In this first installment of History Corner, a regular short feature on a compelling but little-known aspect of Parisian heritage, we take a look at Paris City Hall— and a closer one at the gruesome legacy of the large square on which it stands.
Known as “Hôtel de Ville” in French (note: despite the linguistic “false friend”, this is no hotel), the capital’s mayoral headquarters are situated on a large, pleasant square called– predictably enough–Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. For most of the twentieth century and through to the present, it’s been an important locus of popular cultural life in Paris. In the winter months a sizeable ice-skating rink is set up on the sweeping plaza; in June and July, free concerts and live tennis matches broadcast from Roland-Garros attract crowds, who gather clutching beer in large plastic cups and bask in the lazy summer mood.
A Pleasant Spot– With a Dark History Few Tourists Are Aware Of
But despite the square’s innocuous appearance, and the fact that it represents one of the centres of democratic civility and public life in modern Paris, it has a remarkably dark history– one that few tourists are aware of as they stop to consult maps or relax around the fountains.
Well before the city hall stood here, the enormous square was known as Place de Grève– a place infamous for its bloody and unusually cruel public executions.
Since at least the 13th century, the Place was a site where Parisians gathered not to enjoy music or other festivities, but to witness their countrymen and women suffer slow, agonizing deaths. From beheadings to drawing and quartering by horses, hangings and later execution by guillotine, gory killings were routinely carried out on the square– and treated as fascinating spectacles by city dwellers.
While it wasn’t the only site in the capital to make a show of unusual and painful deaths as a purported way to deter criminality, the Place de Grève was routinely chosen for the executions of well-known public officials, as well as convicts and heretics seen as particularly deserving of cruel and unusual capital punishment.
During the 13th century, heretics (anyone not subscribing to Catholicism, essentially) were executed here; King Louis IX also ordered the burning of some 12,000 copies of the Talmud, a Jewish sacred text whose popularity was regarded as threatening the Christian political and religious order in Europe. Suspected witches were burned at the stake here as late as the 17th century; others were hanged on the gallows. Corporal punishment short of death was also carried out here– the pillory (similar to the stocks) was long installed on the Place.
The square was also a tremendously popular site for public gatherings unrelated to executions, including protests and workers’ strikes– shows of dissent that became increasingly common following the first Revolution of 1789. This makes sense: grève commonly means “strike” in French. This is a site, then, where public unrest and a brutal penal culture long coexisted and clashed. As the art historian Warren Roberts observes in his book on the “Revolutionary artists” of France:
“The history of popular collective action and the Place de Grève are bound together in a common script. The most popular of public squares was also a center of political disturbances….The Place de Grève was a place for public parades and festivals, officially ordered and given for state purposes, and it was a place for public executions, where nobles, rebels, traitors, famous brigands, assassins, heretics, and ordinary criminals met their end. Claude le Petit wrote in his Chronique scandaleuse ou Paris ridicule that the Place de Grève was an “unhappy piece of ground consecrated to the public where they have executed a hundred times more men than in war”. He himself was executed [there] in 1662…”
In almost dialectic fashion, then, the Place is a place of intense struggle: one between a public wrangling for increased rights, and a government intent on making a formidable show of its penal force, inspiring terror in anyone contemplating dissent.
Brutal executions prompt questioning about torture
In the early 17th century, François Ravaillac, the assassin of King Henri IV, was tortured and drawn and quartered on the square; this form of execution was generally reserved for individuals convicted of regicide. In 1757, Robert-François Damiens, the attempted assassin of King Louis XV, was subjected to unspeakable tortures before being drawn and quartered. According to some historians of the epoch, he remained conscious after three of his four limbs had been torn from his body; he was then burned alive.
His brutal death inspired horror and circumspection in some of the observers of the time, and led to a sustained ethical debate about whether societies could continue using such methods of capital punishment and still claim to be “civilized.” The Italian explorer (and infamous womanizer) Giacomo Casanova noted in his eyewitness account of Damiens’ tortured death:
We had the courage to watch the dreadful sight for four hours … Damiens was a fanatic, who, with the idea of doing a good work and obtaining a heavenly reward, had tried to assassinate Louis XV; and though the attempt was a failure, and he only gave the king a slight wound, he was torn to pieces as if his crime had been consummated. … I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half of his body having been torn from him, but the Lambertini and Mme XXX did not budge an inch. Was it because their hearts were hardened? They told me, and I pretended to believe them, that their horror at the wretch’s wickedness prevented them feeling that compassion which his unheard-of torments should have excited.
Casanova wasn’t the only public figure and intellectual to write of the execution’s brutality: Thomas Paine mentions Damiens’ suffering in his landmark tome Rights of Man (1791), citing it as a concrete example of despotic government. And in the twentieth century, French political theorist Michel Foucault addressed Damiens’ torture in his 1977 book Discipline and Punish, now a familiar staple of cocktail chatter and graduate students’ thesis chapters.
But the growing philosophical debates over the merits and moral depravity of such executions didn’t stop other unusual and cruel killings from continuing. The French Revolution of 1789 brought on a new period of bloody executions.
After the Revolutionary government toppled the French monarchy, public executions mostly moved to the Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine– believed to be a far more humane method of capital punishment than the methods detailed above– was installed. The final execution to take place on the Place de Grève was in 1830; the square was subsequently referred to under its current name, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville.
From a contemporary standpoint, you have to strain a bit to imagine how the bright, cheerful square– with its old-timey carousel, pop-up ice rinks and public fountains– harbored centuries of unthinkable torture and human suffering; how it was a place of public unrest and dissent as well as one of celebration and leisure. Yet that legacy arguably says something important about France’s transformation, politically and socially, over hundreds of years: this is a site that exemplifies, in a real sense, the nation’s movement from absolutist monarchies, tumultuous Revolutionary regimes, through to the current-day Republic.