Capital & corporal punishment in pre-revolutionary France

Case folio FRC suppl. 93 contains forty-eight pamphlets carrying judgements from the Cour de Parlement, dated between 1756-1786.  Among these pamphlets are 24 judgements (Case folio FRC suppl. 93 nos. 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 31, 32, 35, 37, 40, 43, 44, 45) for both male and female criminals with sentences of corporal and capital punishment.  As I was cataloging these pamphlets I found the it interesting to compare the severity of punishment with the types of crimes committed.  Lesser crimes, like non-violent theft or fraud, usually merit a few hours in the stocks, branding, whipping, and a sentence of several years in the galleys, the brand in such cases being GAL. Occasionally, rather than being sentenced to the galleys, criminals would simply be banished from country for several years.

If sentenced to time in the stocks the condemned would be placed there for several hours during the busiest times, usually on market day, while wearing a placard stating the nature of their crime:

- “Escroc au jeu,” literally to ‘crook the game’ (Case folio FRC suppl. 93 no. 8)

- “Voleur de clefs aux serrures des portes intérieurs,” theft of interior door keys (Case folio FRC suppl. 93 no. 12)

- “Voleur de linge sur les étendoirs de blanchisseuses,” theft of laundry (Case folio FRC suppl. 93 no. 20)

- “Voleur de mouchoirs à la Foire Saint-Germain,” theft of handkerchiefs (Case folio FRC suppl. 93 no. 21)

- “Distributeur de faux écus,” distribution of counterfeit coins (Case folio FRC suppl. 93 no. 45)

In all of these instances the criminals were whipped and branded, the laundry thief and counterfeit money distributor were sentenced to the galleys, while the others were all banished.

Crimes of assault and rebellion also resulted in branding and galley service, while homicide, rape, domestic violence, and burglary resulted in capital punishment. Most of the capital punishment sentences in these pamphlets prescribe both the method of execution and amount of time to be placed on public display.  The majority of the capital punishment sentences call for execution by hanging: ” … à être pendu & étranglé jusqu’à ce mort s’ensuive, à une potence qui seroit, pour cet effet, plantée en la place publique …par l’exécuteur de la haute-justice” (to be hung and strangled to death and placed in a public place by the executor of high justice).  In one instance a death sentence was issued because the individual in question had escaped from the galleys, to which he had already been sentenced for life (Case folio FRC suppl. 93 no. 37).

Of the thirteen capital punishment pamphlets in FRC suppl. 93, two prescribe a more violent punishment than hanging.  Case folio FRC suppl. 93 nos. 10 and 35 both call for the condemned to have their arms, legs, thighs and backs broken and placed in a public place ‘with their body posed on a wheel, face turned to heaven, to remain until it pleases God to dispose of them.’

” … été condamnés a avoir les jambes, bras, cuisses & reins rompus vifs, par l’exécuteur de la haute-justice, sur un échafaud qui seroit à cet effet dressé dans la place publique & marche … & de la leurs corps poses sur une roue, la face tournée vers le ciel, pour y rester jusqu’à ce qu’il plaise a Dieu d’en disposer.” (Case folio FRC suppl. 93 no. 10)

The crime committed by the accused in suppl. 93 no. 10 was a violent burglary committed by several persons all of whom were sentenced to death by ‘breaking.’  Thomas Bierge, the accused in suppl. 93 no. 35, was convicted of premeditated murder of a widow and her daughter.

These pamphlets were very interesting to examine, as they were a welcome change from the usual fare of revolutionary legislation, and provided an interesting look at criminal justice in pre-revolutionary France.  Something that just occurred to me as I was writing this was that I hadn’t really considered before was the class of person in regards to severity of their crime and sentence.  Such an investigation is outside the scope of my work but may be an area for further research and could yield more information on criminal justice under the ancien regime.

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