection to his wife, and that the wife was obliged by law to live with her husband and to follow him wherever he judged it convenient to live." (Phillips 1988, p. 186)

One of the ironies of the Napoleonic Code was Napoleon's own divorce and how he obtained it. Napoleon married Josephine de Beauharnais, a widow with children, in 1796. His dream was for this marriage to give him a son so a Bonaparte would remain Emperor of France, but he knew that if they did not conceive a son he could, if desperate, adopt one of his brother's sons. When it was obvious to Napoleon that Josephine was not going to have any more children and his dream of having a son succeed him was not going to come true, he convinced her, in 1809, to get a divorce on the grounds of mutual consent. There are many flaws surrounding Napoleon and Josephine's divorce, such as the imperial law of 1806 law that forbade divorces within the Imperial Family. Napoleon's own 1803 divorce law said that a divorce on the grounds of mutual consent could only occur if the wife was between the ages of 21 and 45 and Josephine was 46 years old, and the law also said that the earliest a remarriage could only occur was three years after the divorce. Napoleon remarried the Austrian Archduchess Marie-Louise three months after his divorce from Josephine (Phillips 1988, p. 186-188).