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  • The Force of a Law:Derrida, Montaigne, and the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts (1539)
  • Katie Chenoweth

When the year 1539 appears on timelines of French language history, it marks the moment when king François Ier made French the official language of France by signing an edict. This law has come to be known by the name of the place where it was signed: the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts. Officially issued as the Ordonnance générale sur le fait de la justice, this edict contains 192 articles designed to enact large-scale judicial and administrative reform. Its aim was to centralize and secularize political authority in the French kingdom in an unprecedented fashion. Just two articles, numbered 110 and 111, address the question of language use for which the law has become famous:

110. And so that there should be no cause to doubt whether the aforementioned legal decisions have been understood, we wish and order that they should be made and written so clearly that there neither is nor could be any room for ambiguity or uncertainty, nor cause to ask for interpretation [interpretation: interpretation or translation].

111. And because such things have often occurred regarding the understanding of Latin words contained in legal decisions, we wish that, henceforth, all decision and other procedures, pertaining to our sovereign courts or other lower or inferior courts, whether they be registers, inquiries, contracts, commissions, sentences, wills, or any other acts and writs of justice . . . should be pronounced, recorded, and delivered to parties in the French mother tongue [en langage maternel françois], and not otherwise.

("Ordonnance")1

The singular rhetoric of these two articles has proved forceful enough to afford them a monumental historical status. It has also served to wrest them from the integral body of the edict and its 190 other articles. 1539 and Villers-Cotterêts now signify above all a turning point in the history of the French language, namely, the institution of French as the uniquely recognized language of justice, law, and state administration in France. In this way, 1539 and Villers-Cotterêts are not just any kind of historical markers. They are signs of that which would seem to have happened in an instant—the instant of a decision, the affirmation of a signature, [End Page 67] an irreversible cut—when the French language becomes law by excluding some other language ("and not otherwise") and instituting itself. It would seem to do all this, moreover, in the very language it seeks to legislate. In what seems like an instant, the French vernacular would seem to turn toward itself, gather itself up, and gives itself its own law. No matter which "other" the law excludes (a topic of much debate, as we shall see), Villers-Cotterêts imposes itself through its rhetoric as an inaugural text of French-language sovereignty.2 Widely recognized as the first state language policy in Europe, Villers-Cotterêts and 1539 also stand for a wider-reaching, modern formation of sovereignty in language—and of sovereignty as language. At the same time, nearly a century before the founding of the Académie Française, French takes on an exceptional and exemplary status amongst modern vernaculars; it is in French above all that linguistic sovereignty will be epitomized, and thus also either demonstrated or dismantled.

With an eye to the textual and philosophical legacy of the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts, this article will investigate how this (self-) founding text figures in the work of Jacques Derrida and Michel de Montaigne. Both philosophers make reference to the edict in their published work: Derrida mentions it by name on several occasions, going so far as to quote the text of Articles 110 and 111 and to analyze the law's historical context at length; Montaigne makes reference to it only once and somewhat obliquely, assuming readers' familiarity with a law that was, in the 1580s, only decades old and still an active topic of juridical and political commentary. By reading these references to Villers-Cotterêts closely, I wish to demonstrate the significance of the 1539 edict for Montaigne and Derrida and to render palpable its pervasive haunting...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 67-85
Launched on MUSE
2012-05-19
Open Access
No
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