Feast Day of Saint Denis, cephalophore

1 comment October 9th, 2011 Headsman

October 9 marks the feast date of the early Christian martyr Saint Denis.

Guess how he died:


(cc) image from minifig of the saint’s statue at Notre Dame.

When this missionary bishop to Paris got the Roman chop* for his conversions sometime after 250, he scooped up his own severed noggin and carried it to his preferred burial spot.

Upon that eventual pilgrimage site would spring up a medieval basilica whose 12th century renovation turned it into a pioneer of Gothic architecture.

(Denis is also sort of the namesake for the Parisian hill Montmarte where he’s supposed to have been put to death: “mountain of Mars” in heathen times, it Christianized to mons martyrium, “Martyrs’ Mountain”.)

While many Christian martyrs carry the instruments of their martyrdom in iconography, and a few others roll with the bits of severed flesh exacted by those martyrdoms, Denis is only the most notable of an entire designated sub-class who carry their own heads: cephalophores.

This subject, seemingly tailor-made for a They Might Be Giants song, finally got one in 2011: “You Probably Get That A Lot”.


A most profane footnote was appended to our holy man’s legend during the French Revolution.

Journalist Camille Desmoulins once recklessly sneered of Robespierre‘s vain lieutenant Saint-Just, “He carries his head like a sacred host.”

Saint-Just is supposed to have retorted upon hearing the slight, “I’ll make him carry his like Saint Denis.” He did it, too.

* Two companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius, were doing the same conversions and suffered the same execution. Nobody named cathedrals after them.

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1790: Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras

Add comment February 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1790, Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras, became a penal milestone: the first French noble executed without class distinction from commoners.

At least he made history.

The scion of an ancient and penurious noble line, Favras was trying to make a different kind of history: he’d hitched onto a plot of the future Louis XVIII to reverse the still-infant French Revolution and rescue the king and queen from captivity in the Tuileries.

The royal couple were ultimately destined to escape this palatial dungeon only to the guillotine.

But in Mahy’s day, it was possible to dream of counterrevolution. And that terrifying machine of the revolution hadn’t even been invented.

For that matter, the machinery of revolutionary justice had also not been born; this was Lafayette‘s year, the revolution in its moderate phase.

It was ancien regime jurists of the Chatelet who were here appointed to judge the enemies of the nation. Having just acquitted the guy who commanded monarchist forces in Paris on Bastille Day, these establishment magistrates proceeded to throw the revolutionary left a bone by condemning Favras to the democratic capital expiration of … hanging. (Back in the good old days, he would have had the right to a beheading. Plus ça change.)

The crowd was said to be quite enthusiastic.


“Thomas de Mahy, Marquis of Favras Making Honourable Amends before Notre-Dame,” engraving by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault (French link).

Little less interested in Favras’s elimination — he was executed the day after sentence — were his fellow conspirators and other sympathetic members of the royalist party. (Future-Louis XVIII hurriedly washed his hands of the scheme.) These were quite pleased to suppress any wider exploration of

the project that this lost child of royalist enthusiasm had formed in the interest of the royal family. Among those participating in this project, but with a cowardice that is well known, were persons that an important consideration prevented from naming at the time.*

You’ve got to look forward, not back.

Despite the mob scene surrounding him as he carried his damning information to the grave, Favras had the sang-froid to remark upon being handed a copy of the order for his execution, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.”

“It can be said,” wrote Camille Desmoulins, “that all the aristocrats have been hung through him.”

And since they did such a metaphorically comprehensive job through this single unfortunate, it’s no wonder that Favras was the only aristocrat executed for counterrevolutionary activity during the entire first three years of the Revolution.*

* Barry Shapiro, “Revolutionary Justice in 1789-1790: The Comité des Recherches, the Châtelet, and the Fayettist Coalition,” French Historical Studies, Spring 1992.

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1797: Gracchus Babeuf, for the Conspiracy of Equals

Add comment May 27th, 2010 Headsman

If the “revolutionary extremist” exists at all as an identifiable type, he exists in purest incarnation in Gracchus Babeuf. No revolutionary better fits the description “narrowminded to the point of genius”; few have defined their heaven more clearly or crusaded so fanatically, ascetically, so religiously to bring it to earth.

Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist

On this date in 1797, Francois-Noel Babeuf lost his head for the Conspiracy of Equals — the last Jacobin upheaval of the French Revolution, or the first Communist upheaval of post-Revolution modernity.

Francois-Noel — he styled himself “Gracchus” after the populist Roman tribunes — was a young man of Desmoulins‘ generation but from a considerably more hardscrabble background. Like the starry-eyed Dantonist scribbler, Babeuf discovered himself a brilliant journalist and pamphleteer with the onset of the Revolution; he did several prison stints during various revolutionary phases of the early 1790s for his too-radical-for-school opinions.

