[Cross-posted from New Books in Human Rights] It seems safe to say that the guillotine occupies a macabre place in the popular imagination among the icons of France’s transition to modernity—perhaps stashed somewhere in between idealized barricades or lurking on one chronological flank of the Eiffel Tower. The guillotine’s mechanization of official killing was instrumental in carrying out the thousands of executions that made the Terror what it was. Depictions of the revolutionary period often put the guillotine at center stage: atop a platform with a raucous audience at its feet and some noble man or woman about to put on—with the executioner’s aid—the finale to their ordeal. The guillotine is also often taken as a token of France’s human rights enlightenment. It made execution swift and supposedly painless.
Such characterizations miss an essential point: The guillotine was meant to make execution disappear. France’s republican founders sought efficiency and discretion in carrying out what they saw as a necessary evil. They had come to view execution as a sort of ultimate banishment, and not as an opportunity for an object lesson. It was a tool for getting rid of people—the quicker and quieter, the better. In fact, the French government finally put an end to public executions in 1939 when one particular guillotine collided with photo journalism. No matter how speedy the blade, the shutter was faster.
Historian Paul Friedland concludes his rich and expansive new book, Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Punishment in France (Oxford University Press, 2012), by drawing back the curtain on this aspect of the guillotine’s past. Even more importantly, moreover, Friedland demonstrates that modern preoccupations with exemplary deterrence as a justification for punishment have led to distortions in how we understand public executions as they happened in the past. He begins his study in the medieval period, where he observes that public executions functioned mainly as rituals for repairing damage to the social fabric. He then follows the thread over half a millennium, tracing many evolutions in attitudes and practice, but never finding deterrence theory at work quite as some commentators have.
Paul Friedland is an affiliate of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University and a fellow of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University (2011-2012).