The smile revolution against the Reign of Terror

To smile in the face of imminent execution may appear a little perverse. Yet, as Colin Jones reveals, in 18th-century Paris the expression became a symbol of resistance to the Reign of Terror...

A late 18th-century painting depicting the execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Charles-Henri Sanson was the fourth in a six-generation family line of French public executioners whose dynasty extended from 1688 to 1847. All prided themselves on their hardened professionalism; Charles-Henri alone presided over roughly 3,000 executions in his 40-year career. These included those that he carried out in his role as executioner of Louis XVI, and a long list of celebrated victims guillotined during the Great Terror – a period of violence that spanned 1793–94 following the start of the French Revolution. Yet, as he looked back on his long career in his memoirs, he confessed that – despite his vast experience – the thing that stuck most in his mind was the smile that bedecked the faces of some of his victims during the Terror.

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