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Free «The Rise of the Guillotine» Essay Sample

Death sentence has been abolished in the majority of Western states. Yet up to the middle of the 20th century, it has been a common sentence across Europe. Guillotining was one of the common methods of execution. It might be hard to believe, but the last execution has happened in France only in 1977.

This paper examines the history of guillotine and its rebirth in times of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Although the French did not invent guillotine and similar devices have been known for at least four centuries before the machine was created by Tobias Schmidt, their contribution in the popularization of guillotine was enormous (Croker 550). It was only after the French Revolution that guillotine became a popular method of execution all over Europe.

This analysis of the French Revolution, its reasons, and the Reign of Terror that has followed shortly, shows how the idea of guillotine was proposed, developed, and implemented. Moreover, this research shows the pre-guillotine machines, as well the history of guillotine from the times of French Revolution and up to the 20th century. Therefore, this research covers different stages of the machine’s development, as well as some significant historical events that accompanied the development of guillotine.



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1. Guillotine before the French Revolution

Beheading and the guillotine-like machines have existed long before the French Revolution. Beheading as a type of execution has been in use since ancient times, but at that point it was used only for noble citizens. Back in the ancient Greece, Xenophon defined beheading as a punishment for criminals of a high-class origin (Kershaw 73). Thus, beheading has a long history throughout ages.

Machines, which can be called predecessors of the guillotine, have existed al least since early 14th century. The first material evidence of a device, which worked similarly to the guillotine, dates back to the 1307 (Arasse 27). The British Museum has a picture that portrays an execution of Murcord Ballagh in Ireland. The device used is very similar to guillotine. The next machine, the Halifax Gibbet, was used in a British city with a similar name. The use of this device can be dated to the late 13th century and up to the 1650’s (“The Guillotine 1792 – 1977”). Later on, a similar machine was built in Edinburgh under the name of the Maiden and remained in use until 1710 (Croker 542). The cases of implementation of guillotine-like executions have been also documented in Italy and Germany.

Although Guillotine with its current name is a device commonly attributed to the times of French Revolution, while in fact its history is much longer. Therefore, French cannot be called the inventors of guillotine. Still, the French Revolution has played a huge role in the popularization of this form of execution. The role of French Revolution in the development of guillotine will be discussed in next paragraphs.

2. The French Revolution

The French Revolution (also known as the Revolution of 1789), as many other radical changes in society, has started because those at power could not meet the needs of the society. In this case King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were not able to keep control over France. As a result, a revolution, which has started in 1787, reached its climax in two years with the attack on the Bastille and ended in the late 1790’s.

There were many reasons, which led to the revolution of 1789, both internal and external. Firstly, with the economic growth and industrialization of the 18th century, a new social class was developed – the bourgeoisie. Although it became the main economic supporter of the country, bourgeoisie was still excluded from the decision-making positions and political power. Secondly, crop failures and poor harvests over a number of years have led to hunger of poor majority of the population. Thirdly, the country went almost bankrupt after participation in the American Revolution (Conner 246). Moreover, this change in the New World has served as an example for French revolutionist. At the same time, the Royal Court was either not aware or ignorant of the problems of the population. Probably, the last reason was the spread of Enlightenment ideas, as in France the works of philosophers were widespread. Incompetence of the royal power has combined with the economic crisis and social instability. It was a point at which almost all social classes were dissatisfied with the existing course of the country.

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The first trigger for the revolution was a proposal to increase taxation of the privileged population. The assembly of noble citizens, which was presented this proposal, has refused. Nevertheless, this financial reform was implemented, which has led to the dissatisfaction of noble citizens and unrest in large cities. This was the beginning of the French Revolution.

3. The Reign of Terror

During the French Revolution terror existed in a number of different forms. But ‘the Reign of Terror’ continued for a year – from summer 1793 to summer 1794. It was the time when Jacobins, led by Robespierre, were at power. The most significant feature of this period was that its legalization on the state level. Two main goals of the Jacobins were the establishment of the ideology of Revolution in France and winning both wars (including the civil war). They have tried to achieve it by using terror.

