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Off with Their Heads! (Or not…)

By Paul Friedland


Two hundred and twenty-three years ago today, the marquis de Launay looked out the window of the fortress of the Bastille and saw a large crowd of Parisians massing outside. Up until that moment, de Launay had possessed a rather cushy job, overseeing a “fortress” that, truth be told, probably held only six or seven prisoners, mostly lunatics and counterfeiters. The crowd expressed its intention to search the premises for gunpowder (to be used to defend the city from an imminent attack by royal forces which in fact never came), but de Launay refused them entry. He stalled for a while; he even invited representatives of the crowd inside the Bastille for refreshments, as he waited in vain for reinforcements. When the drawbridge suddenly opened (whether by design or by accident no one knows) and people streamed into the Bastille, they were fired upon by de Launay’s troops. The marquis was immediately suspected of having laid a trap. As he was being led toward the Hôtel de Ville for questioning, he was set upon, beaten, and stabbed. His head was severed from his body, placed on a pike, and paraded around the center of Paris. De Launay’s was not the only head paraded around that day and there would be more to follow.

The phrase “Off with their heads!” tends to be associated not only with the spontaneous violence of days like 14 July, but also with formal executions by guillotine, reflecting a widespread perception among historians and non-historians alike that Revolutionary crowds responded with great enthusiasm when the “enemies of the people” were guillotined before their eyes, and that they cheered and jeered as each aristocrat, counter-revolutionary, or traitor passed beneath “the avenging blade.” Perhaps even more perverse — at least from the vantage point of our modern sensibilities — were those women who supposedly sat at the base of the guillotine, knitting and wryly smiling as they counted the heads that dropped in front of them.

The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2682-320).
But do these images have any basis in fact?

The guillotine has become so inextricably bound up with its unbridled use during the Terror, that it is easy to forget that it was initially conceived of as a great humanitarian innovation. No longer would executions be a spectacle of suffering, lasting for hours or even days. Dr. Guillotin, the legislator who first proposed the idea in 1789 (when no one imagined it would ever be used on anyone but criminals and murderers), reportedly promised that executions would take place “in the blink of an eye” and that victims would feel only “a slight cool breeze upon the neck.” France would be the first nation to accord criminals a “humane” death. In the image at left, produced before the machine was built and before it was known that the executioner would pull a cord rather than slice a rope, the executioner is portrayed as looking away at the final moment, exemplifying the ideal of death with discretion. (One can’t help wondering how this was supposed to work in actual practice.)

So, when the guillotine was first used on 25 April 1792, did spectators scream, “Off with their heads”? No, but they apparently did scream, or at least chant: “Give us back our wooden gallows!” Drawn in large numbers by the novelty of the machine, spectators were reportedly confused and disappointed by an execution that was over in a matter of seconds. Accustomed to the penal equivalent of a three act play, they felt cheated by a show that was over almost before it had begun. What was the point of attending a spectacle in which there was so little to see?

From a facsimile of the original in Hector Fleishchmann, La Guillotine en 1793 (Paris, 1908), 215.
There is no denying that the guillotine enjoyed a brief heyday of popularity around 1792-93, and that some people went so far as to don guillotine earrings or put guillotine fruit slicers on their kitchen tables. There was undoubtedly a general fascination with the way the guillotine immediately transformed living enemies into lifeless heads, as if by magic. But this fascination never seemed to translate into enthusiasm and excitement at the spectacle of execution itself. It is certainly true that the executions of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (as well as other notorious individuals such as Hébert, aka Père Duchesne, and Charlotte Corday) drew enormous crowds, probably numbering in the hundreds of thousands. But all credible first-hand accounts report that spectators simply shouted “Vive la République!” at the moment of death, followed by a kind of stunned silence. And those who truly wanted to get a good look at the victims knew better than to try to catch a glimpse of them in the few seconds between their descent from the cart and the moment of their death; instead, they gathered in the windows along the rue St. Honoré, where they could get a good long look as the condemned passed by in open carts. It was from one of these windows that the artist Jacques-Louis David drew his famous sketch of Marie-Antoinette on her way to the scaffold. As for the execution of more ordinary individuals, the most common reaction would seem to have been a kind of indifference. Particularly during the Great Terror of 1793-94, as executions became more frequent, most trustworthy accounts seem to suggest that Parisians grew weary of them.

So where did we get the idea that spectators taunted victims, jeered at them or that they shouted rapturously as each head rolled? In part, we owe it to extremists on the left, who had a vested interest in making it appear that the public was wildly and enthusiastically behind the purging of their enemies. Mostly, though, we owe it to those on the right who were eager to portray Revolutionary crowds as having an insatiable lust for blood, denizens of a hellish world without decency or humanity. Many of the more colorful portraits were written long after the Revolution, contained in “memoirs” of dubious credibility. The following, rather lyrical description is from the supposed memoirs of the actor Fleury, published posthumously in 1836: “… [Radical] females, … shrews, had the work of surrounding the scaffolds, exciting people, and letting loose shrill cries during the spectacles. If they were old, they were called tricoteuses [knitting-women]; if they were young, they had the name furies of the guillotine. As for me, when I saw them assemble for the first time, the women and the men… it seemed to me that I was watching … uncoil a horrible legion of the damned, screaming, yelling, throwing their tangled hair into the wind, turning, ever turning…” Stories like this were picked up by Thomas Carlyle, and in turn by Charles Dickens, who in his Tale of Two Cities described women like Madame Defarge and her friend “The Vengeance” who sat in chairs directly in front of the scaffold, busily knitting while they methodically counted the heads that fell.

As for the phrase “Off with Their Heads!” that too would seem to have a provenance in British fiction rather than in the events of the French Revolution, owing its notoriety to Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Curiouser and Curiouser. Happy Bastille Day.

Paul Friedland is an affiliate of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University, and currently a fellow at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University (2011-2012). He is the author of Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Punishment in France, which explores the history of public executions in France from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Read his previous blog post: “The Last Public Execution in France.”

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