A Heady Affair

Celebrating the end of the Reign of Terror, French style!


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The end of the Reign of Terror unleashed a wave of euphoria in Paris as citizens celebrated the fact that they were still alive. Hardly had the guillotine been trundled out of sight than some 100 dance halls opened in Paris, using any space available — even abandoned monasteries and half-wrecked churches were turned into all-night clubs. Finally allowed to don their finery again, men re-emerged as powdered dandies and women wore scandalous dresses of a diaphanous white gauze that was almost entirely transparent (although they did wear flesh-colored body stockings underneath). But the most frenzied events were called the Victims’ Balls, which could only be attended by family members of guillotine victims. Some historians have suggested that they never actually occurred; most of the references to the balls are recollections published some years later. And yet the popular memory is so strong that there is probably some element of truth.

According to the reports of supposed eyewitnesses, the bals des victimes were organized by the surviving aristocrats in 1795 and 1796. To enter, guests had to provide proof of their loss with documents at the door (it had to be an immediate family member; a cousin would not do). Once inside, they could join a champagne-fueled danse macabre beneath glittering chandeliers. Women took to wearing blood-red ribbons around their necks as badges of their loss. Some — like the lovely Josephine de Beauharnais, the future Madame Bonaparte — had only barely escaped the guillotine themselves, and had had their hair cropped while in prison, ready to face the block. This ragged style became a new fashion craze and was dubbed la coiffure à la guillotine. Like White Russians 120 years later, guests indulged in manic excess in order to blot out the evil memories. Modern psychotherapists would have a field day with these wakes, which seems to have mixed post-traumatic stress disorder with survivor’s guilt in a mass therapy session.

The Victims’ Balls eventually petered out, but other post-Terror innovations included the first personal ads in the Year IV (1796). These Petites Affiches in Parisian newspaper classifieds were often penned by women describing themselves as between the ages of 18 and 22, beautiful, broadly educated, and looking for “a position with a single gentleman” — evidently women of the former royal court who found themselves unprovided for. Other authors were more independent: a 50-year-old lady advertised herself as possessing “accommodation, money and a not-too-ravaged appearance,” while a younger belle offered her heart to “any man who truly deserved it.” • 1 December 2008

SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Robiquet, Jean, Daily Life in the French Revolution, (New York, 1965); Schechter, Ronald, “Gothic Thermidor: the Bals des Victimes, the Fantastic and the Production of Knowledge in Post-Terror France,” Representations, 61, (winter 1998), pp. 78-94.

Tony Perrottet's book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.