(from the French coutume, “custom”), in feudal France, the customary law of various provinces, districts, and cities.
In northern France, the “land of customary law,” the coutumes existed in oral tradition and were not set down in writing. The coutumes represented a combination of old Germanic law borrowed from barbarian law, modified canon law, charters regulating relations between seigniors and cities, and the decisions of local courts, which had assumed the importance of precedents. In southern France, the “land of written law,” a simplified version of Roman law was used as customary law, supplemented by local coutumes that had been set down in writing.
During the 13th century the first local written collections of coutumes appeared, the most important of which were The Great Coutumes of Normandy (c. 1255), books of the coutumes of Orleans, Auvergne, and Anjou entitled The Institutes of St Louis (1273), and the Coutumes of the Beauvaisis (1282) compiled by the seneschal P. de Beaumanoir, a written record of the coutumes of the Beauvais region and other French provinces. The Great Collection of French Coutumes, compiled in 1389, was based on numerous coutumes, but regional differences in law remained. During the 15th century about 60 provincial and more than 300 local coutumes were observed. The coutumes finally lost the force of law with the promulgation of the French Civil Code of 1804, known as the Napoleonic Code.