Dr. Marisa Linton of Kingston University specifies three main reasons of the Terror: strength of opposition, lack of parliamentary tradition, and war that began in 1972 (24). Firstly, the counter-revolutionary opposition was constantly growing in France through 1791-93, and the force at power was not always able to cope with it efficiently.  Secondly, as France has rapidly moved from absolute monarchy to democratic state, people were not used to the new form of governance. Such practices as a majority voting, political parties with different points of view, and people as the main decision-maker were totally new for French people. Without a tradition of parliamentary state, the French did not take into account the existence of legitimate opposition. As a result, all political opinions, which opposed the popular sovereignty, were considered conspirators and, thus, severely punished. Lastly, the war that started in 1972, created the danger of the invasion of counter-revolutionary noblemen who were supported by powers in Britain, Austria, Spain, and Prussia. These three reasons led to establishment of a harsh militarized regime in France.

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As terror was institutionalized and legitimized, a number of bodies were established to control the Reign of Terror. The Committee of Public Safety was the main executive body. It consisted of twelve elected members and worked as a form of cabinet of ministers. The Committee of General Security can be as well called a “Ministry of Terror,” as it was responsible for the coordination of police and revolutionary justice (Linton 25). There has also been a legislative authority – the National Convention. But in the year of Jacobin rule it was not able to question the decisions of the Committees of Public Safety and General Security.

Although the Jacobins have at first drawn a constitution, the Law of Suspects soon replaced it. This new document has served as the basis for the terrorist legislation. According to the Law of Suspects, terror became a part of the everyday life of the French. A bit later the Law of Frimaire has ensured that the ruling Committees had even more power. Finally, the Law of Prairial was created to speed up the trial process (Arasse 112). According to this law, there were only two sentences – either acquittal or death. As a result, in the time of the Reign of Terror the total number of death sentences in France was more than sixteen thousand (Linton 24).

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Although the Reign of Terror has lasted for a bit more than a year, its consequences were devastating. Many people were either killed or imprisoned for conspiracy and counter-revolutionary actions. The country got even weaker as it has suffered not only from two wars, but also from the constant terrorist actions. The most significant implication for this research was the speed of executions in France that has called upon the introduction of a new, faster and more efficient method – the guillotine. 

4. Punishments before Guillotine

As it was already stated, for a long time decapitation was a punishment only for noble citizens. Peasants have experienced much more painful deaths. Ordinary prisoners in France were hanged, burned, or broken on the wheel. All these forms of punishment were extremely painful and took quite a long time to execute. Thus, ordinary citizens were deprived of a decent death and had to suffer a lot (Croker 525). Burning has at first been introduced as a punishment for women convicted as witches. As a result, throughout that period of time hundreds of thousands of women were burned at the stake. The wheel was both used as a weapon of torture and execution. This was an extremely cruel form of execution, which was especially popular in Middle Ages. Slow hanging was another way for both torture and execution. Although all these forms of capital punishment differ, they all included torture and long and painful death.

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5. Guillotine in times of the French Revolution

Despite the common misperception, Dr. Guillotin, whose name was given to the device, did not invent the machine. Being a member of the Constituent Assembly, the doctor just proposed the Assembly to behead all prisoners despite their origin. Moreover, this type of execution would make the process less painful, more humane, and would be based on the idea of equality (Croker 523). Noting that the majority of prisoners and those sentenced to death were ordinary peasants, the introduction of a common way of execution sounded efficient. The members of the Assembly accepted this type of execution.

The main problem would be to find the respected amount of executioners, because only a very skilled and strong person could behead a person in one stroke. Taking into consideration the growing number of death sentences in France, it was obvious that a machine was required for this task. Dr. Antoine Louis was invited as an expert on building the guillotine. A German engineer Tobias Schmidt built the first machine in Paris in 1792. After a number of tests on dead bodies the first execution was conducted on the 25th of April, 1792 (Croker 533).