He did another in 1795 under the French Directory for his firebreathing rag Le Tribun du Peuple, which was particularly unfashionable stuff during the post-Robespierre Thermidorian regime.

Nothing daunted, Babeuf emerged from prison the leading apostle of the Parisian proletariat which had by then been decisively separated from power.

The order of the day was class consolidation with the spoils of the aristocracy apportioned among a new oligarchy of wealth. As France rushed headlong towards Bonaparte and Bourbon restoration, Babeuf was the man left to rally “the party which desires the reign of pure equality.”

The French Revolution was nothing but a precursor of another revolution, one that will be bigger, more solemn, and which will be the last.

The people marched over the bodies of kings and priests who were in league against it: it will do the same to the new tyrants, the new political Tartuffes seated in the place of the old.

Manifesto of the Equals, 1796

One can see why later revolutionaries — Marx included; Babeuf makes a cameo in the Communist Manifesto — would adopt this sort of thing as a harbinger of the next century’s revolutions.

And if the Directory had known who Nicholas II would be, it would have had no intention of going the way of his family.

Instead, it shut him down in February, 1796: Napoleon Bonaparte personally carried out the operation, just days before he wed Josephine.


The Babeuf Conspiracy. Anonymous French print.

Babeuf’s party comes down to us as a “conspiracy,” under which word the state would charge him and which his follower Philippe Buonarroti would later rebrand the “Conspiracy of Equals”. It was not so much a grassy-knoll type of conspiracy as it was an underground organization.

When its adherents placarded Paris with the seditious “Analysis of the Doctrine of Babeuf” as the city endured a potentially dangerous economic crisis in April 1796, the government was put to a test of its strength.

It passed.

Having infiltrated Babeuf’s network, it arrested the principals on the eve of the Conspiracy’s intended insurrection. They were hailed out of Paris (a safeguard against sympathetic risings) to the commune of Vendome and there put on trial.* Babeuf and his associate Augustin Alexandre Darthe were condemned to death on May 26th and guillotined the very next day.

The last gasp of the French Revolution dropped with their heads into the basket.

Revolutionary Babeuvism, however, had scarcely just begun.

I don’t know what will become of the republicans, their families, and even the babies still at their mothers’ breasts, in the midst of the royalist fury that the counter-revolution will bring. O my friends! How heart-rending these thoughts are in my final moments! … To die for the fatherland, to leave a family, children, a beloved wife, all would be bearable if at the end of this I didn’t see liberty lost and all that belongs to sincere republicans wrapped in a horrible proscription.

-Babeuf’s last letter to his family

* The trial of Babeuf was itself a jurisprudential milestone: it was the first French trial to be transcribed verbatim.

What might look today like a nifty little advance for efficient judicature was bitterly controversial in 1797. The French Revolution had overturned an ancien regime practice of professional magistrates accepting legal testimony by written deposition and deciding matters behind closed doors. The liberte, egalite, fraternite way would instead demand that testimony be given live in the courtroom where citizen jurors could weigh its credibility.

Babeuf’s lawyer, Pierre-Francois Real, protested against the court stenographers, arguing that “The law insists that the system of written depositions not be restored in any way. That system will undoubtedly return if any means are used to save testimony given orally.”

There’s a fascinating disquisition on the curious and contradictory development of this issue and the way it “violates … common assumptions about the advance of textuality in the West” during the French Revolution in Laura Mason, “The ‘Bosom of Proof’: Criminal Justice and the Renewal of Oral Culture during the French Revolution” The Journal of Modern History, March 2004.

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1795: Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, Robespierre’s prosecutor

5 comments May 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, the attorney who had engineered the Terror was guillotined for engineering the Terror.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville (English Wikipedia page | French), or just plain Fouquier-Tinville, had emerged during the Revolution from penurious obscurity to wrangle a jury foreman’s position courtesy of his connection to Camille Desmoulins. When Desmoulins ally Georges Danton spearheaded creation of a Revolutionary Tribunal (French link), Fouquier-Tinville drew the choice gig of Public Prosecutor.

From that perch, he would supply the arbitrary exercises of the Committee of Public Safety their (increasingly scanty) scaffolding of formal legality in Paris’s greatest show trials.

Charlotte Corday.

The Girondists.

Marie Antoinette.

Fouquier-Tinville’s own onetime benefactors, Danton and Desmoulins. (He struggled to contain Danton’s rhetorical fireworks, as depicted in the 1983 film Danton — we see him plying his trade from about 3:29 of this clip.)

Heck … when the Terror ended, our good state’s attorney even signed off on the execution of Robespierre, with what must have been a lump in his throat. He was himself denounced within days, and narrowly preserved from the summary justice of his fellow-prisoners upon incarceration.

Naturally, like every criminal barrister since, Fouquier-Tinville’s defense was, hey, don’t blame me: the law made me do it. “I had only acted in the spirit of the laws passed by a Convention invested with all powers. Through the absence of its members [on trial], I find myself the head of a conspiracy I have never been aware of.”

