Throughout history, symbols have had an overwhelming presence among citizens. The French Revolution had many symbols that represented power. Did the events leading up to the storming of the Bastille persuade the French citizens to believe that it was a symbol of power? There are many reasons why the French citizens would believe the Bastille to be a symbol of power. It was a very overwhelming stone structure, which stood robust, surrounded by small villages along with farmland. The architecture and placement of this fortress gave itself a reputation of strength and impregnation. It stood by itself, being the most intimidating structure of its time.
In the medieval year of 1370 Charles V ordered the building of the Bastille, or bastide, which means fortress, as a castle to defend the eastern side of Paris. It had eight towers and was linked by walls that were over one hundred feet tall. The river Sienne River fed its moat, which was eighty feet wide, but in the year 1789 it was dry. It was never meant to be a prison, but in the first half of the 17th century, Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII, began to send prisoners to the fortress. This remained the Bastille’s chief function until the year 1789.
The Bastille wasn’t an ordinary prison though; these prisoners were not given a trial. They were just locked up and kept in the prison until the king wished them out. Prisoners were only released after they sworn an oath never to reveal what was inside the prison. This gave the fortress a mysterious reputation. The liberators of the fortress were disappointed to see that the inside was more comfortable than they had imagined. By the year 1789 life inside the Bastille was no longer as the horrors of legend said they were. During Louis XVI’s rule, life inside the fortress was very easy. The prisoners had servants who made them meals, used their own furniture, some were given living allowance, and almost all were allowed to play games or walk freely around the fortress.
During 1789, the Bastille held only seven prisoners. These seven prisoners were Jean de la Correge; Jean Bechade; Bernard Laroche; Jean-Antoine Pujade; De Witt; the Count of Solages; and Tavernier. The first four of them were all properly tried and convicted forgers; the Count of Solages was imprisoned on request of his family who suspected him to be guilty of murder and incest; and De Witt imagined himself to be Julius Ceaser, St. Louis, and sometimes God. The last, Tavernier had been locked up since 1759 for his part in the Damiens conspiracy against Louis XV. He was the only political prisoner that was found when the Bastille was liberated on July 14, 1789. There was a staff of several dozen cooks, doctors, barbers, and workmen as well as eighty to ninety soldiers that guarded and cared for the seven prisoners. The Governor of the Bastille had a very good job, one of the best paid, in the royal service. Louis XVI and his monarchy were in major debt and plans were made to demolish the Bastille. In June of 1789, an architect produced plans for the destruction of the fortress and the redeveloping the site.
The two predecessors of Louis XVI, his father and grandfather, Louis XV and Louis XIV, left him great debts because of excessive spending. The country of France was close to being bankrupt. Though the nobles and clergy were very wealthy, Louis couldn’t tax them because they were wealthy. Then the First and Second Estates did not accept a land taxed proposed by Louis, which would cover some of the debt. By the year 1789 the country of France was in great debt and financial crisis. Other unfortunate events happened the year leading up to the storming of the Bastille. During the beginning of 1789 the bad weather had reduced the grain crops by almost one-quarter the normal yield. The cold winter made for frozen rivers, which also halted the transport and milling of flour in many parts of the nation. This then raised the price of bread in Paris from around 8 sous to nearly 14 sous. Many people did not have the money to buy bread at these outrageous prices this is one of the reasons that many of the peasants in the countryside started revolting.
The king called the Estates-General, an assembly of delegates, to Versailles in May of 1789 in order to approve a tax plan, but the delegates couldn’t agree on how to vote. Normally each estate had one vote and two out of the three Estates refused. The Third Estate then dropped from the assembly and declared themselves the National Assembly on June 17, 1789. He wanted to approve a new tax plan because taxes and laws were different in each of the provinces of France causing confusion and injustice. Louis XVI then locked them out of their meeting place, so the National Assembly moved to the palace tennis court. They made “the Tennis Court Oath” which meant that they would not leave the tennis court until they gave France a constitution and the king recognized them. If royal officials did not produce food supplies at affordable prices, then people would act directly to seize food.
