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The Tribunal of the Terror - Sample

Chapter 1: The "Maison de Justice"

At the opening of an old play, the scene of which is laid in a small town, a passerby stops two sauntering townsmen and asks:

“Can you direct me, please, to the Palais de Justice?”

“Sir,” replies one of the bourgeois, “Justice has no palace here; you refer to the house where they condemn.”

In Paris, during the Revolution, the ancient house of the Parlement[1]* similarly lost its old name of Palais de Justice,—a naively trustful title in which the word Justice seemed to be evoked as a personality, a charitable and protective lady of high rank. In 1793 people commonly spoke of the “Tribunal.” “Justice” was omitted; its palace alone—or rather its “maison [house],” for there was no longer a palace—existed.

Facing the Rue de la Barillerie,[2]* behind those finely wrought and gilded railings which cost more than 600,000 livres,[3] rise its three façades, enframing the Cour du Mai,—spotlessly white façades, which neither time, rain nor smoke has yet soiled.[4]*

By way of the long flight of steps, sixty feet broad,[5] at the bottom of which the Procurators’ clerks, under the old regime, annually planted in the spring a beribboned maypole, which they went in procession to choose amongst the finest oaks of the Forest of Bondy,[6]* we reach the Galerie Mercière, communicating on the right with the heart of the old Palais, the large Salle des Pas Perdus.[7]*

In the days of the Parlement the Salle des Pas Perdus was the centre of the judicial world. Around the immense gallery and at the base of each of its pillars were stalls, which were let at a very high rental to booksellers, jewellers, public scriveners, shoemakers, sword-cutlers, and even pastry-cooks and lace-makers. A sort of fair was established there, with a noisy crowd in constant movement from seven o’clock in the morning, the hour at which the sittings opened.[8] Around the Gros Pilier[9]* a sort of court was formerly held. It was thus named, “not because it was larger than the other pillars, but because it had served for a large number of years as a meeting-place for the most celebrated advocates of the day and for persons distinguished for their wit and works.”[10]* In the north-east corner of the Salle des Pas Perdus, behind two railings and between the statues of Saint Louis and Charlemagne, was a gilded altar dedicated to Saint Nicholas. This was the Chapelle des Procureurs, where every morning for five centuries divine service had been celebrated. There also, every year, on November 11th, the day after that of Saint Martin, was held the traditional Red Mass.

[1] The supreme law court of prerevolutionary Paris. See Editor’s Note. (Ed.)

[2] Now Boulevard du Palais. (Ed.)

[3] Report to Comte de Chabrol, by A. M. Peyre, 1828. This fine piece of iron work was executed by Bigonnet in accordance with the designs of Desmaisons, the architect of the Palais.

[4] The present buildings of the Cour du Mai, which were decided upon after the 1776 fire, were barely finished in 1787. They have not been altered since that time. [They are, however, after a century of industry and auto exhaust since 1909, no longer “spotlessly white.” (Ed.)]

[5] Thierry’s Guide du voyageur et de l’étranger, 1787.

[6] The Procurators’ clerks formed a disciplined body bearing the name of Basoche. “The great privilege of the Basoche consisted in going every year, in the month of May, with flag unfurled and drums beating, to the forest of Bondy, bent on conquering the finest oak it could find. By means of a long dray with high wheels, ornamented with ribbons and garlands of flowers, the tree was uprooted. Several Basochians, holding the ends of broad streamers, took care on the return journey that the lower branches were sufficiently suspended to be guaranteed against any defilement or accidental damage. The precious trophy was brought with pomp into the courtyard of the Palais, called the Cour du Mai because of the new tree which was planted there in place of that of the preceding year.” Souvenirs de M. Berryer, doyen des avocats de Paris de 1774 à 1778. Brussels, 1839. The Basoche possessed statutes, regulations, a scarlet military uniform, a flag, arms, etc.

[7] It was called either the Salle des Procureurs [Prosecutors’ Hall] or the Salle des Libraires. [Booksellers’ Hall (Ed.)]

[8] Souvenirs de M. Berryer, p. 72. “It was at the sitting held at seven o’clock in the morning…”

[9] Big Pillar. (Ed.)

[10] Germain Brice’s Description de la Ville de Paris, Vol. IV, p. 295.—“In the Grande Salle,” writes Berryer, on the other hand, “there was a pillar called the Pilier des Consultations. … The seniors habitually gathered there to confer and to give, viva voce, to the first comer among the poor the advice of which he was in need.”

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