The Guillotine: Enlightenment technology gone awry.

Bastille Day has got our Editor, Stephanie Brown, thinking about the guillotine. 

Bastille Day marks the Storming of the Bastille in 1789, a turning point in the French Revolution. While celebrating la Fête nationale, the violence of the Revolution can often be overlooked.

In the same year as the Bastille was stormed, Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin recommended what we now know as ‘the guillotine’ for use in state executions. It was supposed to be a modern and humane product of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

The Guillotine was by no means a novel device; decapitation machines were known across Europe before the Revolution. Dr Guillotin proposed only slight amendments to machines used in medieval Halifax, Renaissance Italy and early modern Germany.

It was very difficult to find people to build it, some of those who did come forward wanted to remain anonymous. The machine was finally built in Spring 1792 by Tobias Schmidt, a piano-maker. It took it less than a week and cost 960 livres.

The guillotine’s first victim was Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, who had been sitting in prison since January 1791. He was executed on 25 April 1792 for stealing 800 livres, less than the cost of the machine that executed him. After this, 82 machines were commissioned, one for each department.

A guillotine at the Waterloo Memorial 1815

Shuddering at its reality, Dr Guillotin attempted to dissociate himself from the device. He was horrified to learn that it had taken his name and he even went so far as to prescribed suicide tablets to his friends, in case they were ever unfortunate enough to be a victim of the machine. The guillotine became known as ‘the Bastard daughter of the Enlightenment.’

During the Terror, the guillotine completed its transformation from a well-intentioned proposal, into a tool for political violence and mass murder. Some historians argue that the Terror’s events should not shade us from the guillotine’s founding principles. Other historians have questioned these principles stating that the guillotine was created ‘not to punish less but to punish better.’

The guillotine caused horrific scenes. The rational men behind this ‘humane’ technology failed to anticipate of the rivers of blood produced by the guillotine. People complained about blood flowing in the streets and the noxious stench. Executioners had to replace their clothes as they were covered in blood. These scenes were unprecedented, even with some of the cruel execution methods of the ancien regime.  


The only thing to catch the head… and blood.

The guillotine was supposed to produce an instant and painless death. Yet, it has been argued that it did the exact opposite. There was scientific agreement that bodies and heads moved after the execution and that the brain could receive sensations from amputated parts. Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, a supporter of the guillotine, admitted that death was not instantaneous and believed that both the body and the head suffered after separation.

German physician, Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring, stated that hanging was a much less painful death as it induces a state of sleep, whereas the blade of the guillotine crushed the vertebrae with its weight rather than cutting.

Finally, the main reason that the guillotine failed as a humane piece of technology is that is facilitated mass executions. It was described as a ‘relentless mechanical decapitator which made the streets of Paris run with blood.’ The executioner called for new technology as the old methods would have been unable to cope with the numerous executions of the Terror. There is an example of 32 people being guillotined in 25 minutes, with one day seeing 54 executions. During the Great Terror 1,376 people guillotined within six weeks, it simply would not have been possible to hang that many people.

Ultimately, the guillotine outlived the terror and political violence of the Revolution. It was finally abolished on 10 September 1977… 3 months after the first Star Wars film was released! 

All photographs © Stephanie Brown


Arsasse, Daniel, The Guillotine and the Terror (London: Penguin Group, 1989).

Carlyle, Thomas, The French Revolution (London: Chapman & Hall, 1896-98).

Evans, Richard, J., Rituals of Retribution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Fife, Graeme, The Terror. The Shadow of the Guillotine: France 1792-1794 (London: Portrait, 2004).

Friedland, Paul Seeing Justice Done (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Janes, Regina ‘Beheadings’, Representations, 35, Summer (1991) 21-51.

Jordanova, Ludmilla, ‘Medical Mediations: Mind, Body and the Guillotine’, History Workshop, 28, Autumn (1989) 39-52.

Schama, Simon Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (London: Penguin, 1989).

Temple, Nora The Road to 1789: From Reform To Revolution In France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992).

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