Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Guillotine and Reign of Terror

The French Revolution lasted from 1789 to 1799, and was a time in French history when those in power were brought down by the same people they held power over, just as all revolutions are.  It is a topic worthy of entire books and college classes.  Here, I will touch on the subtopic of the Reign of Terror, with a bigger emphasis on the guillotine.

The Reign of Terror (June 1793 - July 1794) was a period during the French Revolution when the level of violence was brought to a peak.  Also known as simply The Terror, this era is most remembered by the frivolous use of the guillotine.  A man by the name of Maximilien Robespierre was one of the most influential supporters.  During this dark time, over 41,000 people were put to death, and 16,594 of those deaths were executed with the guillotine.

The guillotine was invented in the late 18th century and named after Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.  It was considered to be a humane form of execution.  The device has a tall frame with an angled blade at the top.  The condemned would be secured to the bottom of the guillotine with their neck placed below the blade.  The weighted blade would then be dropped from above, thus removing the head with a single blow.  Before the guillotine's existence, other methods of decapitation would take more blows to finish the act.

When victims were sentenced to die by guillotine, great crowds of people would turn out for the "show."  People would fight for the best seats, and parents wouldn't hesitate to bring their children along.  Programs were sold where the names of the condemned were listed.  I haven't found any mention of it in my research, but I can imagine that vendors may have been selling food as well.  Corn dog anyone?

Eventually, so many people died by guillotine that no one bothered to show up to the festivities any more.  People turned against Robespierre and he was arrested.  Robespierre was sentenced to die by the guillotine and was executed on July 28, 1794.  

Some of the more notable names of the guillotine's victims are King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Philippe Egalite, and Madame Roland.

Do you remember studying the French Revolution or Reign of Terror in school?  What were your first thoughts?

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