Dances of the dead: the victims’ ball, Gothic fashion and entertainment of late 18th century France

Posted by Fanny Lacôte on December 15, 2015 in Blog, Fanny Lacôte tagged with , , , , ,

Parisian society after the Terror

The 27th of July 1794, a.k.a. 9 Thermidor: Maximilien de Robespierre is arrested. The blade of the guillotine falling on his neck symbolises the end of the Terror in post-revolutionary France. As the prisons open their gates to release the prisoners awaiting the guillotine, French people start to breathe again, and thus, they start to dance in celebration of life.

Contemporary accounts relate the bloom of numerous dancing societies. As the Goncourt brothers have written in their history of French society under the Directory, “la France danse”, “France is dancing”:

Elle danse depuis thermidor ; elle danse comme chantait autrefois : elle danse pour se venger, elle danse pour oublier ! Entre son passé sanglant, son avenir sombre, elle danse ! A peine sauvée de la guillotine, elle danse pour ne plus y croire […]. La France, encore sanglante et toute ruinée, tourne, et pirouette, et se trémousse en une farandole immense et folle.[1]

[She has been dancing since Thermidor. She dances to avenge, she dances to forget! Between her bloody past and her dark futures, she dances! Scarcely saved from the guillotine, she dances…. France, still bloodied and all ruined, turns and pirouettes and spills about in an immense and mad farandole.[2]]

This almost sacrilegious eagerness that could not be understood by those of the second or the third generation – in other words, those who did not live through the Revolution – both fascinates and repels, as this extract from Octave Uzanne illustrates:

A peine les échafauds étaient-ils renversés, – le puisard de la barrière du Trône exhalait encore l’odeur fétide du sang qu’on y avait versé, – que déjà les bals s’organisaient par tous les points de la capitale ; les sons joyeux de la clarinette, du violon, du tambourin, du galoubet, convoquaient aux plaisirs de la danse les survivants de la Terreur qui s’y pressèrent en foule.[3]

[The scaffold were scarcely overthrown, – the sump of the barrier of the Throne was still exhaling the stench of blood that had been shed there –, that already dances were organised in all parts of the capital; the joyful sounds of the clarinet, the violin, the tambourine, the galoubet, summoned to the pleasures of the dance the survivors of the Terror, who rushed to it in masses.]

Abandoned convents, ruined churches and ancient cemeteries were transformed into early Gothic nightclubs, which welcomed anyone. Accounts of late contemporaries mentioned two notorious balls in particular.

The Bal des Zéphirs [Zephyrs’ Ball], located in the cemetery of the church St. Sulpice, in the heart of Paris, was the place were young profanes were not concerned with awakening the dead while dancing on their tombstones:

[L]es pierres tumulaires n’étaient point même enlevées à l’intérieur de ce lieu de plaisir, mais la jeunesse dansante s’inquiétait peu de profaner la cendre des morts et la folie brillait de tout son éclat dans cette nécropole.[4]

[[T]he tombstones were not yet removed inside this place of pleasure, but the dancing youth cared little about desecrating the ashes of the dead, and in this necropolis, madness shone in all its splendour.]

A few streets away, another popular ball, the Bal des Tilleuls [Lime Trees’ Ball], took place in the cemetery of an old Carmelite convent, under the very same lime trees where the archbishop of Arles and a hundred priests were massacred.[5]


The Victims’ ball

Following a decree, adopted on the proposition of François-Antoine de Boissy d’Anglas[6] – a moderate figure of the French Revolution –, the aristocratic properties confiscated by the revolutionary tribunal were returned to the families.[7]

This decree lead to the general jubilation of the young generation that had lost a parent in prison or on the guillotine, and was, until this decree, deprived of its inheritance.

This lead to the creation of another ball, which took place in the Parisian “hôtel particulier” Richelieu[8], street Louis-le-Grand. First named after the name of its location, “ball Richelieu”, it was quickly renamed after its participants and known as “the Victims’ Ball”.

Indeed, to access this morbid dancing society, where life was celebrated through the commemoration of the dead, one was asked to prove that one had lost a parent on the guillotine. Having lost someone in prison – while waiting to be called on the guillotine – did not prove sufficient enough to be admitted! The duchess d’Abrantes, who claimed to have taken part in this infamous ball, deplores this very selective process: “Yet, this was not the father or the mother’s fault if they only had died in prison![9]

One particular tradition of this decadent ball was to greet each other “à la victime”, in a way mimicking the movement of the head during decapitation; and young men competed in order to win the favour of the fairer sex, as related by Octave Uzanne:

En entrant dans ce bal, on saluait à la victime, d’un mouvement sec de tête, qui imitait celui du condamné au moment où le bourreau, le basculant sur la planche, passait sa tête dans la fatale lunette. On affectait une grâce énorme dans ce salut que chacun étudiait de son mieux ; quelques jeunes héros de contredanse y mettaient une élégance telle qu’ils étaient accueillis par l’aéropage féminin avec une faveur marquée.[10]

[When entering this ball, one must “greet à la victime” with a quick movement of the head, which mimicked that of the condemned when the executioner, passing the convict’s head in the fatal window, tilted it on the board. One simulated an unbelievable grace while performing this greeting, which everyone tried his best to study; and some young quadrille heroes simulated such an elegance that the female Areopagus welcomed them with a marked favour.]


