Reign of Terror: A Bastille-Day Meditation

Bastille Day, July 14, is the central holiday of the French Republic. Whether celebrated, condemned, or grudgingly justified in the name of some higher purpose, in terms of the human cost and moral depravity, the largest-scale massacres known to Europe were carried out during the French Revolution. It was the darkest event in the history of Europe until that time. A summary of events, as such, is called for. No ideology, no judgment.

The historical archives of the Reign of Terror were largely destroyed in 1919, but it is no longer disputed that—excluding the war in the Vendée—there were approximately 42,000 victims of the Terror in France. Two-thirds were guillotined; the rest were shot, hanged, lynched, drowned, bayoneted, or, in some cases, burned or skinned alive.

The Vendée was a precursor of the 20th-century genocides, taking about 600,000 lives in a population of just over a million. Of that number, approximately one-half died from state-induced cold and starvation, including at least 100,000 children. Almost precisely 18,000 republican soldiers and at least 80,000 monarchists died in the fighting, while 210,000 civilians were “liquidated” by the State (figures from the Encyclopaedia Quid, 1985).

The manner in which the murders were carried out is as impressive as their number. The desire of revolutionary killers to dip their hands in the blood of their victims is fascinating. In Les Martyrs de la Révolution Francaise, Ivan Gorby describes many of the gory details. For example, Mathieu Jouve Jourdan, “the head cutter,” sawed off the head of the Marquis de Launay. The grand executioner Jouve, who personally slaughtered 621 people, made sure that his hands were always soaked in blood, as when he cut off the legs and arms of a wine merchant and then proceeded to wash his hands in the resulting red puddle.

During the martyrdom of Fr. Pierre de Lartigue, a woman shot the priest in his face with a rifle, another cut off his head, and their accomplices immediately rushed to soak their clothes in his warm blood. In Vance in 1792, three priests were butchered piece by piece. After the martyrdom of Fr. Claude-François Guilhermet, his remains—head, tongue, fingers—were scattered on the tables of nearby cafes or hung on tricolor ribbons in the street.

During 1792 to 1793, when the Paris mob dismembered their victims, some women cut off the genitals and made coin bags out of them. In the Vendée village of Saint-Germain, 17-year-old Marie Papin was cut to small pieces and spread around because she refused to reveal the hiding place of monarchist outlaws. In Reims, severed limbs were occasionally roasted on a spit. If the relatives of the victims were nearby, the butchers would rush to show them the severed heads. In Paris, they beheaded the baker Foulon, put his head on a spear, and showed it to his pregnant wife, who fainted at the sight; they waited for her to regain consciousness, and then they forced her to kiss the head.

Desecration of corpses, especially those of women, was a favorite. Over the decapitated corpse of the Duchesse de Lamballe, who did not want to renounce the king and queen, a riotous crowd performed gruesome sexual orgies, and they carried her head on a spear by the window of the captive royal family.

As for cannibalism, as early as August 1789, one officer who tried to stop a street riot in Caen was cut into pieces and eaten. In August 1792, women in the Parisian mob eagerly grabbed and devoured bloody pieces of flesh from their victims, without waiting to roast them on a spit. The actor Grammont was famous for breaking the skulls of the guillotined, extracting their brains, then pouring their blood into the mix and drinking it like wine from a goblet.

The longer the Terror lasted, the more creative the revolutionaries became. While in August 1792 the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre was merely thrown out of the window by the sans-culottes, later on, an officer of the King’s Guard was dragged naked through the streets for half an hour, stabbed with sabers and bayonets but in such a way that they did not inflict a single mortal wound. Seeing that he was dying, the tormentors managed to flay him alive at the last moment.

During the Terror in Lyon in 1793, the guillotine was not fast enough, so mass shooting was needed. As there were always a few survivors in the piles of riddled bodies, the commander would exclaim, “Whoever is alive, let him stand up: the Republic forgives him!”—with predictable results. Hundreds of shackled unfortunates were loaded onto the bottom of a ship, and when it was taken to the middle of the river, the bulkheads would be opened to drown them. Boats with armed guards followed the ship so that any survivors would be killed immediately if they floated to the surface. And yes, for fun they practiced the “republican wedding.” Young men and women were tied to each other, stark naked, and thrown into the water as one.

The republicans in the Vendée did not bury the corpses of their victims but left them to rot on the spot—in dungeons or in open air. The historian G. Lenotre toured the Vendée and noted, in Les Noyades de Nantes, that in Gigaut “the corpses were piled up, mixed and naked: no one bothers to bury them.” Debourges, an officer of the 6th Battalion of the National Guard, discovered 75 rotting female corpses scattered by the river, face down, all of them 15 to 18 years old. A blacksmith from Nantes, Bourdet, saw a pile of 80 corpses rotting for three days. Binet, a Guard battalion commander, had before him the sight of 30 female corpses, naked and butchered.

Lenotre adds that the consequence of those unhygienic conditions was a plague epidemic that killed thousands of the surviving inhabitants of the Vendée.

And so on, ad nauseamVive la Republique!

Image: “The Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789”
(painting by H. Jannin / Museum of the French Revolution)

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