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.
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.
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.”
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.
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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