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Models of it [La Guillotine] were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.

This image – of the guillotine supplanting the cross – symbolizes the secularization of France (previously a Catholic country) under the Republic. This secularization – the acknowledgment of “no Religion but Liberty” – sped the adoption of the Calendar of the “New Era” (the abandonment of the calendar based on a Christian timeline), the conversion of Notre Dame (the great Catholic cathedral of Paris) into a “Temple of Reason,” the melting of church-bells into cannon, the appropriation of mass-books to cartridge-papers, and so forth (Carlyle 693-4).

…it, and the ground it most polluted, were a rotten red.

The ground “most polluted” by the guillotine was that of the Place de la Révolution in Paris. Called, before the Revolution, the Place de Louis XV, and now called the Place de la Concorde, it is situated between the Champs-Élysées and the Jardin des Tuileries (called the Jardin National during the Revolution). However, though this was the chief location of the Parisian guillotine, the site of execution was moved, at the height of the Terror, from place to place. Carlyle gives this account of the shift:

Meanwhile will not the people of the Place de la Révolution, the inhabitants along the Rue Saint-Honoré as these continual Tumbrils pass, begin to look gloomy? Republicans too have bowels. The Guillotine is shifted, then again shifted; finally set up at the remote extremity of the South-east; Suburbs Saint-Antoine and Saint-Marceau, it is to be hoped, if they have bowels, have very tough ones. (731)

The guillotine did not remain in the eastern districts, however, but was back in the Place de la Révolution by the end of the Terror: Robespierre was beheaded there (Carlyle 743). Baedeker’s Paris and Its Environs (1878) gives a descriptive and historical account of the plaza in which the guillotine chiefly stood:

The Place de la Concorde …, the most beautiful and extensive place in Paris, and one of the finest in the world, covers an area 390 y[ards] in length, by 235 y[ards] in width, bounded on the S[outh] by the Seine, on the W[est] by the Champs Elysées, on the N[orth] by the Rue de Rivoli, and on the E[ast] by the garden of the Tuileries…. The Place was completed in its present form [of 1878] in 1854…. In the middle of the [18th century] the site … was waste ground. After the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (18th Oct., 1748), which terminated the Austrian War of Succession, Louis XV “graciously permitted” the mayor and municipal authorities to erect a statue to him here. The work was at once begun by the architect Gabriel, and at length in 1763 an equestrian statue in bronze by Bouchardon, with a pedestal adorned by Pigalle with figures emblematical of Strength, Wisdom, Justice, and Peace, was erected here. The Place then received the name of Place Louis XV….

The Place was at that period surrounded by deep ditches, but these were filled up, and a balustrade substituted for them in 1852. On 30th May, 1770, during an exhibition of fireworks in honour of the marriage of the Dauphin (afterwards Louis XVI) with the Archduchess Marie Antoinette, such a panic was occasioned by the accidental discharge of some rockets, that no fewer than 1200 persons were crushed to death, or killed by being thrown into the ditches, and 2000 more severely injured.

On 11th August, 1792, the day after the capture of the Tuileries, the statue of the king was removed by order of the Legislative Assembly, melted down, and converted into pieces of two sous. A terracotta figure of the “Goddess of Liberty” was then placed on the pedestal, … while the Place was named Place de la Révolution.

On 21st Jan., 1793, the guillotine began its bloody work here with the execution of Louis XVI. On 17th July Charlotte Corday was beheaded; [in late] October Brissot, chief of the Gironde, with twenty-one of his adherents; on 16th Oct[ober] the ill-fated queen Marie Antoinette; on 14th Nov[ember] Phillipe Egalité, Duke of Orléans, father of King Louis Philippe; [in] May, 1794, Madame Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI. [In] March, through the influence of Danton and Robespierre, Hébert, the most determined opponent of all social rule, together with his partizans, also terminated his career on the scaffold here. The next victims were the adherents of Marat and the Orleanists; then [in] April Danton himself and his party, among whom was Camille Desmoulins; and [then] the atheists Chaumette and Anacharsis Cloots, and the wives of Camille Desmoulins, Hébert, and others. On 28th July 1794, Robespierre and his associates, his brother, Dumas, St. Just, and other members of the “comité de salut public” met a retributive end here; next day the same fate overtook 70 members of the Commune, whom Robespierre had employed as his tools, and on 30th July twelve other members of the same body….

Between 21st Jan., 1793, and 3rd May, 1795, upwards of 2800 persons perished here by the guillotine. A proposal afterwards made to erect a large fountain on the spot where the scaffold of Louis XVI had stood was strenuously opposed by Chateaubriand, who aptly observed that all the water in the world would not suffice to remove the blood-stains which sullied the Place. (153-5)

It is chiefly this ground, which “all the water in the world” could not wash of its blood-stains, that Dickens describes as a “rotten red.”

