1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

The Guillotine

Part 4: The Terror


The Guillotine is quickly adopted.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the guillotine's history is the sheer speed and scale of its adoption and use. Born out of a discussion in 1789 that had actually considered banning the death penalty, the machine had been used to kill over 15,000 people by the Revolution's close in 1799, despite not being fully invented until the middle of 1792. Indeed, by 1795, only a year and a half after its first use, the guillotine had decapitated over a thousand people in Paris alone. Timing certainly played a part, because the machine was introduced across France only months before a bloody new period in the revolution: The Terror.

The Terror
In 1793, political events caused a new governmental body to be introduced: The Committee of Public Safety. This was supposed to work quickly and effectively, protecting the Republic from enemies and solving problems with the necessary force; in practice, it became a dictatorship run by Robespierre. The committee demanded the arrest and execution of "anyone who 'either by their conduct, their contacts, their words or their writings, showed themselves to be supporters of tyranny, of federalism, or to be enemies of liberty'" (Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, Oxford, 1989 p.251). This loose definition could cover almost everyone, and during the years 1793-4 thousands were sent to the guillotine.

It is important to remember that, of the many who perished during the terror, most were not guillotined. Some were shot, others drowned, while in Lyon, on the 4 - 8th of December 1793, people were lined up in front of open graves and shredded by grape-shot from cannons. Despite this, the guillotine became synonymous with the period, transforming into a social and political symbol of equality, death and the Revolution.

The Guillotine passes into culture.
It is easy to see why the quick, methodical, movement of the machine should have transfixed both France and Europe. Every execution involved a fountain of blood from the victim's neck, and the sheer number of people being beheaded could create red pools, if not actual flowing streams. Where executioners once prided themselves on their skill, speed now became the focus; 53 people were executed by the Halifax Gibbet between 1541 and 1650, but some guillotines exceeded that total in a single day. The gruesome images coupled easily with morbid humour, and the machine became a cultural icon affecting fashion, literature, and even children's toys. After the Terror, the 'Victim's Ball' became fashionable: only relatives of the executed could attend, and these guests dressed with their hair up and their necks exposed, mimicking the condemned.

For all the fear and bloodshed of the Revolution, the guillotine doesn't appear to have been hated or reviled, indeed, the contemporary nicknames, things like 'the national razor', 'the widow', and 'Madame Guillotine' seem to be more accepting than hostile. Some sections of society even referred, although probably largely in jest, to a Saint Guillotine who would save them from tyranny. It is, perhaps, crucial that the device was never associated wholly with any one single group, and that Robespierre himself was guillotined, enabling the machine to rise above petty party politics, and establish itself as an arbiter of some higher justice.

Was the Guillotine to blame?
Historians have debated whether The Terror would have been possible without the guillotine, and its widespread reputation as a humane, advanced, and altogether revolutionary piece of equipment. Although water and gunpowder laid behind much of the slaughter, the guillotine was a focal point: did the population accept this new, clinical, and merciless machine as their own, welcoming its common standards when they might have balked at mass hangings and separate, weapon based, beheadings? Given the size and death toll of other European incidents within the same decade, this might be unlikely; but whatever the situation, la guillotine had become known across Europe within only a few years of its invention.

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. European History
  4. History by Country
  5. France
  6. The French Revolution
  7. History of the Guillotine 4 - The Terror

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.