Monseigneur Butternut & the guillotining of the essays

guillotine party history lesson

Whoosh, whack, thud. Head in basket. Silence. With ghoulish enthusiasm, the executioner grabs his prize by the hair and hoists it high, blood cascading onto upturned faces. The crowd erupts. Red is smeared over cheeks and brows like war paint. They will not be slaves again. Madame Guillotine has done her job on this day…

…and her blade is yet sharp.

There was another day when Madame Guillotine was called to mete out justice…a-hundred-and-many years later in sunny South Africa.

Some people teach the French Revolution to the grade 8s but I think they’re too young; I always teach it to the Grade 10s because they are more easily able to grasp critical concepts, like: despotism, constitutional monarch, qualified franchise, active and passive citizen, sovereignty of the people, radical, left wing, right wing etcetera. And the French Rev has to be taught because it’s a classic example of a revolution; it changed France, it changed Europe, it changed the world—the concept of “people’s power” creating a bridge between the old world and the new world. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, although it wasn’t perfect, has been used as the basis for many constitutions all over the world and the French Rev inspired art, literature, poetry, movies, musicals. It is critical in terms of our understanding of not only the modern world but human nature, too.

The French Rev also introduces us to some very colourful and interesting characters – Charlotte Corday, Marat, Danton, Robespierre, Madame Roland, Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette – and of course…Madame Guillotinethe key character in this; a tale of best and worst of times.

One of the most difficult aspects of the French Rev is having to come to terms with the Reign of Terror, which was ruthless and deeply traumatic. Madame Guillotine was invented as a more humane way of killing people; her slice was quick and painless, which was better than the torturing or branding typically endured by members of the third estate at the hands of the aristocrats. She worked day and night, and came to symbolise all the bloodthirstiness of the French Rev. The kids I teach always love the gory details—how the guillotine worked: the blade hissing down, decapitating the head of the accused, which rolled into a basket and was held up for all to see. How the angle of Madame’s blade was vital to effective slicing and how people had to have their hair cut so the blade could hew the neck efficiently. There are stories of Madame faltering under the burden of her load and the bluntness of her blade, leaving the executioner to hack the neck a couple of times to get the head off. Terrifying. And Madame showed no favourites, famous or infamous—her intent was true. One student asked me whether victims might still feel pain after losing a head and I told him not likely…but there is a story about a man who was guillotined in the French Rev and when his head was held up he winked at the crowd—and not just once (with the one eye) but again, with the other eye. An urban myth, surely;  but the kids always eat it for breakfast and then some.

To make the French Rev come alive, I teach the song from Les Mis, “Do you hear the people sing?/Singing a song of angry men…” (known as “The Revolution Song” in my history class) and there is a wealth of source material – cartoons, text, art – that can be used to teach satire, analysis, debates and essays. We also a built a guillotine! It was my husband’s idea—he planned and designed it; cut out all the different parts and labelled them so that I could take it to school and the kids could construct it. Which they didwith included nuts, bolts, blade and instructions. It stands 5 feet 6 inches and it works. Whoosh, whack, thud. Properly.

Thus was born “the guillotine party” in celebration of the French Revolution. Vive la France, Vive la liberté.

Each year, my Grade 10s make their own hats and dress up as sans culottes, and we hack off the heads of butternuts and melons (we’ve even guillotined a watermelon). Every kid brings a fruit/veg and decorates their captive to look like nobles or clergymen or Louis XVI. We sing The Revolution Song and we guillotine the produce. (Don’t panic, there are safety precautions; the blade has padlocks so when you’re not using it cannot fall down and hurt anyone. And I supervise the beheadings.) There is great applause when the ad hoc executioner pulls the rope and the blade unhooks to come crashing down, chopping Monseigneur Butternut in two. There must be blood in any Reign of Terror, so the kids like to draw red all over the plank (just to keep things authentic). At the end of the guillotine party, everyone signs their names on Madame – on the  blade, too, because we are running out of space – and I organise a guillotine party cake from the local bakery, which always has an epic pic of the storming of the Bastille or the guillotine with someone’s head about to be decapitated…and we eat, sing, guillotine and celebrate.

So, the guillotine party has become legend; every year the kids eagerly ask when they can use the guillotine and I tell them they must get distinctions to earn this privilege. There was one year (2017), however, that the Grade 10s did not have an opportunity to have a guillotine party; I can’t remember why exactly but they were bitter and twisted about it. It was this same woebegone class that faced the wrath of Madame a couple of months later.

It was term 3 and I was teaching the Russian Revolution; how to write discussion essays. I set an essay test, expecting some decent results, but the kids’ work was utter junk. I was furious. They wrote rubbish. There is no room for such apathy in my class, so I prepared a lessonan illustration if you will. About two weeks after the test, the class arrives and I am holding these essays, the guillotine behind me. The kids can see I’m not happy. I tell them to sit down and they ask me whether I’ve got their essays. I tell them, ‘I do, in fact, have your essays. And do you know what I do with essays like this?’ And I wave them in front of the kids. I say, ‘I guillotine them!’…and their eyes get big. They get excited because they think they’ll have a chance to use the guillotine. Quickly, I quash their enthusiasm, ‘You’re guillotining squat here. I am guillotiningand this is what happens to essays that are junk, that waste my time…they get guillotined.’ Dead silence. One guy leaps out of hic chairhe can’t wait to see; his essay is first on the list. I roll up the essays, put them through the hole in the plank where somebody’s head (Monseigneur Butternut) is supposed to go. The whole class is staring (phones come out). I pull the rope, whoosh goes the blade. Thud. The blade hacks into the essays. I then invite my students to come and pick up their rubbish. They fetch their essays. I hammer the point home by telling them that they have not been deemed worthy to use the guillotine in a celebration of the revolution; their names will not decorate Madame. Plus, they must rewrite their essays.

Then, a year later, this same class is in Grade 11 and it is the third termthey’re learning about the Cold War, Matric work. They arrive for their lesson, sit down (as usual) and after ten minutes of teaching, I see Socrate fiddling in his pocket. I tell him to put his phone away fast. Usually I collect phones at the beginning of the lesson but I had not done it on this day. He says, ‘No mam, mam…it’s exactly a year ago since the guillotining of the essays!’ I say, ‘What? How do you know?’ Now he’s distracted me. He says, ‘No mam, it’s on my phone; exactly a year ago today, you guillotined the essays.’ That was the lesson over. In chorus, ‘Ah mam, can we get the guillotine out?’ I fall for this…and unlock the store room, lug out Madame Guillotine; ‘Okay, you wanna celebrate the guillotining of the essays? Well, someone must produce a grotty essay. Do you have any in your bags?’ They dig in their bags, find some grotty essays and hand them to me, and I say, ‘Fine, we will celebrate the one year anniversary of the guillotining of the essays.’

Whoosh, whack, thud.



Storyteller: Clare Paterson

Author: Andrea Zanin

Clare Paterson grew up in Durban but moved to Joburg in her twenties, and is currently teaching history at Saheti. Her three children and 10 grandchildren live in England; she misses them lots but enjoys visiting her family and jolling around London and the green pastures of the UK. She also loves a good beheading. 

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