Bastille Day: What’s the Big Deal?

Paris – July 1789

It is a hot, summer morning in Paris. Like the humidity which lies heavy upon the city, a spirit of unrest stews in the air. Thanks to M. Réveillon’s recent, ill-conceived proposal to the city council on combatting poverty (and the subsequent razing of his factory), rumors and complaints buzz from mouths hungrier for conspiracy than for bread. The word on the street is that a plot is being hatched in the halls of power— though the would-be perpetrators and victims remain unclear. One thing is clear, however: a storm is brewing, and the question on everyone’s lips is not whether, but when it will break upon Paris.

The epicenter in this hive of discontentment is a little neighborhood in the eastern end of the city, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, couched in the shadow of the Bastille— or bastion— which has protected the city gate here since the late 1300s. What is the source of this discord and why does this particular quartier stir like a kicked ants’ nest? To answer “why,” we must first ask “what.”  That is, “What is this fortress of stone standing before us?”

The Bastille

Bastille,_1790_retouchedThe Bastille was constructed as a guard post for the Porte Sainte-Antoine in 1370, during the Hundred Years’ War against the English. Over the centuries, it grew into a rather formidable state prison, though the prisoners kept there were often of the noble or royal variety. Despite the fact that many of these prisoners lived in rather lavish conditions (some even brought their own furniture, held dinner parties, and could even leave during the day as long as they slept there at night), thanks to some of their colorful autobiographies, the Bastille developed an ominous reputation as a place of unspeakable horrors.

While it is true that abuses did occur there, the denizens of the surrounding Faubourg Saint-Antoine seem to have been able only to guess at the atrocities allegedly committed within its walls. In those days, it didn’t take much to be thrown into the Bastille: no judge or jury were required, only a lettre de cachet. In any case, the imposing structure eventually came to be associated with arbitrary authority and the abuse of royal power.

Defecation, Demonstration, and Decapitation

Marquis_de_Sade_portraitOne such prisoner of the Bastille was the “deviant” Marquis de Sade (from whose name we derive the word “sadism” and “sadistic” thanks to his libertine writings on sexuality and even more violent practice of it). Imprisoned by his own mother-in-law’s lettre de cachet, the Marquis was living quite high on the hog within the Bastille.

However, this did not stop him from… ahem… bullshitting a bit:

“He took hold of a long white metal pipe equipped with a little funnel which, when the urge arose, he attached to his bottom— a portable toilet in which he could more conveniently dispatch his excretions down below into the moat. With said instrument Sade formed a kind of bullhorn that he used to harangue the people of the faubourg.

‘Good people! They are slitting the throats of the prisoners in the Bastille! Come immediately to our rescue!’” (Lorànt Deutsch, Metronome)

Faced with the threat of royal troops gathering outside the city, on the morning of July 14, the good people of Paris first stormed the military hospital Les Invalides for guns before setting their sights on the Bastille, which was full of gunpowder.

Now, the governor of the Bastille, the Marquis de Launay, was not about to simply open his gates to the mob amassing outside, but he did allow a delegation of city officials from the Hôtel de Ville (or town hall) entry into the fortress in an attempt to negotiate— and probably buy time for reinforcements. Two more such delegations were forthcoming, but the hoped-for reinforcements, alas, were not.

Eventually, the crowds outside grew restless enough that shots were exchanged. Thus, the first 100 casualties fell to the ground, and the Revolution had begun.

Thanks to some defectors from within the ranks of the Swiss army commanding the defense of the Bastille, the gates were eventually burned down with cannons from Les Invalides (apparently, someone found some gunpowder elsewhere), and the governor was forced to surrender. The Marquis de Sade was saved. However, the poor Marquis de Launay, was not.

Arrestation du gouverneur de la Bastille - Jean-Baptiste Lallemand

Arrestation du gouverneur de la Bastille – Jean-Baptiste Lallemand

Undismayed by their meager liberation of only seven petty crooks and forgers, the mob exulted in its symbolic triumph over the forces of monarchy and set about dismantling the Bastille within only a few short days, but not before dragging Launay through the streets and decapitating him with a knife (the guillotine still a distant threat on the horizon). The governor’s head affixed to a pike and paraded through the city, the révolutionnaires’ bloodlust, far from being quenched, was only just beginning…

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