Executions, the Guillotine and the French Revolution

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Executions, the Guillotine and the French Revolution
Michael R. Lynn

Violence, executions, mutilations, and torture have long been a part of early modern European history. Wars, rebellions, riots, and even violent crime were relatively commonplace across Europe. Reflecting the overall violence of early modern society, authorities also inflicted violent punishments on criminals…

Unlike ordinary criminals, nobles were generally able to avoid public dismemberments or other punishments prior to their execution; instead they were often simply beheaded. Such a means of death was seen as more befitting of their status… 

Commoners were typically hanged. The goal was not to break the neck immediately, but rather to let the individual slowly strangle to death while he or she struggled to escape. This lengthy death would complete the humiliation of the victim who would typically flail about and, eventually, lose control of their bowels…Some people condemned for more heinous crimes were broken on the wheel. This entailed attaching the criminal to a large wheel and then beating him or her with iron bars over a period of time until the criminal died…

Not surprisingly, these patterns of violence also shaped the direction and momentum of the French Revolution, the event often regarded as signaling the end of the early modern period. The riots leading to the fall of the Bastille were a reflection of a society prone to violence, and the subsequent decapitation of the governor of the Bastille, the Marquis Bernard-Réné de Launay, is an oft-cited example of the widespread nature of violence during this period; although, examples of this kind of behavior are widespread.

Overall, the French Revolution was characterized with more than its share of executions, so much so, in fact, that the guillotine emerged as one of the defining and most enduring symbols of the revolution.

Joseph Guillotin, a medical doctor and member of the revolutionary National Assembly, championed the guillotine, proposing its use to the state in October 1789. The new guillotine was presented as a quick and rational means of execution, perhaps in answer to Enlightenment critics like Cesare Beccaria who had argued against torture and capital punishment in his book, On Crime and Punishment (1764). 

The fear of beheading was always that the headsman might miss, thus requiring multiple swings of the ax before the deed was done. In fact, this fear had been so common that several centuries before Beccaria, Anne Boleyn, the second wife of England’s Henry VIII, had specifically requested that a French swordsman who was believed to be more skilled, perform her beheading. The guillotine purported to eliminate human error from the equation. It was also seen as egalitarian in that it could be used on nobles and commoners alike.

With the guillotine, death could now be nearly instantaneous, with considerably less pomp and circumstance. Executions by guillotine were certainly well attended, but they lacked some of the extended spectacle of earlier execution rituals. Now the executioner simply pulled a cord, the blade fell, and it was all over except, perhaps, for a display of the head to the crowd.

However, what the guillotine lacked in overall drama it certainly made up for in volume. During the period of the French Revolution, and especially during the Terror (1793-1794) when the state enacted martial law, use of the guillotine skyrocketed. Led by Maximillian Robespierre, the Committee on Public Safety enacted a series of decrees that established a system of Terror, enforced by the state, in an effort to root out counter-revolutionaries and save the new Republic from itself.

Under this system, at least 40,000 people were killed. As many as 300,000 Frenchmen and women (1 in 50 Frenchmen and women) were arrested during a ten month period between September 1793 and July 1794. Included in these numbers were, of course, the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Although all social classes and professions were targeted, the death toll was especially high for both clergy and aristocrats. The numbers of those killed and taken into custody were probably even higher as the documented numbers don’t include people killed by vigilantes and other self-proclaimed representatives of the Republic.

One of the big locations for counter-revolutionary insurgency was the region known as the Vendée. A rebellion in that area led to the deaths of nearly a quarter of the population at the hands of the revolutionary armies. Many were massacred, shot, drowned, or otherwise killed. But the revolutionaries also used the guillotine to great effect. People were, in fact, guillotined with such regularity that a shortage of guillotines emerged. Some towns had to share guillotines, with schedules being developed to determine when a town could use the guillotine and on which days.

When the Terror was officially concluded in July 1794, the worst excesses of this total war also came to an end. Many of the leaders of the Terror were themselves put to death including, most notably, Robespierre himself…

Although most of us associate the guillotine with the violence and excesses of the French Revolution, it continued to be the method of execution in France until capital punishment was abolished in 1981. The last execution in France occurred on September 10, 1977.

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