Great French Lives: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s legacy to the French language may not be as useful an addition to your everyday vocabulary as that provided by Eugène Poubelle, but it’s perhaps more distinctively French. As well as the name for the execution device itself (la guillotine), Guillotin has also supplied us with a verb, (guillotiner, to guillotine), two further nouns (le guillotineur/la guillotineuse, who does the guillotining, and the rather less fortunate le guillotiné/la guillotinée at the business end of the device), plus, the excellent term, la fenêtre à guillotine, which sounds very much more architecturally exciting than the English sash window. Note that, like la Bastille (and unlike, say, la ville), the double-l of Guillotin and guillotine has a y-sound rather than an l-sound in French (and apparently also commonly in American English – it’s only the British that always get it wrong).

Here are three things that many people can tell you about Joseph-Ignace Guillotin:

1. He was keen on executing people.

2. He invented the guillotine.

3. He ended up getting executed himself by the device he invented.

Here, on the other hand, are three facts about Joseph-Ignace Guillotin that are actually true:

1. He was strongly opposed to the death penalty.

2. He didn’t invent the guillotine.

3. He died of natural causes in 1814.

Guillotin considered the death penalty barbarous, and was particularly sickened by the suffering inflicted by botched executions, and by the double standards that afforded more humane forms of execution to the aristocracy than to the common people.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1789 Revolution, abolition of the death penalty was most definitely not on the cards, but as an alternative measure, and a step in the right direction, he proposed to the National Assembly the following legal reform:

“Les délits du même genre seront punis du même genre de supplice, quels que soient le rang et l’état du coupable; dans tous les cas où la loi prononcera la peine de mort, le supplice sera le même (décapitation), et l’exécution se fera par un simple mécanisme.”

Crimes if the same type will be punished with the same type of penalty, regardless of the rank and estate of the guilty party: in every case where the death penalty is given out, the method will be the same (decapitation), and the execution will be carried out by simple mechanical means.

The motion was accepted, and the Assembly set about finding itself an inventor to come up a device that would fit the bill. The credit for the design and construction of the prototype guillotine goes to the trio of Jean Laquiante, Tobias Schmidt and Antoine Louis (for a short while, it seemed possible that the machine might become known as a ‘Louison’). Guillotin’s name attached to the machine as the legislator who proposed that something should be done, not as the man who created the actual solution to the problem. In fact, the naming of the device after him proved an enduring embarrassment to Guillotin and his family, so much so that the family later petitioned the government to rename the machine, and, when this was rejected, changed their own surname to avoid the association.

The story that Guillotin ended up guillotined himself is entirely mythical. There was in fact a certain Dr J. M. V. Guillotin from Lyon (no relation) who met that fate, and it’s also true that Joseph-Ignace fell foul of the Revolutionary authorities and was imprisoned for a short time during the Terror. From these two facts the myth seems to have arisen, and as usual, the truth has trouble getting in the way of a good story.

Lastly, guillotine is not the French word for that machine your school has for cutting multiple sheets of paper with very straight lines. The French call that un massicot. And yes, it’s because it was invented by a certain M. Massiquot.

2 thoughts on “Great French Lives: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin”

  1. Not to mention “un bâillon” , which, in Québec, seems a much more civilised way of stopping a debate than a guillotine…

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