The Executioner Takes A Coffee Break

Heather Hartley

Slaughter can really bring out the thirst in a person and a good cup of coffee can hit the spot. It is also a stimulating beverage for debate, duals and heavy petting. All of the above you’ll find bound up and gagged in the French Revolution which in part owes its existence to that sweet little bean many of us love to abuse.

The first Parisian café, Le Procope, opened in 1686 on the Left Bank and soon became the hip hangout of the movers, shakers and dictators of world history including Voltaire, Robespierre, Napoleon and Karl Lagerfeld. In the eighteenth century, huddled around Le Procope’s battered coffee pots, les Philosophes boldly wrote all twenty-eight tomes of L’Encyclopédie without the help of Wikipedia. Diderot and D’Alembert, wanting to educate and inspire people in the ways of science and art, were forced to battle it out together sur place with parchment and plume as To Go cups had not yet been invented. Benjamin Franklin also frequented the café and Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man down the street.

Hence stumbles into history la pause café, the coffee break, a ritual still going strong in France. These days, the world might be freaking out but the French have found their own fine balance between bickering over their 35-hour workweek and taking a break from the arduousness of it all around the office coffee maker, a sexy young thing who graduated from the Sorbonne last year with a degree in Philology and the Perfect Foulard.

Charles Henri Sanson: Professional Headroller

Three caffeinated facts:

1.) Ask a French person what a French press is and they will tell you it is a newspaper like Le Monde or Libération.

2.) The Enlightenment was a period of time before the expression “killing it” could be directly applied to poetry readings and pounding espresso shots, yet the expression was a vibrant part of daily life during the Terror.

3.) The executioner takes his coffee black.

Calamity and coffee go together and late-eighteenth century France was pretty much swimming in both. Centuries before Charles Manson there was Charles-Henri Sanson, Royal Executioner, avid fan of the guillotine and like all café-crazed French of the period, incorrigible coffee drinker. During a time of great professional instability, Sanson’s grisly job security was assured under the Reign of Terror: the gruesome gentleman caller was responsible for executing close to 3,000 people including the King.

You may want to pour yourself another cup. After morning coffee, you realize that rules sometimes suck and absolute monarchy is overrated. Walking down your street some days you think: I am the state, I am the state.

Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She has been Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.