Saturday, January 06, 2007

Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment* 

Image hosted by Photobucket.com*Just a moment, executioner, just a small moment...

Recently I watched Marie Antoinette, Sophia Coppola’s entertaining confectionery of a movie, and have since been reading up on the fates of all of the principles. I knew it ended badly for most of them, but because Ms Coppola stops the movie before the trials, guillotines and raving mobs I wanted to brush up on the details. Wikipedia has excellent entries on all of the characters, full of the fascinating, gossipy tittle tattle that makes reading about their lives so interesting. (In the entry for Marie Antoinette's mother, Maria Theresa of Austria, it reports how she got to marry for love, an unusual occurence for someone of her time and station. It was a fruitful and joyful union, so passionate that the newlyweds reportedly broke a bed on their honeymoon and eventually produced 16 children.)

Although I believe she got a bad rap, Marie Antoinette certainly was spoiled, frivolous and dangerously oblivious.

Fulfilling Marie Antoinette's determination to avoid boredom, conversation in her circle shied away from the mundane or intellectual. According to Madame Campan, one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, "The newest songs from the Comédie, the most timely joke or pun or quip, the bon mot of the day, the latest and choicest tidbit of scandal or gossip – these comprised the sole topics of conversation in the intimate group about the queen; discussion on a serious plane was banished from her court.

She was a loving mother, however, and her maternal devotion softened my feelings toward her. While one son succumbed to spinal tuberculosis, an agonizing death that took months, she never left his side. When another daughter died in infancy she keened and mourned over the body for hours until the body finally had to be taken from her.

But getting to the good part, here is how she faced her own death:

As she was being led to the scaffold, the priest who had accompanied her whispered, "This is the moment, Madame, to arm yourself with courage." Marie Antoinette turned to look at him and smiled, "Courage? The moment when my troubles are going to end is not the moment when my courage is going to fail me." Legend states that her last words were, "Monsieur, I ask your pardon. I did not do it on purpose," spoken after she had accidentally stepped on the executioner's foot.

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Madame Du Barry, the low born courtesan and favorite of Marie’ Antoinette’s father in law, King Louis XV, was not so stoic. She initially had escaped to London, but foolishly and against all advice kept returning to Paris to recover jewels she had cached away. Eventually, she was betrayed, seized and charged with conspiracy.
From the Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, the famous and exquisitely talented royal portraitist.

Madame Du Barry ... is the only woman, among all the women who perished in the dreadful days, who could not stand the sight of the scaffold. She screamed, she begged mercy of the horrible crowd that stood around the scaffold, she aroused them to such a point that the executioner grew anxious and hastened to complete his task.

Reportedly her final words, spoken to the executioner, were "Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment" (Just a moment, executioner, a small moment.) I find this unbearably poignant, because isn’t that what we all want?

Vigee Lebrun continues:
“This convinced me that if the victims of these terrible times had not been so proud, had not met death with such courage, the Terror would have ended much earlier. Men of limited intelligence lack the imagination to be touched by inner suffering, and the populace is more easily stirred by pity than by admiration."

I wonder if this is true, if the not the French nobility had not faced death with such dignity and stoicism, had they not been so determined not to give the rabble the satisfaction, if this would have ended the Terror sooner.

The most chilling and stoic example of a royal facing execution was Catherine Howard, 5th wife of Henry the VII, the second ‘beheaded’ in the mnemonic of Henry's wives: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced Beheaded, Survived.

From Execution: The Guillotine, the Pendulum, the Thousand Cuts, the Spanish Donkey, and 66 Other Ways to Put Someone to Death

The night preceding her execution the queen, determined not to exhibit any feminine weakness on the scaffold, 'asked that the block might be brought to her room and, this having been done and the executioner fetched, to the amazement of her attendants she knelt and laid her head in the horrible hollow, declaring as she rose to her feet that she could now go through the ordeal with grace and propriety'.

Which she did.

Here's a good book for you: To the Scaffold by Carolly Erickson. A great read. Also of course the book Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser is another fave. Do you have TIME to read entire books? I have my own little lending library and I'm a missionary for Marie Antoinette histories (long before the movie)!
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