‘Usages and Customs of the Sea’


Étienne Cleirac and the making of maritime law in seventeenth-century France


In: Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis / Revue d'Histoire du Droit / The Legal History Review
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  • 1 Department of History, Yale University, 320 York Street, New Haven, CT 06510, USA


This article focuses on an influential but today little-known book first published in Bordeaux in 1647 and later reprinted in multiple editions: Étienne Cleirac’s Us et coustumes de la mer (Usages and Customs of the Sea). It is the earliest and most extensive vernacular treatise on maritime law composed in early modern Europe, assembling and commenting on a large body of legal norms issued from the twelfth century to the then present, including the Laws of Wisby, the Judgements of Oléron, and a great many French regional and royal compilations of maritime law. The importance of this text is threefold. At the most basic, it helps us reconstruct the process through which doctrine and scholarship on European maritime law developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It also brings new evidence to bear on controversial scholarly debates about the so-called lex mercatoria, its supposedly private and cosmopolitan nature, and its transition from the medieval to the early modern period. Finally, it sheds new light on the intersection of law, politics, and socio-economic transformations in France during the half-century before the proclamation of the Ordonnance de commerce (1673) and the Ordonnance de la marine (1681).


  • 7

     Trackman, The Law Merchant (supra, n. 3), p. 17 (citation), 21, 23–27. See also F. Gargano, Storia del diritto commerciale, Bologna 1976, p. 55–67.

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  • 8

     Berman and Kaufman, The Law of international commercial transactions (supra, n. 3), p. 227.

  • 12

     Cleirac, UCM 1647, p. 224–228; UCM 1661, p. 218–223. The contiguity between marine insurance and bills of exchange also appears in the English-language commercial literature that adopts the expression lex mercatoria: Gerard Malynes, Consuetudo, vel lex mercatoria or the ancient Law Merchant, London 1622; Wyndham Beawes, Lex mercatoria rediviva, or, The merchant’s directory, London 1751; Giles Jacob, Lex mercatoria, or, The merchant’s companion, London 1718.

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  • 35

     Cleirac, Usance du négoce (supra, n. 31), p. 4. Both Fortia and Servien were members of the King’s Council. Servien went on to being appointed first intendent of Guyenne in 1628, then president of the parlement of Bordeaux in 1630, and later to higher profile diplomatic and military positions in the kingdom, ending up as a leading French diplomat at the negotiations of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648; P. Grillon (ed.), Les papiers de Richelieu, Section politique intérieure, correspondence et papiers d’État, 6 vols., Paris 1975–1997, vol. 2, p. 225–226. See also supra, n. 14.

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  • 39

     In 1656, Cleirac described his Us et coustumes de la mer as a work compiled for Richelieu’s benefit; Usance du négoce (supra, n. 31), preface, p. 7.

  • 40

     R. Boutruche (ed.), Bordeaux de 1453 à 1715, Bordeaux 1966, p. 376–379; A. James, The navy and government in early modern France 1572–1661, Suffolk 2004, p. 11.

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  • 46

     Cleirac, UCM 1661, p. 486. Oddly, Cleirac does not mention the English and the Scots, who were then a more conspicuous foreign presence in Bordeaux.

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  • 49

     Cleirac, UCM 1647, p. 492; UCM 1661, p. 479. On the honour of merchants and bankers who pursued legitimate investments, see also Cleirac, Usance du négoce (supra, n. 31), p. 15–17. Antoine de Montchrestien, Traicté de l’economie politique, Rouen 1615.

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  • 50

     Cleirac, UCM 1661, p. 487–489. The Code Michau announced the creation of such free schools across France’s port cities. Similar appeals can be found in English navigational tracts of the time. See W.F.J. Mörzer Bruyns, Research in the history of navigation, Its role in maritime history, International Journal of Maritime History, 21 (2009), p. 261–286 and R. Blakemore, Navigational instruments as cultural artefacts, c. 1550–1650, Journal for Maritime Research, 14 (2012), p. 31–44.

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  • 53

     Jean Bodin, Les six livres de la république, Paris 1576, p. 198 (book 1, chap. XI).

  • 56

     Cleirac, UCM 1647, p. 6; UCM 1661, p. 6.

  • 57

     Cleirac, UCM 1647, p. 225; UCM 1661, p. 219. Cajetan alone is cited in the 1647 edition.

  • 64

     Cleirac, UCM 1647, p. 4–5; UCM 1661, p. 5. The modern English translation and critical edition of the Laws of Wisby are in Twiss, Monumenta juridica (supra, n. 60), vol. 4, p. 265–284. Note that German and Dutch writers disputed Cleirac, arguing that the Judgments of Oléron were in fact a copy of the laws of Wisby or the Flemish Judgments of the Sea: Pardessus, Collection (supra, n. 22), vol. 1, p. 283.

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  • 69

     Cleirac, UCM 1661, p. 8. L’Alcoran de Mahomet, translaté d’arabe en français par le sieur Du Ryer, Paris 1647; Histoire de la vie, miracles, enchentemens et prophecies de Merlin, Paris 1498. An eight-page printed list of all authors cited in Us et coustumes de la mer is undated and without place of publication, but its print type suggests it was compiled before 1800. It is further evidence of the fortune met by this work at the time: ‘Table alphabétique des livres et des auteurs cites par Cleirac, dans les Us et Coustumes de la Mer’. I located only one surviving copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, FP–2710.

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  • 75

     Cleirac, UCM 1647, p. 255–257; UCM 1661, p. 249–251.

  • 76

     Cleirac, UCM 1647, p. 269–270; UCM 1661, p. 262.

  • 77

     Cleirac, UCM 1647, p. 36–50; UCM 1661, p. 34–47.

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