During the Reign of Terror only in Paris 1,225 people were executed using guillotine. Place de Greve was used for ordinary criminals, while those convicted of political crimes were executed at the Place de Carrousel. Then, for the first time in history, a guillotine was erected on the Place de Revolution for the execution of King Louis XVI. He has probably become the most famous person executed on a guillotine.

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Not only men got death sentences. The two most famous women of the French Revolution have also died on the Place de Revolution guillotine. The first one was Marie Antoinette, king’s wife. The second was Charlotte Corday. She is famous for killing Jean-Paul Marat, one of the leaders of French Revolution (Croker 561). In fact, before the 20th century not many women were beheaded on a guillotine.

It is essential to note that Robespierre and the Jacobins were really fond of the new invention. In 1794, the Jacobin leader and 21 of his followers were executed on the guillotine (Arasse 186). This has happened on the same Place de Revolution, where Robespierre had witnessed the execution of King Louis XVI a year and a half earlier.

Indeed, the guillotine was reinvented in times of the French Revolution. And it has never been as popular as during that period. Many famous people were executed on a guillotine as well as much more ordinary criminals. The introduction of guillotine as a common form of an execution was the main achievement of Dr. Guillotin. This idea immortalized his name in regards to the machine.

6. Later Development of the Guillotine

After the growth of the popularity of a guillotine in France, many other countries have introduced this form of punishment. Except European states, this type of execution was also introduced in Algeria, Tunisia, Vietnam, and Indo China, which all have been under French control. Moreover, even the Papal States in Italy have used guillotine in 1814-1870 and in this period have executed almost 400 criminals (“The Guillotine 1792 – 1977”). In fact, guillotine was commonly used throughout Europe till the middle of the 20th century. It was widely used in times of the Nazi regime in Germany and Austria, and twenty guillotines were built for this purpose in German and Austrian prisons.

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Although guillotines were used in France up to the second half of the 20th century, the procedures have changed. Until the death penalty abolishment more than 200 men and women were executed in France. It is interesting that although the first death sentences for women were quite uncommon, the majority of them have happened in the 20th century (Conner 253).

Up until 1939 people were guillotined publicly. A guillotine was constructed in front of a prison overnight. But ordinary observers could not see much as a tight circle of police officers surrounded the guillotine. Only reporters and specially invited witnesses were permitted within the police circle. On the 17th of June, 1939, the last public execution took place in France (Kershaw 35).

The last ever person executed on guillotine was Hamida Djandoubi. He was convicted of murder, torture, and rape of a woman, Elisabeth Bousquet. The execution happened in Baumettes Prison in Marseilles in September 1977 (“The Guillotine 1792 – 1977”). Moreover, Djandoubi was the last person to suffer capital punishment among the original EU Member States.

7. Conclusion

The history of guillotine and guillotine-like devices dates back to the 14th century. Similar machines were introduced throughout Europe. But only the French Revolution had popularized guillotine as a common form of execution. Following the ideas of humanity and equality, Dr. Guillotin proposed to make beheading a form of execution for all criminals sentenced to death. It was made of good intentions, as beheading was the least painful form of execution at that point.

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The French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, which followed afterwards, became dangerous and bloody times. France was torn apart by a civil war; at the same time the country has entered the war with other European states. Therefore, after the construction of guillotines the revolutionaries commonly used these new executional machines. Apart from the thousands of ordinary criminals, King Louis XVI as well as his wife Marie Antoinette were executed by the Jacobins. However, shortly after that Robespierre and his followers have suffered the same death on the same Place de Revolution.

In the centuries after the French Revolution guillotine was a popular device for executions all over Europe. Guillotining continued even in the 20th century. It is hard to believe, but the last public execution happened in France in 1939, and the last guillotining was conducted in 1977. Guillotine is a device with a long history. But it is not as ancient as some might think. The last execution with guillotine has happened only 35 years ago and that is already a modern history! 


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