in Villers-Cotterêts where the marriage of the French State and its language took place

Rehabilitated with millions, the royal castle of Villers-Cotterêts (Aisne) will reopen its doors in June. It now becomes the Cité internationale de la langue française in reference to the ordinance signed in this place in 1539 making French the sole language of the kingdom of France.

A Palace is reborn from its ashes… There is something of Sleeping Beauty in the story of the renaissance of the Château de Villers-Cotterêts, rescued from oblivion and certain ruin by the will of the prince, in l occurrence that of President Emmanuel Macron.

It all started in March 2017, during the first election campaign of the man who two months later would become the youngest president of France and Navarre. The country road led the candidate to Villers-Cotterêts, birthplace of Alexandre Dumas and also famous for its historic castle.

The Château de Villers-Cotterêts entered history in 1539 when King François I signed the ordinance named after the town, making the use of French compulsory in all legal and administrative documents in the country. Since then, centuries have passed by. This Renaissance palace has known several lives, becoming successively after the Revolution, a barracks for the Republican army, a begging depot, then an EHPAD, before being abandoned.

The Château de Villers-Cotterets future international city of the French language.

According to his entourage, during his visit to Villers-Cotterêts, the candidate Macron would have been deeply shocked by the calamitous state in which the building was located, yet listed as national heritage. Once elected, he put forward the idea of ​​transforming it into a ” international city of the French language », a showcase of the Francophonie. Supported at arm’s length by the Élysée, this project which links history and the future has been unanimously hailed by historians.

A stroke of genius », rejoices for his part the linguist Bernard Cerquiglini (1), for whom the decision of the Elysée to breathe new life into the castle of Villers-Cotterêts renews the founding myth of modern France. ” Modern France was born from the marriage of state and language, the first act of which took place in this Renaissance palace five centuries ago “, adds the specialist.

A royal castle in Picardy land

The history of Villers-Cotterêts castle began in 1528 when François I decided to erect a royal residence in the heart of these Picardy lands, on the edge of the Retz forest where he liked to come and hunt. Built between 1530 and 1556, the building was erected on the foundations of an old medieval fortress, and covers 95,000 square meters, with sumptuous decorations in its central part reminiscent, it is said, of Chambord and Fontainebleau.

After the death of François I, the property of the castle passed to his successors on the throne of France, including a certain Louis XIV who offered it to his brother Philippe d’Orléans, on the occasion of his marriage to Henrietta of England. . According to historians, the heyday of this royal residence dates back to the time of the Sun King. It was in the gardens of this Renaissance residence that Molière presented his satirical comedy in 1664 Tartuffe in front of an audience made up of Louis XIV, his brother and the entire court which had come for the occasion.

However, in the French collective imagination, Villers-Cotterêts and its castle remain less associated with royal splendor than with the famous ordinance of 1539, so closely linked to the rise and evolution of France and the French. This ordinance is the oldest text of law still in force in France, nearly five centuries after its promulgation. It has survived 12 successive regimes and its articles on the status of French are still regularly invoked by the courts of France today.

“Fact of justice and abbreviation of trials”

François I, King of France from 1515 to 1547.

Equivalent to a constitutional law today, but emanating from the king, the document in question is divided into 192 articles, only two of which relate to the question of language, which is nevertheless central. The general scope of the document is specified in its title: Royal ordinances on the fact of justice and abbreviation of trials throughout the kingdom of Francei.e. improving the functioning of justice and reducing the length of trials.

It is necessary to read the ordinance between the lines to guess its real stakes: to reinforce and widen the prerogatives of the monarchy and to limit the powers of the Church to religious affairs. From where in the first part of the text, the obligation made to the various parishes to keep the registers of birth, marriage or death, but by having the entries countersigned by a notary.

The tone is more direct and voluntary in the two articles relating to language, Articles 110 and 111, which stipulate that henceforth the legal acts of the administration and justice of the kingdom will be written “in the mother tongue of French and not otherwise”. This prohibition targets Latin, the language of the Church, but deemed difficult to understand for litigants. It cannot be denied that these articles were inspired by the desire for greater clarity in legal proceedings, but it is not certain that ” françoys, the language of the king » prescribed in the text was more accessible to litigants of the time, a large majority of whom had as their mother tongue not French, but their various patois. Intelligibility was a pretext to give the force of law to French around which the sovereign aspired to unify his country.

The approach was daring, even revolutionary, given the prestige enjoyed by the Church in the France of Francis I and also given the fact that Latin had until then been the traditional language of acts of justice. ” It was not that much in reality, because the Villers-Cotterêts ordinance validates a de facto situation, with the Parliaments which have already been issuing judgments in French or in regional mother tongues for several decades “, moderates Bernard Cerquiglini.

Historians recall, for their part, that François I was not the first French sovereign either to publish ordinances calling for the use of Latin to be replaced by French or other languages. intelligible in the administrative and legal procedures of the kingdom. One of the first ordinances published in this direction dates from 1490 and it emanated from King Charles VIII. Other texts will follow before the ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, whose main originality was to be universal, that is to say applicable to the whole kingdom.

A new France

The fact remains that what took place in Villiers-Cotterêts in August 1539 was nothing less than a war of independence which did not say its name, but whose objective was to bring about a new France, endowed with its own language, its own literature. A lover of the arts, books and poetry, the sovereign François I, who had seen the Renaissance at work during his wars in Italy, embodied this renewed France whose founding act he signed in his beautiful Picardy castle, in making the king’s language, in this case French, the language of law, and therefore of the state. It was visionary, even if the question of the status of minority languages ​​remained in limbo.

General view of the Château de Villers-Cotterêts in the northeast of Paris, during reconstruction work on the building, May 21, 2021.

Bernard Cerquiglini recounts that during the signing ceremony of the ordinance, Chancellor Poyet, who had drafted the text, whispered in the sovereign’s ear: ” Sire, you have the future in mind! “However, we have to wonder if this future goes as far as the Cité internationale de la langue française, which will now be the new avatar of the Château de Villers-Cotterêts.

Nothing is less certain, but as Professor Cerquiglini confides, ” this sovereign who worked for the influence of his language and his country, would perhaps not have been shocked to see landing in his renewed castle a French language, certainly emancipated from France, but globalized. »

(1) Bernard Cerquiglini is a linguist, professor of linguistics and former rector of the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie. He is the author of a dozen academic works devoted to the French language, including: Variant Praise (1989), The genesis of French spelling (2004), An orphan language (2007).