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Monday, June 2, 2014

Guest Blogger-Ginger Myrick

How Marie Antoinette Lost Her Head: Death Dealing in 18th Century France

Three Muskateers
                Three Muskateers 

 When I think about martial practices in 18th century France, my mind conjures images of swashbuckling pirates and The Three Musketeers. That may be historically inaccurate (The Dumas book is actually set 150 years before Louis-Auguste became King of France!) but the association is ingrained, and you know how hard it is to correct a misconception once it's stuck. During my research, though, that notion was definitively set to rights, and I was fascinated by the weaponry in use at the time.

Of course, there were swords, which have changed little since their inception and were still prevalent during the time of Louis XVI. In fact, a visitor to Versailles could only be admitted if he were properly dressed, which happened to include a mandatory sword. This may seem counter-intuitive—Why would you want an armed man in such proximity to the royal family?—but those were the rules. In the days of Louis XIV when the court was first moved from Paris to Versailles, this may have been the King’s way of weeding out undesirables (read poor people) but by the time Louis XV came to power, many of these rules had been modified to accommodate the less fortunate to a certain extent. If one were not possessed of the required blade, he could rent one at the gate.

Muskets were also a staple of defense and early versions had been standard military issue in Europe for centuries. Because reloading was a slow and intricate process, complicated by cramped quarters and the confusion of battle, the musket drill was born along with a change in military tactics. Where pikes had been used in the past as offensive weapons, now they were switched to a defensive role.

Because reloading of a musket took the undivided attention of its wielder, the pikemen were charged with the responsibility of protecting musketeers engaged in the process. As weaponry continued to evolve and the innovation of the bayonet came about, the involvement of pikemen became less essential.


If it’s such a painstaking process to reload, why not avoid the issue altogether, you ask? One of the coolest weapons I found in my research was a multiple barrel pistol (Later models were called pepperboxes.) designed to do just that. This was a specialty item, which no doubt cost a pretty penny. Like most forward-thinking modifications, it seemed a practical solution to having to reload if one found himself faced with a perilous situation. But as with many such great ideas came great impracticalities. This rare weapon had the nasty little habit of discharging all of the barrels at once or sometimes even exploding and causing more damage to the user than to the intended target. This prospect was so intriguing to me that I had to find a way to include it in my story, even using its drawbacks to my advantage.

The aforementioned arms were mostly used by the military and the well-to-do, who were the only people who really had access to them. When the revolution struck France and the commoners found themselves in need of defense, they stormed the Bastille. The people believed that firearms, ammunition, and gunpowder were being stored there, so they sacked it. When they didn’t find what they expected, they turned to what was available: pitchforks, scythes, cleavers, butcher knives, meat hooks, etc. You name it, it was used as a weapon. During the march of the market women, the participants rode on cannons and talked about carving up the Queen and making cockades from her entrails with whatever knives they had found and carried on their persons. And any historical account of the French Revolution, would be incomplete without the mention of severed heads being borne about on pikes. This happened to one of the Queen’s dearest friends, the Princesse de Lamballe. After her head was bashed in with a hammer then separated from her body with a butcher knife, it was mounted on the end of a pike for all to behold, a veritable trifecta of brutality.

 French Guillotine 

Then there is the mother of all death machines, the guillotine. It may seem brutal, but it was actually designed with the intent to provide a swift and humane death. According to Dr. Guillotin, it was a very simple process:

"The mechanism falls like thunder—the head flies—the blood spurts—the man is no more.”

The guillotine equitably distributed so much justice during the French Revolution that it was nicknamed the National Razor. It seemed a perfect metaphor for the new equality the burgeoning Republic of France was attempting to effect. In its first public demonstration, it carried out judgement against a notorious highway man, the lowest of the low. From there it continued to work its way through all levels of society, eventually reaching all the way to its most privileged and most famous victims, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the former King and Queen of France.


Marie Antionett
Insatiable by Author Ginger Myrick

In my latest release, INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L'AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE, I use all of the weaponry mentioned in this article, although not always in an expected manner. The eBook editions of INSATIABLE (Kindle and Nook) are currently on sale for an introductory price of $2.99 and are available at:

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