A sans-culotte of the French Revolution
Until the end of the 18th century, the upper and nascent middle classes wore knee breeches which derived their name, culottes, from the French term for short pants that tapered and ended at the knee.
Silk stockings covered the rest of the leg. Any full-length portrait of our Founding Fathers depicts a bunch of revolutionaries wearing wigs, short pants and white hose.
Long pants became fashionable during the French Revolution and were worn mostly by the urban poor to demonstrate their opposition to royal and aristocratic privilege, symbolized by wearing short pants. Known as sans-culottes (without knee breeches), these radical proletarians committed some of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.
During the early years of the Revolution which began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, sans-culottes served in a citizen’s army, mustered to repel foreign invaders who sought to rescue the French monarchy.
But the san-culottes are most remembered for their role as an urban militia. A brutal police force, sans-culottes tortured and murdered the citizens they were supposed to serve and protect.
The paramilitary groups functioned as the “muscle” or enforcers of various governing bodies during the Revolution. For a brief period during the Reign of Terror (1794-1795), the sans-culottes dominated a succession of legislative assemblies and became de facto rulers of France.
Their preferred form of execution was not the guillotine. Despite its sanguine reputation and image, the guillotine had been introduced in France in 1792 for humanitarian and egalitarian purposes. The condemned received the same kind of justice regardless of class, and death was quick.
No more Medieval forms of capital punishment like burning at the stake, , drawing and quartering or being broken on the wheel. Drawing and quartering consisted of cutting off the condemned’s limbs, hanging him, cutting him down before he died, then castrating and disemboweling the victim.
Being broken on the wheel was literal. The victim was tied to a large wagon wheel, then the executioner methodically went about breaking every bone with a hammer.
Many victims of summary injustice by the sans-culottes may have wished they had been subjected to Medieval torture and murder. Instead, the sans-culottes took their inspiration from René Hébert, the radical newspaper editor and head of the Commune that governed Paris during the Terror.
Infamous as the pamphleteer who accused Marie Antoinette and her sister-in-law of sexually molesting the dauphin or crown prince, Hébert issued this call to arms and butchery:
“To your pikes, good sans-culottes, sharpen them up to exterminate aristocrats.” Taking Hébert at his word, suspected counter-revolutionaries, most but not all of them aristocrats, were hacked to pieces, disemboweled, their heads and other body parts impaled on pikes.
The sans-culottes reached their apogee of cruelty during the “September Massacres” of 1792 when 1,600 prisoners, some aristocrats and clergy, others unlucky bystanders of the madness, were tried in kangaroo courts.
Although a few were acquitted, most of the defendants after their trial were escorted outside where the sans-culottes followed Hebert’s orders and hacked them to death. Priests, women and young children were not spared by Revolutionary fervor and fanaticism.
Two events provided the catalyst for the massacres. On August 19, 1792, Prussia invaded and captured the frontier fortress of Verdun in northeastern France.
The quick victory by the Prussian commander, the Duke of Brunswick, created hysteria and paranoia which was vented on aristocrats and the clergy. After news reached Paris of the Duke’s victory, 60,000 sans-culottes and others mustered on the Champs de Mars, Paris’ Central Park.
The Duke of Brunswick added to the hysteria by making one of the dumbest, most counter-effective proclamations of all time on September 2, 1792, at Koblenz in the Rhineland.
In the Brunswick Manifesto, the dotty duke threatened to raze Paris to the ground if the royal family was hurt. Instead of having a deterrent effect, the Manifesto became a call to arms against the Prussian invaders.
Amid the ensuing hysteria, rumors spread that opponents of the new regime, in particular “non-juring” priests, that is clergy who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Revolutionary government, were colluding with the Duke.
Before the 60,000-strong sans-culottes began their march to the border to repel the Prussian invaders, they turned their attention to what they considered a Fifth Column in France, imprisoned nobles and other enemies of the Revolution. The result was the September Massacres of 1792.
Maria Luisa of Savoy, Princesse de Lamballe (1749-1792)
The aristocrat who may have suffered the worst fate of all the condemned was the Princesse de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette’s best friend and confident.
Like a later princes who had a troubled life and died violently, Lamballe had married at 16 a much older man, a cousin of the royal family and the richest man in France. Her husband died of syphilis three years after their marriage, making the Princesse one of the richest women in France.
The beautiful young widow moved to Paris, where she caught the eye of the Dauphine or crown princess, the future Queen Marie Antoinette. Ignoring seniority and precedent, the Queen promoted her confidant to chief lady-in-waiting.
