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The Bastille

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Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Storming of the Bastille

Hulton Archive / Getty Images
The Bastille is one of the most famous fortifications in European history, almost entirely because of the central role it plays in the mythology of the French Revolution.

Form and Prison

A stone fortress based around eight circular towers with five foot thick walls, the Bastille was smaller than later paintings have made it look, but it was still a monolithic and imposing structure that reached to seventy-three feet in height. It was built in the fourteenth century to defend Paris against the English, and started to be used as a prison in the reign of Charles VI. This was still its most (in)famous function by the era of Louis XVI, and the Bastille had seen a lot of prisoners across the years. Most people had been imprisoned on the orders of the king with any trial or defence, and were either nobles who had acted against the interests of the court, Catholic dissidents, or writers who were deemed seditious and corrupting. There was also a notable number of people whose families had deemed them stray and appealed to the king to have locked up for their (family’s) sake.

By the time of Louis XVI conditions in the Bastille were better than popularly portrayed. The dungeon cells, whose damp hastened illness, where no longer in use, and most prisoners were housed in the middle layers of the building, in cells sixteen feet across with rudimentary furniture, often with a window. Most prisoners were allowed to bring their own possessions, with the most famous example being the Marquis de Sade who bought a vast quantity of fixtures and fittings, as well as an entire library. Dogs and cats were also permitted, to eat any rats. The governor of the Bastille was given a fixed amount for each rank of prisoner each day, with the lowest being three livres a day for the poor (a figure still better than some Frenchmen lived on), and over five times that for high ranking prisoners. Drinking and smoking were also allowed, as were cards if you shared a cell.

A Symbol of Despotism

Given that people could end up in the Bastille without any trial, it’s easy to see how the fortress developed its reputation: a symbol of despotism, of the oppression of liberty, of censorship, or royal tyranny and torture. This was certainly the tone taken by writers before and during the revolution, who used the very certain presence of the Bastille as a physical embodiment of what they believed was wrong with the government. Writers, many of whom had been released from the Bastille, described it as a place of torture, of living burial, of body draining, mind sapping hell.

The Reality of Louis XVI’s Bastille

This image of the Bastille during the reign of Louis XVI is now largely believed to have been an exaggeration, with a smaller number of prisoners treated better than the general public had been led to expect. While there was undoubtedly a major psychological impact to being kept in cells so thick you couldn’t hear other prisoners – best expressed in Linguet’s Memoirs of the Bastille – things had improved considerably, and some writers were able to view their imprisonment as career building rather than life ending. The Bastille had become a relic of a previous age; indeed, documents from the royal court shortly before the revolution reveal plans had already been developed to knock the Bastille down and replace it with public works, including a monument to Louis XVI and freedom.

The Fall of the Bastille

On July 14th 1789, days into the French Revolution, a massive crowd of Parisians had just received arms and cannon from the Invalides. This uprising believed forces loyal to the crown would soon attack to try and coerce both Paris and the revolutionary National Assembly, and were seeking weapons to defend themselves. However, arms needed gunpowder, and much of that had been moved to the Bastille by the crown for safety. A crowd thus gathered around the fortress, fortified by both the urgent need for powder, but by a hatred for almost everything they believed was wrong in France.

The Bastille was unable to mount a long term defence as, while it had a forbidding number of guns, it had few troops and only two days worth of supplies. The crowd sent representatives into the Bastille to order the guns and powder be handed over, and while the governor – de Launay – declined, he did remove the weapons from the ramparts. But when the representatives left a surge from the crowd, an accident involving the drawbridge and the panicked actions of the crowd and soldiers led to a skirmish. When several rebel soldiers arrived with cannon, de Launay decided it was best to seek some sort of compromise for his men and their honor, although he did consider detonating the powder and most of the surrounding area with it. The defences were lowered and the crowd rushed in.

Inside the crowd found just seven prisoners, including four forgers, two insane, and one stray aristocrat. This fact was not allowed to ruin the symbolic act of seizing such a major symbol of once all powerful monarchy. However, as a number of the crowd had been killed in the fighting – later identified as eighty three instantly, and fifteen later on from injuries – compared to just one of the garrison, the crowd’s anger demanded a sacrifice, and de Launay was picked. He was marched through Paris and then murdered, his head being displayed on a pike. Violence had bought the second major success of the revolution; this apparent justification would bring many more changes over the next few years.

Aftermath

The fall of the Bastille left the population of Paris with the gunpowder for their recently seized weapons, giving the revolutionary city the means to defend itself. Just as the Bastille had been a symbol of royal tyranny before it fell, so after it was swiftly transformed by publicity and opportunism into a symbol of freedom. Indeed the Bastille “was much more important in its “afterlife” than it ever had been as a working institution of state. It gave a shape and an image to all the vices against which the Revolution defined itself.” (Schama, Citizens, p. 408) The two insane prisoners were soon sent to an asylum, and by November a fevered effort had demolished most of the Bastille’s structure. The King, although encouraged by his confidants to leave for a border area and hopefully more loyal troops, conceded and pulled his forces away from Paris and began to accept the revolution. Bastille Day is still celebrated in France each year.

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