Fashion victim

After the Terror, Parisian culture and fashion were dominated by references to chaos and the guillotine, as related by the journalist Georges Touchard-Lafosse in his Memories of a Half-Century (1836):

Guillotine earrings

Guillotine-shaped earrings, c. 1793, Paris, Musée Carnavalet

[L]a vogue, idole perpétuelle des habitans de notre capitale, s’était horriblement affublée, comme d’une gaze ou d’un ruban nouveau, des insignes de la terreur. J’ai vu des femmes porter la guillotine façonnée en boucles d’oreilles, d’or ; j’ai vu cet instrument de mort entre les mains des enfans et réduit à la proportion des jouet ordinaires ; je l’ai vu, miniature d’acajou et présentant un fer qui jouait par un ressort ingénieux, faire l’amusement d’une jolie femme alongée sur son canapé ; j’ai frémi en aperçevant, au milieu d’un superbe surtout de table, une guillotine de sucre ![11]

[[T]he vogue, perpetual idol of the inhabitants of our capital, was horribly decked out, as in a gauze or a new ribbon, in the insignia of the Terror. I have seen women wearing guillotine shaped gold earrings; I have seen this instrument of death in the hands of children and reduced to the size of ordinary toys; I have seen it as a mahogany miniature, which sword was activated by an ingenious spring, for the entertainment of a pretty woman laid on her couch; I shuddered at the sight of a candy guillotine, amid a beautiful table centrepiece!]

These balls became fashion meetings where the descendants of the guillotined could be admired. These celebrations required a specific outfit for the occasion, of which contemporary witnesses testify.

Women wore hair “à la victime”, that is to say, short, recalling the haircut of those sentenced to death – in order to facilitate the cut of the guillotine blade. According the duchess d’Abrantes, Madame Tallien, survivor of the Terror, was the instigator of this fashion, by cutting her hair herself in prison to send locks to her loved ones.[12]

Jean-Louis Laneuville (1748-1826), Portrait de la citoyenne Tallien, dans un cachot à La Force, toile agrandie sur les côtés, 129 x 112 cm. Collection des princes de Chimay

The Citizen Tallien (1773-1835) in the prison of La Force, holding in her hands her hair that has been cut, by Jean-Louis Laneuville


Madame Arnault de Gorse par Louis-Leopold Boilly, 4e quart 18e siècle ; 1er quart 19e siècle, Paris, Musée du Louvre

Portrait of Madame Arnault de Gorse, by Louis-Leopold Boilly, last quarter of the 18th c.-1st quarter of the 19th c., Paris, Musée du Louvre














This hairstyle was supplemented by mourning clothes, and an outfit recalling that of those sentenced to death: dresses scooped out in the back and decorated with “croisures à la victime” – crossed ribbons forming a “x” marking the spot where the blade of the guillotine was supposed to cut the head off –, and belts “à la victime”, which became emblems of post-Terror fashion, as seen in 1790s fashion magazines, such as the Journal des dames et des modes (Ladies and Fashion Journal).

“Croisures à la victime” from le Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1798. Bibliothèque Nationale

Journal des Dames et des Modes

Ceinture à la victime, Journal des Dames et des Modes 1797

According to Octave Uzanne[13], some women pushed their love of realism and horror as far as to tie a thin red ribbon around their neck to mimic the severing of the guillotine. To complete this outfit, daughters of those sentenced to death would throw on their shoulders a red shawl, in memory of the one Charlotte Corday – the Girondist guillotined for having murdered the revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in his bath – wore before her execution[14]; while others were seen “in the blood-stained garments which their relatives had worn on their way to the scaffold, and which they had purchased with large sums of money.[15]


An urban legend?

It has long been discussed that the victims’ ball might have been the invention of later writers, which depending on their political orientation, used it as an example either to demonstrate the reaction of the Parisians after having faced a terrible government, or to denounce the licentious aristocrats who took part in this macabre and decadent ball. The most recent source referring to the victims’ ball as a fake historical production is Ronald Schechter’s article “Gothic Thermidor: The Bals des victimes, the Fantastic, and the Production of Historical Knowledge in Post-Terror France”. In his article, Ronald Schechter explains that no invitation to the victims’ ball has never been found, and that the only sources mentioning this event are testimonies of rather late contemporaries, which are packed with contradictory and sometimes historically incorrect information.

