Law Hall of Fame logoRobert-Joseph Pothier was born in Orléans, France on January 9, 1699. His family was well-to-do, not nobility but of a professional class (bourgeoisie).

His father died when he was eight but the young Robert-Joseph was raised and educated under the patronage of a uncle.

Educated at the law school at Université Orléans, he became smitten with Justinian's Institutes. Pothier then had to resist his mother's demands that he enter the priesthood.

At the tender age of 21, he was called to the bar of the local court, the Présidial d'Orléans. Soon, he was also appointed judge.

This, he remained for his whole life, obtaining no further official or professional distinction. And the law was the better for it as Pothier turned into a prolific legal writer.

His first collection of books took him 20 years to research and write, a modernized version of the Institutes of Justinian.

Robert-Joseph PothierEntitled Pandectæ Justinianæ in novum ordinem digestæ, it was published in three volumes in 1748. But at this time in France, Roman law was in a state of disuse so the book did not initially sell well.

In 1740 and again in 1760, he published other, smaller books on local legal customs.

In 1748 he was appointed dean of the Orléans law school - in addition to his judicial position. Where he found the time is a mystery but in 1761, he published Traité des Obligations.

It is said that he woke every day at 5 AM and worked on the law until 9 PM; and that he had no other pastime or interest. He rarely traveled from Orléans nor did he entertain other than weekly meetings he hosted of local lawyers and law students to discuss the law. However, he did emulate his students and tried to take Thursday away from his law books.

He never married and relied fully on maids and servants to run his household. Ironically, given the order he gave to French law, those that saw his private office and desk recall a mess of papers strewn everywhere with only him knowing where anything was, if at all.

Those that knew him described him as a kind and gentle man, modest in regards to the wisdom that so many sought to tap. As a judge, he declined to hear capital punishment cases or to preside, as judge, over confessions conducted under torture.

"Torture asks the questions," he once remarked, "and pain answers."

Thus, in 1761, Pothier began a collection of law books that would galvanize French civil law and remain a, if not the, civil law authority still today.

In simple and concise language, he researched and set out the law in France in a set of thirty books which came out, one after the other, between 1761 to 1778.

After his treatise on obligations, he published on contracts, leases, maritime law, consumer loans, bills of exchange, insurance, family law, wills and estates, land and property law.

In Pothier's time, the law in France was a quagmire of different customs and local laws with, from time to time, various influences, notably that of Roman law. Pothier broke the logjam. He brought it all together on a single, national comprehensive and comprehensible stream, upon which, henceforth, French civil law could flowed.Robert-Joseph Pothier

The multi-volume series, now known as the Oeuvres de Pothier (Works of Pothier), was posthumously republished by a number of subsequent authors and is a feature of all modern civil law libraries.

Pothier did not just describe the law in the stilted language for which the field is renowned. He endeared himself to his readers by peppering his law books with many real-life examples of application of the law.

Pothier borrowed extensively, always with due credit, from the jurists in France's past and present, and also from foreign sources where, in his opinion, it was appropriate. He introduced, discussed, adopted or rejected the relevant statements of the law then extant in France.

Interestingly, at the same time in England, between 1756 and 1759, William Blackstone was publishing his Commentaries on the Laws of England, another plain language book which would appeal to the growing number of the masses who were literate.

He has been called the father of the Civil Code - the 1804 codification of the French civil law.

Known for his robust health, Pothier caught a fever when he was 73 years old and within eight days, he was dead.

The City of Orléans organized a public funeral and a marble plaque was erected, written in gold letters.

His will called for much of his estate to be liquidated and the money given to the poor.

Pothier's influence traveled with copies of his books to influence the civil code of Spain, Québec, Poland, Japan, Argentina, Italy and Holland.

In 1950, the American House of Representatives honored his memory with a marble profile of him, as one of the foremost lawgivers in human history (medallion on right).

REFERENCES:

  • Arabeyre, P. and others, Dictionnaire Historique des Juristes Français (Paris: Presses Universitaires, 2007), pages 636-638
  • Bugnet, M., "Éloge de M. Pothier", pages i-VIII of Oeuvres De Pothier (Paris: Henri Plon, 1861).
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, The Law's Hall of Fame