Click on map for larger view

The Place de la Révolution is visible on this portion of the Plan de la Ville de Paris, Période Révolutionnaire, 1790-1794, at the far left, above the Seine.

Twenty-two friends of high public mark, twenty-one living and one dead, it had lopped the heads off, in one morning, in as many minutes.

The “Twenty-two friends of high public mark” are the members of the moderate Girondin party, defeated by the Jacobin faction (of Danton, Robespierre, etc.) and guillotined on October 31, 1793. Carlyle relates the circumstances, including how Valazé, though already dead (having committed suicide), was beheaded with his fellows, in a chapter called “The Twenty-Two”:

The next are of a different colour: our poor Arrested Girondin Deputies. What of them could still be laid hold of; our Vergniaud, Brissot, Fauchet, Valazé, Gensonné; the once flower of French Patriotism, Twenty-two by the tale…. [T]he Sentence on one and all of them is, Death with confiscation of goods….

[O]n the morrow morning all Paris is out; such a crowd as no man had seen. The Death-carts, Valazé’s cold corpse stretched among the yet living Twenty-one, roll along. Bareheaded, hands bound; in their shirt-sleeves, coat flung loosely round the neck; so fare the eloquent of France; bemurmured, beshouted. To the shouts of Vive la République, some of them keep answering with counter-shouts of Vive la République. Others, as Brissot, sit sunk in silence. At the foot of the scaffold they again strike up, with appropriate variations, the Hymn of the Marseillese [a patriotic song]. Such an act of music; conceive it well! The yet Living chant there; the chorus so rapidly wearing weak! Samson’s axe is rapid; one head per minute, or little less. The chorus is wearing weak; the chorus is worn out; – farewell for evermore, ye Girondins. Te-Deum Fauchet has become silent; Valazé’s dead head is lopped: the sickle of the Guillotine has reaped the Girondins all away. (671-3)

So much more wicked and distracted had the Revolution grown in that December month, that the rivers of the South were encumbered with the bodies of the violently drowned by night, and prisoners were shot in lines and squares under the southern wintry sun.

Though Dickens’ reference to the “rivers of the South encumbered with bodies” is often glossed as a reference to the Republican (Jacobin) suppression of Lyons, a Girondin-supporting region of southern France (Sanders 145, Maxwell 472), Lyons was suppressed in October of 1793 – not December. There were bodies in the southern rivers as the Republic put down Lyons – Carlyle writes that “Revolutionary Tribunal [t]here, and Military Commission, guillotining, fusillading, do what they can: the kennels of the Place de Terreaux run red; mangled corpses roll down the Rhone” (686-8). However, Dickens seems to be referring to another set of bodies – those drowned in the first “Noyades” of December 1793 at Nantes:

One begins to be sick of “death vomited in great floods.” Nevertheless, hearest thou not, O Reader (for the sound reaches through centuries), in the dead December and January nights, over Nantes Town, – confused noises, as of musketry and tumult, as of rage and lamentation; mingling with the everlasting moan of the Loire waters there? Nantes Town is sunk in sleep; but Représentant Carrier is not sleeping, the wool-capped Company of Marat is not sleeping. Why unmoors that flatbottomed craft, that gabarre; about eleven at night; with Ninety Priests under hatches? They are going to Belle Isle? In the middle of the Loire stream, on signal given, the gabarre is scuttled; she sinks with all her cargo. “Sentence of Deportation,” writes Carrier, “was executed vertically.” The Ninety Priests, with their gabarre-coffin, lie deep! It is the first of the Noyades, what we may call Drownages, of Carrier; which have become famous for ever.

Guillotining there was at Nantes, till the Headsman sank worn out: then fusillading “in the Plain of Saint-Mauve”; little children fusilladed, and women with children at the breast; children and women, by the hundred and twenty; and by the five hundred, so hot is La Vendée: till the very Jacobins grew sick, and all but the Company of Marat cried, Hold! Wherefore now we have got Noyading; and on the 24th night of Frostarious year 2, which is 14th of December, 1793, we have a second Noyade; consisting of “a Hundred and Thirty-eight persons.”

Or why waste a gabarre, sinking it with them? Fling them out; fling them out, with their hands tied…. [w]omen and men are tied together, feet and feet, hands and hands; and flung in: this they call Mariage Républicain, Republican Marriage. (Carlyle 691-2)

These “Noyades” seem to be the December drownings to which Dickens refers, though he may well be conflating the atrocities of Nantes with those of Lyons. Nantes, it will be remarked, is not properly in the South of France, and thus does not fall under a “southern wintry sun”; however, like Lyons, Nantes is on a river (the Loire), it was (again, like Lyon) in revolt against the Republic, and it is, if not in the South of France, at any rate south of Paris. Furthermore, Dickens’ geographical conflation follows Carlyle’s own grouping of events. The opening paragraph of the chapter in which Carlyle discusses the suppression of Lyons and Nantes runs as follows:

The suspect may well tremble, but how much more the open rebels; the Girondin Cities of the South! Revolutionary Army is gone forth, under Ronsin the Playwright; six thousand strong, … and has portable guillotines. Representative Carrier has got to Nantes, by the edge of blazing La Vendée, which Rossignol has literally set on fire: Carrier will try what captives you make; what accomplices they have, Royalists or Girondin: his guillotine goes always, va toujours; and his wool-capped “Company of Marat.” (685)

Carlyle, like Dickens after him, groups Nantes with the “Girondin Cities of the South.”

