The Fall Of The Bastille

In the days before central air conditioning, in the irritating heat of summer, people just seem to have been more ready to riot and revolt. Thus it comes as no surprise that today, 14 July, is the anniversary of one of the most famous and resounding revolutionary acts in history, the storming of The Bastille in Paris, in 1789.

The storming of The Bastille has enormous significance as a symbol of the common man rebelling against the tyranny and abuses of an autocratic and repressive regime. Images of vast mobs of Parisians storming the ancient fortress where hundreds of political prisoners were kept in squalid, miserable confinement have inspired literature, poetry, music, and, most importantly, action. The French consider the storming of The Bastille as the crucial moment when their revolution truly began, and as the turning point from monarchy to democracy. Bastille day is celebrated much as is the 4th of July in the United States, with parades, speeches, and fireworks displays. In 2004, for the first time ever, the Bastille Day parade in Paris was led by troops from the Queen of England’s own guards! (Now that’s an ironic turn of events.)

The fall of The Bastille ranks with the signing of The Declaration of Independence as a pivotal event in the history of human liberty and the progress of Freedom.

However, it should be noted, that the storming of The Bastille is an event far more fraught with symbolic significance than actual tactical impact. At the time the dread prison fell, it was hardly an indictment of the Royal government; the prison housed just SEVEN inmates: a “deviant” nobleman, two “mad men,” and four forgers. The aristocrat was the Compte de Solages; just two weeks before the prison was liberated, the infamous Marquis de Sade had been transferred from its confines. The inmates were hardly a mass of oppressed political opposition.

The mob which attacked The Bastille numbered perhaps a thousand people, the defenders numbered about 100. The mob commandeered muskets and cannon from other armories around the city, and the governor of the prison surrendered in the face of certain defeat. The mob immediately dragged him out and killed him, then surged in to free the prisoners. There was much disappointment when it was discovered how few the prisoners were, and what an uninspiring lot they were. Nevertheless, within three days, the mythologizing had begun. An almost entirely fictitious account, “Les Revolutions De Paris,” was published three days after the event, and the stature of the storming grew in symbolic importance with each passing month. By the first anniversary of the liberation, it had become the major national holiday in France, though it would not be officially designated until the mid 19th century.

The Bastille itself was not so very great a fortress in actuality. The term bastille is the French for a small “bastion,” a fortified gateway in the wall of a city or castle. When the structure was built in the late 1300’s, it was the gate into Paris at Rue Saint Antoine. When Paris grew outside its old walls, the fortress no longer served a defensive purpose, and it was used as a prison from the late 17th century. Though it often held political prisoners and writers deemed to have slandered the crown, it was evidently a rather decent place as prisons go, being the preferred place for convicted nobility to be incarcerated.

The castle no longer stands. The building was demolished soon after its fall. Today Paris has its Place de la Bastille on its site.

Whatever the realities, the symbolism of the French People defying a thousand years of Royal might and laying the foundations for a democratic government resonates with lovers of liberty everywhere. The Bastille stands figuratively as a warning to all governments that power ultimately resides with the governed, and a reminder to all people, that they are the governed.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

The Bastille, like death itself, equalizes all whom it engulfs.

— Simon Linguet,
Memoirs Of The Bastille
Published in London, 1783

Further Reading:

M. Linguet’s Memoires Sur La Bastille is available in French as a Google Books edition online. The text is scanned from an 1894 edition from the Stanfurd Library.

Citizens: A Chronicle Of The French Revolution, Simon Schama; Alfred A. Knopf, 1989: ISBN: 0394559487

Schama devotes fewer than a dozen pages to the storming of the Bastille, making it seem trivial in the context of this 875+ page tour de force. But one readily understands why: the event itself – no matter its drama or poetic potential – is really not key to the revolution. This is the most accessible and enjoyably readable major account of the French Revolution that I know of. Schama has an engaging narrative style, and he tells a good story. A must-read on the topic.

Tallyrand: The Art Of Survival, Jean Orieux, translated by Patricia Wolfe; Alfred A. Knopf, 1974: ISBN: 0394472993

This is a wonderfully detailled account of the life of one of history’s greatest and most mercurial masters of political survival. Tallyrand served the King, the Republic, the Emperor, and the restored Monarchy, changing his stripes as needed. Quite distinct from the often dry and tedious Annales school of French historianship, this biography makes for fascinating reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s