Fake historical knowledge or not, this concept is nonetheless interesting to look at from a literary point of view. By reading these testimonials which depict Parisians mourning their lost ones in such an unconventional way, by rejoicing and dancing while corpses were still fresh, and the blood not yet dry, one can not overlook the possible Gothic cathartic aspect of such literary productions – many of which were written by aristocrats, and some of them had lived through the Terror.

At a time when Gothic fiction – along with the historical novel – was still flourishing in France, “authentic” accounts mentioning the haunting presence of the guillotine and that of the dead, which the survivors of the Terror were imitating with costumes and by almost ritualistically mimicking their death, could only appeal to the readers’ imagination.

The name “the victims’ ball”, rather ambiguous in itself, referring to the victim’s victims, that is to say, not to the victims of the Terror themselves, but to those who had lost them, could not fail to be also interpreted in a very Gothic way: the ball where the victims of the guillotine would arose and dance.

Ponson du Terrail


This interpretation of the victims’ ball has been fictionalised by 19th century writer Pierre Alexis de Ponson du Terrail in his eponymous novel Le Bal des victimes (1869), in which he stages the torments of Paul Barras – notorious figure of the French Revolution – literally haunted by the aristocrats he sentenced to the guillotine.








A cathartic device that fascinates over the centuries

The Gothic aspect of this concept still fascinates as it used to in the 19th century.

Thus, director Abel Gance features a victims’ ball in his movie Napoléon (1927), as shown  in the following extract.

[jwplayer mediaid=”18194″]



But very recently, historical romance writer Elizabeth Cole has included in her series Secrets of the Zodiac a novel entitled A Reckless Soul (2014), which stages Sophie Bertrand, a French spy wearing a red ribbon around her neck and hairstyle “à la victime” during a re-enactment of the victims’ ball.

the victim's ball






Music-wise, “The Victim’s Ball” (2009-) is the solo project of Robert Massaglia, which explores the dark and hidden side of the French Revolution through mixes of classic music, dark cabaret and “Phantom of the Opera” epic scores.


Finally, no later than last summer, one could attend, from the 30th June to the 4th July 2015, the play “When the terror has ended the victims will dance”, by Mark Ravenhill, at London’s Platform Theatre.

When the terror has ended the victims will dance



[1] Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Histoire de la société française pendant le Directoire (Paris: Librairie académique, Didier et Cie, [1855] 1864), pp. 137-138.

[2] Ronald Schechter, “Gothic Thermidor: The Bals des victimes, the Fantastic, and the Production of Historical Knowledge in Post-Terror France”,
 in Representations, No. 61, Special Issue: Practices of Enlightenment (University of California Press, Winter 1998), pp. 78- 94 (p. 79).

[3] Octave Uzanne, La Française du siècle: modes, mœurs, usages (Paris: A. Quantin, 1886), p. 9.

[4] Ibid., p. 11.

[5] Amédée Gabourd, Histoire de la Révolution et de l’Empire (Paris: Jacques Lecoffre et Cie, 1847), vol. 2, p. 482.

[6] François-Antoine de Boissy d’Anglas, Convention nationale. Discours de Boissy d’Anglas, sur la nécessité d’annuler ou de réviser les jugements rendus par les tribunaux révolutionnaires et de rendre aux familles des condamnés les biens confisqués par ces jugements (Paris: Impression nationale, 1794).

[7] For the link between the decree and the victims’ ball, see Octave Uzanne, Op. cit., p. 11.

[8] Laure Junot d’Abrantès, Histoire des salons de Paris, tableaux et portraits du grand monde, sous Louis XVI, le Directoire, Le Consulat et l’Empire, la Restauration, et le règne de Louis-Philippe 1er, (Paris: Ladvocat, 1838), vol. 3, pp. 94-95.

[9] Ibid., p. 99: “Ce n’était pourtant pas la faute du père ou de la mère s’ils n’étaient morts qu’en prison !”

[10] Octave Uzanne, Op. cit., p. 12.

[11] Georges Touchard-Lafosse, Souvenirs d’un demi-siècle: 1789-1836, (Paris: Librairie de Dumont, [1836] 1839), vol. 4, pp. 379-380.

[12] Laure Junot d’Abrantès, Op. cit., vol. 3, p. 95.

[13] Octave Uzanne, Op. cit., pp. 13-14.

[14] Ibid., p. 13.

[15] Louise Mülbach, The Empress Josephine, an historical sketch of the days of Napoleon, trans. from the German by Rev. W. Binet, A. M., (New York: A. L. Fowle, [1867] 1906), p. 247.

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