Louis XVI then ordered 20,000 troops into Paris to protect the National Assembly and prevent disorder in the city. Parisians believed that food shortages and royal troops would be used in tandem to starve the people and overwhelm then into submission. People in the countryside soon heard three rumors of the happening in Paris. Fifteen thousand troops were marching to Paris to level it and kill any rebellious citizens. The Governor of the Bastille had pointed cannons toward people surrounding the Bastille and would blow them away. The representatives of the National Assembly (the third estate) were already locked up in the Bastille dungeons. These rumors caused an atmosphere of fear and panic, which lead to demonstrations, panicky reactions, and acts of violence. These small rumors would soon cause a very explosive act. They became afraid of the nobles and mobs started to burn manors and destroy paperwork. The peasants preformed these actions because they heard rumors that vagrants were marching to villages to destroy the harvest and coerce the peasants into submission. This was called the Great Fear.
On the night of July 12, the revolting citizens burnt down forty-four tollgates surrounding Paris resulting in the destruction of records. The Parisians also plundered the richest monastery in Paris, throwing furniture out its windows, destroying records all in search of gunpowder and weaponry. This same night all gunsmiths and saddlers were plundered in search of weaponry also.
On the morning of July 14, about 7000 citizens broke into a weapons depot and captured several cannons and about forty thousand rifles, but there still was no gunpowder. The citizens heard another rumor that all the gunpowder was moved to the Bastille. The Parisians only had one thing on their mind, “A la Bastille”, which means “to the Bastille”. The search for weapons now changed into a conquest against the fortress. The citizens wanted the symbol of the Bastille to fall into their hands. All the citizens marched to the fortress in order to seize the gunpowder. When the citizens got to the Bastille, its governor, Marquis de Launay did not want to surrender the gunpowder or the Bastille and decided to stand his ground. This is when Hulin and Elie, two ex French Guardsmen, took over command and decided to take out the Bastille with cannon fire. Five cannons were brought up to the front lines and used, but to no avail, these cannon balls just glanced off the fortress’s strong walls.
The members of the Third Estate attacked the Bastille on July 14, 1789. They believed that it was storage for gunpowder. These people ordered from the Governor of the Bastille guns and ammo and when he refused his tiny garrison opened fire on the mob. This massacre killed dozens of Parisians and wounded many more. When the garrison seized fire, the Parisians killed several of the soldiers. After the fighting had stopped the Parisians stormed the Bastille, released the prisoners, and distributed arms to the citizenry. The Parisians then decapitated the Governor of the Bastille, placed his head on a pole and paraded around the streets with it. All over France, small villages revolted against high taxes and started overthrowing their own local “Bastille’s”. Many local governments were overthrown and left for the citizens to run.
The taking of the Bastille was a transformative event; it convinced the monarch and the aristocracy that the country fully supported the revolution. Louis XVI had no question from that point on that the National Assembly should serve as the primary legislative body of France. On July 14th this event not only saved the National Assembly from dissolution but also altered the course of the revolution by giving it a far more active, popular, and violent dimension. The fall of the Bastille to the citizens was a spectacular event. It was a miraculous triumph of the people against the power of the monarchy.
The presence of the Bastille throughout the revolution was great. On the night before the storming of the Bastille the people of France ingrained in their minds that the Bastille was a symbol of fear, hate and suspicion. The storming of the Bastille was like a liberation of freedom from despotism. It gave them something to participate in outside of the daily grind of life. It was a very emotionally charged part of history, the French Revolution. It was like a parallel world for the citizens of France. These people dropped what they were doing and found expression in local arts and crafts. Many people started singing patriotic songs instead of spiritual music, mainly about the storming of the Bastille. Candles were lit in some houses to celebrate the conquering of the fortress. Finally children were playing “the Bastille”, by killing cats and putting their heads on sticks and parading throughout the streets. It became a passion for these people. They stopped what they were doing to participate in this fad or event. The citizens of France during the French Revolution were angry about many things. They chose the Bastille as a symbol of power and freedom from despotism. They conquered France’s symbol of power and won their freedom from despotism and the government.
A History of A Symbol of Despotism and Freedom
Fall semester 1998
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