During the French Revolution a gruesome new method of execution debuted to become the bane of the aristocracy’s existence. This new method was the guillotine. This machine consisted of a wooden frame with a finely sharpened axe blade suspended above by rope in a groove that led down to a wooden collar above a chopping block. Condemned men had their necks locked in the collar, the blade was released and decapitations ensued quite cleanly and quickly. Our modern perception of the guillotine was invented in 1792 but there were similar execution devices before this that ranged from the primitive to the intricate. Regardless, it was not until the doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed to the Nation Assembly of France his guidelines for a fairer, simpler form of capital punishment that the modern guillotine machine was standardized (relatively) and made the primary method of capital punishment in France. The guillotine became a symbol of the Revolutionary period in France due to it being an indiscriminant executioner of the poor and of the aristocracy. As such, it was heavily used in the purging of the ruling classes. The guillotine was still in use in France as recent as 1977, just shortly before the abolishment of capital punishment within the country.

The guillotine was a technological advancement that influenced social change in many ways. The indiscriminant use of the device for execution helped to advance a demographical change toward a leveling of the classes between the rich and poor. In essence, the guillotine was touted as the fairest way of capital punishment and that, as a machine, it would bring the aristocracy down to the same level as commoners within the eyes of the law. The guillotine also marked an ideological change towards capital punishment. One of the key selling points of the guillotine to the National Assembly was its perceived humaneness. The guillotine was touted as the most painless and humane method of capital punishment since it was often less than a second from when the blade was dropped to complete decapitation. This was an advance in the conversation over what counts as cruel and unusual punishment but it did not solve it, as many persisted to argue that the machine worked so swiftly that the beheaded could have the opportunity to witness and live through their own beheading. Regardless of whether the guillotine was a barbaric or a civilized method of execution, it served an integral role in French politics and culture from the Revolutionary period onward.

The picture is of a Revolutionary-type guillotine. Retrieved from: