A few facts about la Conciergerie…

Or, Spin-doctoring the French Way

When you visit la Conciergerie in Paris, which is the prison in which the French queen, Marie Antoinette, was held before her execution, you will read on the helpfully provided info-plaques that there were never more than 4000 prisoners held there.  And that the aristocrats imprisoned there didn’t have it bad at all…they were allowed to promenade together and receive letters and it was really quite a jolly place, is what you’ll be helped to conclude.

This will lead the naive you to assume that, hey, the Terror (1794-1796) must not have been quite so nasty, eh? 

Er…well…not quite. 

Because this is what they’re not telling you:  that at the beginning of 1789 there was only one prison in Paris which held perhaps nine prisoners.  By the end of the Terror in 1796, there were over sixty prisons in Paris (all full to capacity) and there was only one sentence meted out–death. 

Nor are they telling you that there wasn’t just one guillotine in Paris, serving all of France, in what in now Place de la Concorde.  There were guillotines set up in all larger cities and towns throughout the country. 

It is now estimated that at least 45,000 people met their death in Paris under the blade of Mme la Guillotine.  And that doesn’t take into account the numbers executed in the provinces. 

And despite the mythology promulgated by the likes of Baroness d’Orzy, it wasn’t just aristocrats either. 

They account for less than 17% of those executed.  The remainder was made of of the clergy–who suffered disproportionately.  (Belief in God was deemed counter-revolutionary and therefore was a criminal act.)  But mostly, it was ordinary people–men, women and children–denounced by their neighbours as being against la Revolution–perhaps for reasons so petty as they found it difficult to adjust to the ten-day week or they didn’t use the new Revolutionary names of the months and seasons. 

So the next time you read one of these cheerfully worded plaques–the interesting question isn’t what are they telling you?  It’s what they’re not telling you.

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