Lamballe’s devotion to the royal family compelled her to share their various places of imprisonment. The Princesse was with the royals when a mob dragged them from Versailles to Paris and imprisoned them in the Tuileries Palace in October 1789.
When a mob of sans-culottes invaded the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, massacring 600 of the Swiss Guards who protected the royal family, the Princesse accompanied the family to the Legislative Assembly for protection.
Instead, the Assembly incarcerated the royal refugees and Lamballe under harsh conditions in the Medieval fortress-palace known as the Temple. Before their imprisonment, the Princesse had had several opportunities to escape France. In 1791, she returned to Paris from England where she had failed to get military support for the imperiled royal family. She wrote a will before returning because she feared she would not survive in her homeland. Her premonition, more like an obvious prediction, came true.
The Princesse wasn’t allowed to remain with the Queen. On August 19, 1792, she was transferred from the Temple to La Force Prison, a tribunal of sans-culottes interrogated her. The judges demanded she swear an oath of loyalty to liberté and egalité and another oath condemning the King and Queen. She agreed to the first but refused to denounce her best friend.
Pressed by the court, she said, “I have nothing to reply, dying a little earlier or a little later is a matter of indifference to me. I am prepared to make the sacrifice of my life.”
At that, her captors told her to leave the kangaroo courtroom, which was also the standard signal for her to be hacked to pieces outside the prison. Details of her death vary only in the degree of their horror. An eyewitness said the Princesse was clubbed to death with hammers. But the sans-culottes weren’t finished with their victim after she was dead.
What followed Lamballe’s murder has become a source of controversy.
Some accounts maintain she had been sexually assaulted before and after her death. Others said her breasts and genitalia had been hacked off. Pamphleteers offered a more preposterous story that her heart had been boiled and eaten by sans-culottes.
Historians do agree that the Princesse’s severed head was impaled on a pike. It remains a subject of controversy whether or not her genitalia were also skewered. But most historians reject an account that before parading their grotesque trophy around Paris, the sans-culottes stopped at a hairdresser’s to repair the literally bloody mess the Revolutionaries had made of the Princesse’s famous blond curls.
Marie Antoinette biographer’s Antonia Fraser accepts the tale of the post-mortem trip to the beauty parlor because that the severed head had a fresh coiffure, an impossibility after months of imprisonment and the sanguine nature of her death.
While they carried their trophy to the Temple to show the Queen the fate of her friend, the sans-culottes passed under the window of her nephew, a boy who was a cousin of the royal family and not imprisoned. The child was horrified when he saw the head of “Tante” (aunt) and, according to some, auntie’s mutilated genitals.
Also en route to their rendezvous with the Queen, the sans-culottes forced the former art teacher of the king’s sister to make a wax cast of the Princesse’s head. Madame Tussaud also claimed to have made the grisly souvenir along with death masks of the King and Queen.
After their trip to the hairdresser, the sans-culotte continued on to the Temple where they stood beneath the Queen’s window. The mob demanded that Marie Antoinette kiss the “lesbian whore” who according to the Libelles, pornographic pamphlets of the Revolution, had been more than the Queen’s friend and accused them of being lovers.
Some accounts claim the Queen fainted when she saw what had happened to her confidant, but Fraser believes her sympathetic jailors had closed the shutters of the Queen’s chambers so she never saw the mob and the remains of her best friend.
When the King asked about the source of the commotion outside the prison, a jailor replied, “If you must know, Monsieur, they are trying to show you the head of Madame de Lamballe.”
On hearing that, the Queen fainted while the sans-culottes vented their frustrated revenge by parading around the prison with the remains of the Princesse.
After the fall and execution of Robespierre which ended the Reign of Terror, the sans-culottes were hunted down and exterminated by counterrevolutionary forces. The radical militiamen left behind an image almost as grim as the Princesse de Lamballe’s end.
Historian Simon Schama believes the incident is probably apocryphal, but a painting made at the height of the Terror shows the sans-culottes playing skittles, an ancient form of bowling, with the skulls of the former kings of France.
Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Random House, 2001.
Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918. University of California Press, 1974.
Sanello, Frank. Fractured Fairy Tales or Why (Almost) Everything You Thought You Knew About the Past Never Happened. Genesee Avenue Books, 2011.
Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Alfred K. Knopf, 1989.
On this date in 1945, the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz, and the first penal colony was established in Australia in 1788.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders