Des polices en quête de modernité? Systèmes policiers et ordre public dans les villes de l'espace belge de la fin de l'Ancien Régime à la fin de l'Empire napoléonien (1780-1814).

Translated title of the thesis: Police systems and public order in cities in Belgian space from the end of the Ancien Régime to the end of the Napoleonic Empire (1780-1814)
  • Antoine Renglet

Student thesis: Doc typesDoctor of History, Art and Archeology


This thesis examines the changes in police organizations and their implications for the practices of actors maintaining public order in cities of Belgian territories from the end of the Ancien Régime to the end of the first Empire. More broadly it questions the relationships between administrative modernization and construction of the State, and concentrates on the interrelationships between elements inherited from pre-existent structures with those introduced at the moment of revolutionary conquests. The approach suggested is that of a history of the Napoleonic police “from the bottom up”, one anchored in traces of its predecessors from the Ancien Régime. Rich in discoveries, it lays emphasis on what are slow but profound changes in city police organizations.
The analysis, first of all, concentrates on changes in urban police systems in the last decade of the Ancien Régime, at the moment when the Austrian Netherlands and the principality of Liège were marked by reform policies and strong revolutionary tensions. Subsequently, transformations in structures and practices occurring during the occupations of Belgian territories from 1792 to 1795 and the disorders of the Directory period are approached. That section allows us to shed light on the urban police forces under the Directory, something that has been so far largely ignored. The thesis then concentrates on the Consulate, principally on its bureaucratization of police administration. The following two chapters show continuities and changes in practices in the maintenance of public order during the 1780-1814 period. Finally, the last chapter seeks to evaluate how the State police force and the urban police forces got along, in collaboration or competition, during the last years of the Napoleonic Empire.
Beyond transiting from a comprehensive type of police force to a police force considered more modern in being more oriented towards the security of people, this chronological itinerary sheds light on both the endogenous and exogenic transformations occurring in the city police apparatuses, well before the annexation of Belgian territories to the French Republic and the advent of the Bonapartist regime. Important continuities, as well as the dynamism and autonomy of the urban police regarding State centralization simultaneously nuance and make analysis of Napoleonic political construction more complex. This thesis also assesses the similarities between the episodes of disorders (1787-1795, 1809, 1813-1814) in surveillance practices and recourse to the army.
At the end of the Napoleonic experiment, the municipal police forces bequeathed by the First Empire appear to be more the result of a syncretism between strictly local and original elements and others imported and digested by cities in Belgian space. The strong personality of certain individuals called upon to exercise policing functions, including in the field, may have had an important influence on the installation, the dissemination and the adoption of new practices. Consequently, police modernity – which is not necessarily synonymous with centralization – emerged, depending on the places, times and various objects. This can be seen above all through the synthesis which took place between local elements, the possible inheritance of structures from the Ancien Régime, and elements imported on the occasion of revolutionary and Napoleonic conquests.
Date of Award8 Jan 2016
Original languageFrench
Awarding Institution
  • University of Namur
SupervisorAxel Tixhon (Co-Supervisor), Catherine Denys (Co-Supervisor), Anne Roekens (President), Michael Broers (Jury), Vincent Milliot (Jury) & Xavier Rousseaux (Jury)


  • police
  • public order
  • Revolution
  • Napoleonic Era
  • Belgium
  • Antwerp
  • Liège
  • Namur

Attachment to an Research Institute in UNAMUR

  • PaTHs

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