History - France

One Madame Nobody Wants to Meet!

Once dubbed the “National Razor” of France, Madame La Guillotine was the nickname Parisians gave to the device that beheaded their aristocratic French Revolution enemies, and which they held in great regard.

In 1789, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed to the French government that decapitation by this lightning-quick machine would be more humane than the much-botched sword beheadings.

Madame La Guillotine claimed her first victim in 1792, taking more than 10,000 heads during the Reign of Terror, including those of the king and queen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Beheadings became highly popular entertainment, spectators flocking to the scene, where they could purchase souvenirs such as children’s toys (to behead dolls and mice!).

The guillotine continued to be used in France throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, until the last execution in 1977, of murderer Hamida Djandoubi, though Madame La Guillotine didn’t actually lose her own head until 1981, when France abolished capital punishment.

On 3rd November 1793, Olympe de Gouges also met her death beneath the blade of Madame La Guillotine. French playwright and political activist, she wrote about women’s rights, becoming an outspoken advocate against the slave trade in the French colonies. In her Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen in 1791, she challenged male authority and female/male inequality. She was guillotined for attacking the regime of the Revolutionary government.

I found Olympe de Gouge a fascinating woman and, in my latest book, Lake of Echoes ( a novel of 1960s France), I named the primary school after Olympe de Gouges.

A mini-extract from Lake of Echoes, featuring Olympe de Gouges…

‘But I don’t want to be an astronaut when I grow up,’ she went on. ‘I’m going to be a strong woman from the Revolution.’ Maman had told her that Olympe de Gouges was a strong woman from the Revolution, a pioneer of feminism, and that’s why they’d named Juliette’s school after her. She wasn’t sure what a strong woman from the Revolution was, but it sounded like something good.