Tricateuse: Witness to the Execution

IMG_3177[1]It is French for knitting woman, but the word tricoteuse has far greater significance than that. As the guillotine slices off another head of the French aristocracy during the Revolution, a tricoteuse sits in morbid calm watching the proceedings, returning to her knitting during a lull in the executions.

It is a strange juxtaposition for the same women who participated in the Women’s March on Versailles.

On a rainy morning on December 5, 1789 Parisian women who sold produce at a local market began to congregate.  They were enraged over the price of food- mainly bread.  The crowd’s numbers swelled to thousands. Having first ransacked Paris’ armory, the masses marched six hours to Versailles to see Louis XVI. After first occupying the Assembly, six women were chosen to see the king. They told him of their plight, and he agreed to do what he could to help them. Exhausted and appeased, the ladies returned to Paris.

Not all were satisfied.   The royal bedchambers were breached the next day.  Palace guards who attempted to defend the royal household were beheaded on the spot.  Their head’s were put on pikes, and paraded around the palace. Marie Antoinette and her maid narrowly escaped attack, seeking safety in the king’s bedchamber.

The head of the National Guard regained control of the castle but the mob was still outside.  He convinced the king to stand on his balcony and address them. Louis XVI announced he would return to Paris for his people.  The crowd was overjoyed. They called for Marie Antoinette and the children.  This request was granted. Then the mob then demanded that the children be taken inside.

It was well known that they disliked the queen: she was Austrian and believed to be responsible for the king’s sumptuous appetite. If there ever was a dramatic moment for a movie, it would be this one. Everyone must have believed that this was Marie Antoinette’s last moments- herself and the king included.  Did he fight to return to the balcony? Did someone stop him?  What could be going on in her mind? Certainly the mob was armed and angry and there she stood before them- each sizing up the other.

Possibly it was her bravery that saved her that day, but it would only be a few more years until she stood again before the same faces in Paris- a guillotine towering above her. October 14, 1793.

During her sham trial, Marie Antoinette was accused of abusing her young son- a charge that horrified the queen. It is said the same women who marched to Versailles years ago rallied to her support. She was executed the same day. Possibly the tricoteuses who bore witness to her execution averted their eyes at that final moment, or said a silent prayer.


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