Pity the lawyers.

This varietal of the only-following-orders defense did not impress in Fouquier-Tinville’s case; the Public Prosecutor had made the role too much his own.

I have been told by a gentleman who was at school with Fouquier, and has had frequent occasions of observing him at different periods since, that he always appeared to him to be a man of mild manners, and by no means likely to become the instrument of these atrocities; but a strong addiction to gaming having involved him in embarrassments, he was induced to accept the office of Public Accuser to the Tribunal, and was progressively led on from administering to the iniquity of his employers, to find a gratification in it himself.

And, indeed, he was condemned by his own hand. His lawyerly letter to the Convention during Danton’s trial — “the accused are behaving like madmen and demand the summoning of their witnesses … our judicial powers do not furnish us with any means of refusing” — duly elicited those heretofore absent powers, which the prosecutor immediately deployed to gag the defense.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville, the sinister mediocrity who gave villainy the cover of law, was guillotined this morning in 1795 to the delight of the Paris mob: the last head to roll in a batch of 16.

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1794: Georges Danton and his followers

13 comments April 5th, 2008 Headsman

At twilight this date in 1794, the most magnetic and perhaps most statesmanlike politician of the French Revolution mounted the scaffold at the Place de la Revolution in the revolution — as described by the poet Arnault:

In the dying light of day the great leader seemed to be rising out of his tomb as much as preparing to descend into it. Never was anything more bold than that great athlete’s countenance, never anything more formidable than the look of that profile which seemed to defy the knife. That great head, even as it was about to fall, appeared to be in the act of dictating laws.

The famously ugly revolutionary had been the moving spirit overthrowing the monarchy of Louis XVI in 1792; as the firmest public minister holding up against the ensuing military collapse he was for a few weeks something close to the head of the government.

Some credit him with saving Paris from military rout or internal anarchy during this time; some implicate him in the horrific September Massacres — and it may well be that neither view is mistaken.

He was destroyed by his sometime ally Robespierre — Danton had returned from semi-retirement on his farm late in 1793 to engage this losing power struggle — and the two are easily, albeit simplistically, read as yin and yang in the Revolution.

Danton’s earthy, all-too-human joie de vivre — his carnality, profanity, arrogance, venality — opposed to cold-blooded, sexless Robespierre, “the Incorruptible”; Danton’s (arguable) far-seeing vision of Revolutionary France’s place in the wider world opposed to Robespierre’s bloodthirsty peccadilloes of “virtue”. For most observers, though by no means all, the comparison profits Danton. (Just see if France ever names a warship for Robespierre.)

“We must dare, and again dare, and forever dare.”

Like many before him, most especially the Girondins who had (fatally to both parties) scorned an alliance with the Dantonists, Danton sought to arrest the revolution where he stood. The confrontation that finished him was precipitated by Danton’s attempt — with the assistance of his longtime confederate Camille Desmoulins, the most notable of the other men to lose their heads this day — to apply the brake to the excesses of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, that lethal organ he himself established as a pillar of order for a time of peril now abated. With the worst of the very real dangers to the Revolution checked, Danton in the Convention and Desmoulins in his fiery journalistic writings proposed to rein in the bloodbath and overturn the power of the sans-culottes.

The time was not yet ripe for the former, although the far-left Hebertist party preceded Danton to the guillotine by a few weeks. In this clip from the 1983 film Danton (review | another | still another (pdf)), Robespierre — who had long resisted denouncing Danton, but did it with characteristic gusto once he committed to the course — turns the terrified Convention against the title character:

Danton’s action in those last days seems vacillating, uncertain; fate devours him. For Georg Buchner in Danton’s Death (here it is free in the original German), he’s paralyzed by the contradictions and uncertainties of an unknown new world in its birth pangs, despairing as all his good-natured philosophies drench themselves in gore.

He roused himself one last time for a ferocious and hopeless defense before the Revolutionary Tribunal, coming near enough to swinging the mob in his favor that the Convention felt obliged to vote a measure to gag him.*

He went to his death this day in full character, making the most of his last turn on that stage — strutting, jesting,** boastful to the very end, prophesying (accurately) Robespierre’s imminent demise. He was the last to lose his head, having seen Desmoulins and his fellows die before him, “with such coolness as does not belong to man,” the headsman Sanson recalled. His last words were an instruction to the executioner: “Show my head to the people. It will be worth it.”

* Later codified into a regulation preventing any prisoner mounting a defense, the law would boomerang against its authors when Robespierre’s cadre was hailed before the Tribunal and condemned without a hearing.

** Another in the doomed party, Fabre d’Eglantine, was a writer who on the day of the execution complained of the loss of his verses, vers, a French word also meaning “worms.” Danton observed that he’d soon be making plenty more vers.

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