All about “Bastille Day”

Alysa Salzberg
Jul 14, 2015 · 8 min read

So, today is Bastille Day…but actually, it’s not: The French don’t call it that, but refer to it as “le 14 juillet” (the Fourteenth of July), or sometimes the “Fête Nationale” (National Celebration): Although the Bastille fell to a horde of angry Parisians on July 14, 1789, the holiday is officially supposed to commemorate the Fete de la Fédération, a grand ceremony that took place on July 14, 1790, on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

Fête de la Fédération, 1790 (image source)

But really, it seems like kind of a pointless argument. The bottom line is, even in the weird political climate of 1790, when the French revolutionaries were trying to make peace with their king, the taking of the Bastille was the event that was on everyone’s mind.

But even that event isn’t as clear-cut as it seems.

The Bastille itself was an imposing structure that had loomed over the landscape of eastern Paris since the late 14th century. It was 220 ft long, 90 ft wide, with 80 foot walls up to 9 feet thick. It had initially been used as a point of defense along the city wall, but as time went on and a new city wall was built, it was used for other purposes. In the 17th century, Richelieu turned it into a state prison (although it also still served some military functions, like ammunition storage — this is important for later). Famous figures like Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, and the Man in the Iron Mask did time there.

As prisons go, the Bastille actually wasn’t that bad. Most people incarcerated there were allowed to communicate with the outside world, furnish their quarters, and keep servants. They were apparently treated quite civilly by the prison governor and guards, and allowed to walk on the high ramparts to get some fresh air and see a little bit of the city. (This latter privilege was revoked for the Marquis de Sade when he used the opportunity to yell obscenities to passersby.) It was far from being the most awful place in France.

But the Bastille was a symbol of some pretty bad stuff. A massive stone fortress, it dominated the working class neighborhood around it, and was commonly thought to be a sort of visual reminder of the power of the monarchy. Then there was the reason many of its prisoners were there: the lettre de cachet. This was a special letter, signed by the king or sometimes other high-ranking nobles, that allowed for the imprisonment of someone without trial. Although French monarchs didn’t really abuse this power (it often seems to have been used for containing problematic nobles), it didn’t sit easy with the people — which is understandable.

Despite its size, the Bastille could house no more than 85 prisoners at a time, and many were nobles. But there were also people like Voltaire, who wrote a little too freely and critically about the regime, and were thus considered a danger. This, also quite understandably, didn’t sit well with the people.

On July 12, 1789, spurred on by his anger over the firing of Necker, King Louis XVI’s popular Minister of Finances, a young writer named Camille Desmoulins stood up in a cafe in the Palais Royal and gave a rallying speech, calling upon his fed-up fellow citizens to revolt against the crown. (Ironically, he was doing it in an area the king’s brother had set aside for commoners from his own royal property.) The people, frustrated by a financial crisis, bread shortage, and other grievances, listened and soon were marching on Les Invalides, where they knew huge quantities of guns were stored. After obtaining said guns without much of a problem (nearby troops refused to fire on them), they needed gunpowder and ammunition…which they knew were stored at the Bastille.

A mob of about 1,000 angry Parisians stood in front of the legendary prison on the morning of July 14th. Several times they sent representatives — revolutionary-minded nobles, in fact — to request access to the gunpowder and bullets. De Launay, the governor of the prison, repeatedly refused and eventually ordered his men to fire on the crowd. Rarely a good idea. The masses swelled into the Bastille, took the gunpowder, threw centuries’ worth of prison records into the fortress’s moat, and liberated the prisoners. Then, they marched de Launay and other officials to the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall).

As they approached the Hôtel de Ville, things got even more out of control, and de Launay was stabbed. Then his head was cut off by a butcher in the crowd, who used a small knife to do the job. When you think of how de Launay must have suffered, the original purpose of the guillotine (which was first used a few years later, in 1792) is easy to understand: it was developed to give the condemned a quick, merciful death. De Launay’s head, and that of Jacques de Flesselles, the second person to be decapitated by Revolutionaries, were paraded around central Paris on pikes.

By the end of the Revolutionary period, four years later, over 12,000 people had lost their lives, mostly by guillotine blade.

The number of prisoners liberated from the Bastille is almost laughable — seven. And none of them were wrongly imprisoned heroes. Four were forgers awaiting trial, one was le comte de Solages, a noble who’d been locked up at the request of his family (albeit for unclear reasons), and two were criminally insane and quickly transferred to an asylum. Still, the symbol had to be destroyed.

The day after it fell to the people, a demolition company was hired to take down the entire prison. Palloy, the man at the head of the company, was a true entrepreneur; he transformed stones, chains, and other elements of the Bastille into tables, medallions, jewelry, and other items, and sold them like hotcakes. You can see some of these souvenirs today at the Musée Carnavalet, a wonderful (and free!) museum of Parisian history.

My father-in-law, a sculptor, liked to point out that cut stones are a valuable commodity, and are rarely wasted. Many old buildings in ruins today became that way because people in more recent eras took them apart to use their stones in new structures. The Bastille was no exception. A number of its stones were also used to make what is today called the Pont de la Concorde (Concorde Bridge). During the Revolution, the square at its northern end, the present-day Place de la Concorde, became the Place de la Révolution. Thousands of people were executed here — including King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette.

Besides the bridge and a number of Palloy’s souvenirs, most of the Bastille has been lost. At the Place de la Bastille, where the prison once towered, nothing much besides its name remains. There’s an outline of its former foundations on the streets where it once stood, but it’s hard to notice unless you see it from a bird’s eye view. There’s also a small part of the wall of one of the towers that you can see in the Bastille Metro station. Another portion of a wall was moved to the Square Henri Galli, a nearby park. It sits among leafy shrubs, and children play on jungle gyms a few feet away, oblivious to the stones’ somber history.

The Place de la Bastille has a pretty column in its center. Known as the Colonne de Juillet (July Column), it commemorates another French revolution, that of 1830. Still, the Bastille’s strength as a symbol endures — not the symbol of a prison or of royal power, but as a symbol of the people to tear such things down. Today, most protest marches end where the prison once stood.

Nowadays,the French celebrate July 14 pretty much the way Americans celebrate the 4thof July, minus the barbecue. Yes, though the French are food-obsessed, there is no traditional meal or food-related ritual for July 14th.

The day starts with a parade: Representatives of all of France’s military, along with their vehicles, rumble down the Champs-Elysées. Although not overly patriotic, a lot of French people feel a sense of pride watching this, and I try to stifle my laughter at the incredible mess the countless horses always leave behind for the tanks and jeeps and motorcycles to drive over.

In the countryside, many villages have fireworks. In Paris, there’s a magnificent fireworks display with the Eiffel Tower in the foreground. The first time I went to watch it from the Champ de Mars, the big field where the Eiffel Tower is located (and where the Fête de la Fédération took place in 1790), I was surprised to hear that the soundtrack wasn’t traditional French songs, but opera arias. The moving music and the beauty of the fireworks in the night sky was a powerful combination: it’s the only time fireworks have made me cry — and I wasn’t the only one. It was an odd experience, but a beautiful and unforgettable one. The music for the Paris fireworks changes annually, but the show is always pretty spectacular.

The storming of the Bastille kicked off an era of hope and freedom, but it also brought incredible loss and violence. Today, that brutality is nearly forgotten, as is the prison itself. No lettres de cachet here. All that remains is happiness and celebration. Things have changed, though there are still changes that need to be made. Fireworks bang and sparkle across the sky.

Alysa Salzberg

Written by

is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a clever toddler, & a charming cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, & cookies.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade