(French: "Victims' Ball")

A singularly strange event of the already extraordinary period that was the French Revolution.

After the Thermidorean Revolution (the toppling of Robespierre and the end of the Terror - on 9 Thermidor, or July 27, 1794), the families of those who had died on the scaffold during the Terror convened at the Hôtel Thelusson for a Bal des Victimes. Only those who had lost family members to the guillotine were admitted.

At this curious ball, the dancers wore a piece of red string around their necks, symbolising the guillotine's point of impact. The invited wore red shawls and powdered their hair with flour.

A similar event was held in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where the women carried bonnets à l'humanité and corsets à la justice, while the younger people in attendance wore their hair à la victime, tressed and tied back like someone about to be guillotined.

As mystifying and distasteful as such events may seem to modern eyes, they no doubt served a cathartic purpose not dissimilar to modern-day memorial services1 for the bereaved families of victims. Furthermore, they certainly served as a means for society to distance itself from any shared responsibility in the deaths during the Terror. By marking one's abhorrence for the deaths, one could gain a form of absolution from culpability.2


1 Such as the many memorials for the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

2 Compare, for instance, with the latter-day attitudes expressed by German citizens who were adults during World War II, and who indisputably shared in a common national responsibility for the atrocities of the Nazi régime - but who nevertheless, after the war, stated their civilised abhorrence for these same atrocities. This is absolution by denial - a necessary device, if one is to live with oneself in the wake of such horrendous events.

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