The billet fell as he spoke, and he threw it into a basket. “I call myself the Samson of the firewood guillotine.”

A “billet,” in this sense, is “[a] thick piece of wood cut to a suitable length for fuel” (OED); and the woodman calls himself the “Samson of the firewood guillotine” because he – like the public executioner – cuts or shaves. In French, of course, a “billet” is also a ticket, note or letter. The alternate meanings of the word may suggest that this Samson does double duty – first as a woodman, and second as an informer.

On a lightly-snowing afternoon she arrived at the usual corner. It was a day of some wild rejoicing, and a festival.

This winter day of “wild rejoicing” is probably based upon the festivities of November 10, 1793 (or, more generally, November and December 1793), when – following the widespread renunciation by priests and curates of the Catholic religion (in favor of the “Fraternal embrace” and “no Religion but Liberty” [Carlyle 694]) – a procession of citizens, having despoiled the churches, jubilantly visited the National Convention. Carlyle describes this parade, and the events leading up to it, as follows:

From afar and near, all through November into December, till the work is accomplished, come Letters of renegation, come Curates who “are learning to be Carpenters,” Curates with their new-wedded Nuns: has not the day of Reason dawned, very swiftly, and become noon?… This ... is what the streets of Paris saw:

“Most of these people were still drunk, with the brandy they had swallowed out of chalices; – eating mackerel on the patenas! Mounted on Asses, which were housed with Priests’ cloaks, they reined them with Priests’ stoles; they held clutched with the same hand communion-cup and sacred wafer. They stopped at the doors of Dram-shops; held out ciboriums: and the landlord, stoop in hand, had to fill them thrice. Next came Mules high-laden with crosses, chandeliers, censers, holy-water vessels, hyssops; – recalling to mind the Priests of Cybele, whose panniers, filled with the instruments of their worship, served at once as storehouse, sacristy, and temple.  In such equipage did these profaners advance towards the Convention. They enter there, in an immense train, ranged in two rows; all masked like mummers in fantastic sacerdotal vestments; bearing on hand-barrows their heaped plunder, – ciboriums, suns, candelabras, plates of gold and sliver.” [Carlyle’s source here is Mercier on the “Séance of 10 Novembre.”]

The Address we do not give; for indeed it was in strophes, sung vivâ voce, with all the parts; – Danton glooming considerably, in his place; and demanding that there be prose and decency in future. Nevertheless the captors of such spolia opima crave, not untouched with liquor, permission to dance the Carmagnole also on the spot: whereto an exhilarated Convention cannot but accede. Nay “several Members,” continues the exaggerative Mercier, who was not there to witness…, “several Members, quitting their curule chairs, took the hand of girls flaunting in Priests’ vestures, and danced the Carmagnole along with them.” Such Old-Hallowtide have they, in this year, once named of Grace 1793. (694-6)

Though probably based on the sacrilegious festivities of November 10, the day of “wild rejoicing” to which Dickens refers could be any day in November or December 1793 – the interval in which Catholicism was widely denounced (even by its most reverend members) in favor of “Liberty” and “Reason.” The disapprobation implied in Carlyle’s reference to the year “once named of Grace 1793” (emphasis added) is reflected in Dickens’ representation of the festivities as sinister and disturbing. Under the New Calendar of the New Era of the French Republic, the Christian holidays were of course thrown out, replaced by occasional secularized holidays. Indeed, having divided the year into twelve months of thirty days each, the New Calendar had five days left over. These five days became a festival period, to be added to the end of “Fructidor” (August in the “old” calendar). Carlyle explains this part of the calendar as follows:

Four equal Seasons, Twelve equal Months of Thirty days each; this makes three hundred and sixty days; and five odd days remain to be disposed of. The five odd days we will make Festivals, and name the five Sansculottides, or Days without Breeches [the revolutionaries were called “sansculottes” because they did not wear knee-breeches like the aristocracy]. Festival of Genius; Festival of Labour; of Actions; of Rewards; of Opinion; these are the five Sansculottides. Whereby the great Circle, or Year, is made complete: solely every fourth year, whilom called Leap-year, we introduce a sixth Sansculottide: and name it Festival of the Revolution. (660)



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