What about that “off-with-his-head” thing?

Reader Kevin, who I’m beginning to suspect is writing a term paper on the French Revolution, writes again to ask what led to the Reign of Terror. It’s another great question to which again there may be no easy answer. But I’m always up for flappin’ my fingers on the subject of history…I’ll give it a try. Jump in, proper historians, since I’m bound to slip up at some point here.

It’s popularly thought, at least here in the States, that the Terror happened in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. The peasants stormed the Bastille one day and started chopping off heads the next. In point of fact it did not happen that way. It took another four years from the time of the initial uprisings in Paris to the ascension of Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobins and the guillotine. The intervening years were rather moderate. Various forms of representative democracy were tried, including a British-style constitutional monarchy which failed, leading to the execution of King Louis XVI in early 1793.

So then what kicked off the Terror? Some historians theorize that it arose from popular frustration, when the promised reforms of the French Revolution didn’t materialize in the first few years, sentiment boiled over and the head-chopping began. It may also be the case that after other alternative forms of government had failed, the radical approach of Robespierre was the only thing that hadn’t been tried. Whatever the case, once the Jacobins seized power and centralized it under their Committee of Public Safety, a de-facto dictatorship was created and the regime began to systematically kill off its opponents.

These opponents included of course the aristocracy and the clergy, who we beheaded by the thousands, as well as the opposing moderates who still remained in the government, the so-called Girondists. Yet to me the truly striking feature of the Reign of Terror wasn’t the number of aristocrats, priests and politicians who were executed, but the number of peasant and middle-class folks who were also put to the blade, people who — for offenses large and small — were labeled “enemies of the revolution” and sentenced to death. These ordinary French men and women accounted for some 75% of the 40,000 deaths the occurred during the Terror.

Was that “justice”? In the view of Robespierre, and most of the rest of the Jacobins, it was. “Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible,” he said.

But why did the Jacobins start killing ordinary citizens? All you can really say is that once a bloodbath like the Terror starts, it’s awfully hard to stop. To me the ultimate symbol of the depravity of the Terror is a fellow by the name of Jean Paul Marat. Marat was a twisted pseudo-journalist who, because of a skin condition, sat in a bathtub all day writing out long lists of names: people who would eventually be targeted for arrest and execution. Most of them Marat never knew — he’d only heard of them — but that didn’t stop him from writing and writing his lists, which eventually became orders, which turned into tribunals, then trips to the block.

Fortunately for France a young woman by the name of Charlotte Corday took the Marat matter into her own hands. A revolutionary but of a milder sort, Corday like a great many of her countrymen wanted a more egalitarian future but had had enough of the Jacobins and their constant bloodlettings. So she called on Marat one day, ostensibly to supply him with information on a brewing rebellion, and stabbed him in his tub. You’ve probably seen this famous painting of the incident. Similar fates befell many of Marat’s ilk including Robespierre himself, once the French people began to rise up against the constant killing and other ideological flights of fancy. Robespierre was shot in the jaw before being guillotined in 1794.

That was the end of the Terror though not of the Revolution which officially continued to 1799, the year when Napoleon Bonaparte ultimately staged a coup and…well that’s whole ‘nother story, non?

16 thoughts on “What about that “off-with-his-head” thing?”

  1. Thanks for that. I had no idea of that period of calm or that so many of the less fortunate where also guillotined.

    I wonder how much A Tale of Two Cities (1859) has colored our view of history or if it had already been distorted in the 70 or so intervening years leaving Charles Dickens with the interpretation he wrote.

    1. That’s a really interesting question. It’s a terrific novel, but now that you mention it I wonder how closely it tracks with real events? That would be an interesting study!

      Thanks, Rainey!

      – Joe

  2. I want to see the citations in that paper: Pastry, Joe. joepastry.com, “What About That Off With His Head Thing” 2/4/14.

  3. Fantastic little bit of history there. We’ve been to the Place de la Concorde and I just wondered how many people lost their heads there. All I can say is that, while I do not condone murder, thank goodness for Corday.

    1. Indeed! I think there were something like 17,000 beheadings over the course of the Terror, though how many occurred at the Place de la Concorde I don’t know. Thousands surely. I’ve been there as well and it’s a bit disturbing to consider what the place was like in 1793!

      Thanks “Mom”!

      – Joe

  4. One comment on Corday’s killing of Marat. She went to his house at about 9 in the morning, but was refused admission because she did not have an appointment. So she went to the local post office, wrote a letter to Marat asking for an appointment at 1:30 that afternoon, saying she had information that he should know about.

    She showed up at his door at half past one and was admitted because she was on the appointment list. When she and Marat were alone together, she stabbed him.

    What fascinates me is that she could post a letter, with the fully justified expectation that it would be delivered the same morning.

    I would also point out that the Terror didn’t actually start until the beginning of June 1793 with the Law of Suspects and Marat was killed at the end of that month. It really got rolling when Robespierre pushed the Law of 22 Prairial, which forbade prisoners to employ counsel for their defence, suppressed the hearing of witnesses and made death the sole penalty through the National Assembly. This law was passed nearly a year after Marat’s death, so calling him “the ultimate symbol of the depravity of the Terror” is untrue. That title should go to Robespierre or possibly Saint-Just.

    1. Fair enough, John! I shall call him a symbol of the “depravity of the Jacobins”. Good? 😉

      Great information there. That was a hell of a postal service they had!

      – Joe

  5. It was considered a matter of decency and a show of your breeding and courage to go to the blade stoically. For a long time many went with their shoulders square and a calm demeanor. Near the end however one prisoner became hysterical, she fought the executioner, wailed about her soon to be orphaned children, loudly proclaimed her innocence and generally made a mess of what had been a much more civil event. It so shocked the crowd that they started demanding an end to the madness. Somehow it just wasn’t so much fun anymore once it was obvious that the victim was not so pleased at being there & may not have been OK with it.

  6. A great, subtle novel set in the French Revolution is Hilary Mantel’s A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY. (Mantel’s best-selling, prize-winning, recent WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, set in the England of Henry VIII, are wonderful books too.)

  7. Hi, Joe-

    Send Kevin to his local public/school/university library. They have (or should have!) reference staff ready and willing to assist Kevin with locating high quality academic sources had his teachers/profs would be happy to see in his paper. I like your posts for spurring readers on to dig a bit deeper on the historical topics!!

    I speak from experience as I’m one if those people ready and willing to help my students!

    Long live libraries!!

    1. Amen Squirrellus! If that IS your real name…

      Are you saying that “Pastry, Joe, What about that “off-with-his-head” thing?. Kentucky: WordPress, 2013. Blog. ” might not cut the mustard?

      But seriously, in a day and age when no one seems to care much about history, knowledgeable reference staff are worth their weight in gold! Thanks for checking in with a well-timed reminder about an institution we all take for granted in the age of Wikipedia!


      – Joe

      1. Hi, Joe-

        Due to your comment, I may have difficulty getting my swelled head in the front door of my library! I shall print out your response and post in our staff room – we need/want all the love we can get!

        Libraries in the States also need all the foot/book circulation/web traffic they can get, otherwise the dreaded word “closure” rears it’s ugly head.

        Sq (as you’ve guessed not my real name, but a real librarian!)
        : )

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