Crime and Punishment

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Pierre-Paul Prud'honJustice and Divine Vengeance pursuing Crime© RMN-Grand Palais / Daniel Arnaudet

Thou shalt not kill


"But what then is capital punishment if not the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal's deed, however calculated, can be compared". Albert Camus

The first criminal in the history of the human race, Cain, carried his own punishment within him: guilt. This is as much the fruit of his remorse as the implacable judgment of God whose sixth commandment decrees: "Thou shalt not kill".

Cain was a fratricide. He opened the way for crimes and murders of all kinds: patricide, infanticide, regicide and genocide. For evil, introduced into Eden by his parents, is in every person.

Eternally punished and a fugitive, Cain poses the question, beyond that of guilt, of punishment. God did not take his life. To God's commandment and to the grace He accorded Adam's son, man has nevertheless responded with capital punishment.

Victor HugoJustitia© Maisons de Victor Hugo / Roger-Viollet

1791: Egalitarian Death


During the French Enlightenment, the death penalty was fiercely debated. The abolitionist arguments of Cesare Beccaria were taken up in France, in 1791, in the Constituent Assembly. In May and June 1791, Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau argued for its abolition but, although torture was banned, the death penalty was retained.

In March 1792, it was decided that executions would be carried out by beheading, and that the guillotine, considered to be more reliable and less cruel for the condemned person, would be the instrument of execution.

AnonymousLe Peletier de Saint Fargeau on his Deathbed© Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

1793: Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau


On 20 January 1793, and after some hesitation, Le Peletier voted for the death of King Louis XVI. He was assassinated that same night, and became "the first martyr of the Revolution".

The Terror reigned in France and executions abounded. The number of executions and the violence involved in separating the head (did it retain its consciousness?) from the body (did it retain a capacity to move?) was a subject of fascination for artists. Alexander Dumas recounted the following, "I have seen criminals beheaded by the executioner, get up headless from where they were lying, and stumble off to fall down ten paces away".

 

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