July 14 is the French national holiday, marking the date in 1789 when a Parisian mob stormed the Bastille, officially kickstarting the French Revolution—the first of many, but certainly the most notable. As Louis XVI asked the Duc de la Rochefoucauld at the time, Is it a revolt? “No, majesty, it is a revolution,” the Duc replied. It was indeed the iconic instance of this new political concept, stripping in a single tumultuous year all the ancient authority of crown and church and making Frenchmen citizens (certain Frenchmen that is, and no Frenchwomen at first). Despite its long, bloody, and authoritarian aftermath (the Reign of Terror, Napoleon, a series of Republics interspersed with returns to monarchy and empire), July 14 has been celebrated ever since. It is a day for French people and Francophiles to celebrate the great nation’s history, culture, and achievements—in food, architecture, painting, music, and of course, books.
During the 18th century, the French court and aristocracy grew increasingly out of touch with the middle class and peasantry, and the stage was set. Enlightenment philosophers and polemicists like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot criticized oppressive institutions and spread the gospel of the rights of man and the social contract. The American Revolution was much admired, and aided by French military men like Lafayette. Then consecutive years of ruined harvests and famines in the 1780s caused nationwide discontent, while corrupt clergymen and nobles avoided hardship and taxation. A series of expensive wars had depleted the French treasury to the point that Louis XVI was forced to call into session the Estates-General in 1789 in hopes of passing a tax increase. The Third Estate (the ‘commoners’) seized the moment, resolving to write a constitution and drastically reform the state. Maladroit moves by the king and rumors of an impending crackdown led to street protests in Paris. On July 14, French soldiers joined the mob in attacking the Bastille.
The Bastille (or fortress) Saint-Antoine was built in the late 14th Century to guard Paris’ eastern flank against a British attack during the Hundred Years’ War. It was innovative in design, with eight towers 75 feet tall linking a high-walled structure some 120 feet long by 220 feet wide. Surrounded by a Seine-fed moat and controlling a crucial route into the city, it was a powerful component of Parisian defense, despite being captured by Henry V in the 15th century and garrisoned by the English for a few years. By the time of Louis XIV, Paris had overgrown its old city walls, and working-class faubourgs spread out into the countryside beyond the Bastille.
The Bastille had been used as a prison before, but Louis XIV expanded this greatly starting in the late 17th Century. He imprisoned well over 2,000 of his enemies, including rebels and conspirators, out-of-favor religious groups, and notoriously, the Man In the Iron Mask, who became the subject of fevered speculation. The masked man actually wore a veil of black velvet, but his identity has still never been definitively established; romantic rumors and tales of Dumas made him Louis XIV’s illegitimate cousin, or even (gasp!) twin brother. The Sun King would personally determine who should be imprisoned in the Bastille and for what arbitrary length of time, sending out ministers with sealed orders who would theatrically tap the unfortunate on the shoulder with a white baton. Despite its harsh image, conditions greatly improved at the prison over time, and by 1789, there were only seven prisoners left; still, the revolutionary press painted it as a symbol of royal despotism, full of dungeons and torture chambers. For some years administrative plans had been in the works to demolish it and sell off the real estate or convert it to a public space. (The eighth prisoner was in fact the Marquis de Sade, who had been imprisoned there for blasphemy and sexual infamy, but he was transferred to a different institution earlier in July after he incited revolutionary crowds by shouting out his window the falsehood that the king was planning to massacre all the remaining prisoners.)
By mid-July the country was in disarray and sporadic violence was breaking out. Factions of the French guards mutinied, and looters began arming. The Bastille was the most visible royal outpost in eastern Paris, and its commander ordered it fortified. On the morning of the 14, a crowd gathered outside, intent on commandeering its large store of gunpowder. Negotiations broke down, chaos erupted in the outer courtyard, and many rioters were killed in an exchange of gunfire, along with a few guards. More mutinous soldiers arrived and brought cannons to bear. Just as the Bastille’s commander was debating how to resolve the situation without a bloodbath, the drawbridge suddenly came down. The mob rushed in, dragged him out, and killed him. They seized the gunpowder and swarmed in search of prisoners to liberate and the fabled torture implements. Few of either were found, but that did not stop lurid fabrications in the press of horrifying dungeons and even the crumbling skeleton of the Man in the Iron Mask himself.
The conquered Bastille instantly became a hugely popular justification for the revolution, the victory of the people over the tyrannies of the crown. Triumphant images and tributes proliferated, and the fallen rioters were canonized as vainqueurs. At first, there was some disagreement as to whether the fortress should be torn down, reoccupied by revolutionary forces, or preserved as a kind of monument; Mirabeau made his preference known by personally chipping away at a battlement. After that, a committee of electors awarded the demolition to entrepreneur and self-styled patriot Pierre-François Palloy, who had been angling for the job. He commenced immediately with a large team of workers and had it down in five months. Although he did not receive his official payment for some years, he found plenty of ways to both turn a profit and burnish his own reputation, hosting celebratory festivals on the site, carving the building stones into mini-Bastille souvenirs, and generally overseeing a lucrative market in Bastille memorabilia.
Having been converted to a public plaza, a Fountain of Regeneration was first constructed on the site in 1793, featuring a statue of Isis with water spurting from her breasts (the somewhat creepy idea being that passers-by should fill a cup and drink from the waters of regeneration). Later when Napoleon came to power, he did not like all the focus on the legend of the Bastille and preferred a monument to his own military triumphs. He initially considered erecting his Arc de Triomphe on the site, before its location on the Champs-Élysées was settled. Instead, he wound up commissioning a monumental 78-foot-tall bronze statue of a battle elephant (never mind that Hannibal’s elephants were defeated) to be built there. But by 1813, the French treasury had been again depleted by war, and only a full-size plaster and stucco model of the elephant could be managed. Suffice it to say, the gigantic plaster elephant did not age well, and a few years later was blackened by soot, deteriorating and rat-infested. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo memorably depicted the street urchin Gavroche living in one of the elephant’s moldering legs. In 1840, the elephant was joined on the plaza by the 154-foot July Column, topped by a golden statue of the Spirit of Freedom, to commemorate a different July revolution—the 1830 revolution that is, which brought the ‘Citizen King’ Louis-Philippe to power. The July Column is still there, but in 1846 Napoleon’s plaster elephant was finally torn down. Stones from the fortress were repurposed in bridges and other structures, and in 1899 some foundations were uncovered and the stones put on display nearby. Today the original outline of the Bastille is marked out in the pavement of the plaza.
May your Quatorze Juillet be Joyeux—enjoy it with some très bonne French pop music on this Freegal playlist, and these albums that you can stream or borrow with your library card on Freegal and hoopla!