Punishment or Privilege?

While researching the period around the French Revolution, I came upon a reference to the guillotine which gave an unusual insight into the thought processes of the historical figures I delve into. I did find it quite a novel point of view and one that had never crossed my mind.

To me, the French Revolution, more particularly the time known as la Terreur, has always epitomised bloodshed and barbarism on a scale only equalled by the Roman gladiatorial contests in the coliseum. Shuddering through the blood-spattered pages of A Tale of Two Cities, I would hardly have thought it a privilege to mount the gory steps of Madame la Guillotine, attended by such notorious tricoteuses as Madame Defarge and a cheering pack of rabid and bloodthirsty sightseers in the Place de la Revolution, previously known as the Place Louis XV( now the Place de la Concorde).

Although similar devices had been used in Scotland and other European countries, its invention has been attributed to Antoine Louis. First called Louisette or Louison, it was later named after the gentleman instrumental in passing a law requiring its use in France for capital punishment. It was experimentally tried out on cadavers but the first living person to be guillotined was a highwayman, on April 25, 1792 in the Place de Grève.

But listen to this reason given by French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a member of the National Assembly at the time, for the introduction of the guillotine into France in 1792:

He said that all death sentences should be carried out by ‘means of a machine’ so that ‘the privilege of execution by decapitation’ would be available to all; and that the process of execution would be as painless as possible.

It would seem that decapitation as a form of punishment was reserved for the nobility; while common people were hung with grisly alternatives depending on the severity of the crime. Thus, decapitation appears to have been regarded as one of the many privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy. Certainly, it was one which a great number experienced during la Terreur. And while I can think of several terms to describe the process of the guillotine, privilege is not one that springs readily to my pen.

Painless? Perhaps. No-one has been able to come back to tell us. But privilege? I would hardly have thought so. And neither, I suspect, would the unfortunate souls deemed enemies of the Republic and brought in tumbrils through jeering crowds to end their lives in humiliation and despair. Although it surely has it over being hung, drawn and quartered (what kind of evil mind could dream up that one?), another gruesome alternative for the non-aristocracy, along with being burnt at the stake and broken on the wheel(thankfully banned by Louis XV).

The French Revolution may not have totally succeeded in its ideals for equality in life and most definitely not for women. But I have to hand it to the Revolutionists: Madame la Guillotine certainly ensured equality in death.