The Bastille was an infamous French prison in Paris, built about 1370 by Charles V. Its prisoners were mainly victims of intrigue — often of court intrigue. It became known as a symbol of oppression. It was a nearly impregnable fortress with towers more than 90 feet high and 10-foot thick walls. In 1789, nearly empty of prisoners, it stored gunpowder and muskets.
The Bastille (La Bastille) was stormed and taken by a mob on July 14, 1789. The fall of the Bastille marked the beginning of the French Revolution. Over time, the belief has arisen that the capture of the Bastille was aimed at releasing prisoners. This idea is false. The prison was taken to gain access to its arsenal.
The attackers first tried to negotiate with the Marquis de Launay, the prison governor. When negotiations failed, they mounted a concerted assault that continued for hours. However, access to the outer courtyard was the best they could manage.
Eventually, armed guardsmen, probably deserters from the Royal Guard, arrived and forced the governor to lower the drawbridge.
While the marquis was being hauled off to the Hôtel de Ville (town hall), rioters seized and brutally killed him. After celebrating his death and the capture of the Bastille, the mob completely destroyed the prison the next day, July 15.
The matter of the Bastille’s key shows how one country’s revolt can influence another country’s actions. After the fall of the Bastille, its key was sent to George Washington. The American Revolution, now usually called the American War of Independence (1775-1783), had occurred only a few years earlier and obviously had a role in inspiring French rebels.
From such fiction as Charles Dickens’s, A Tale of Two Cities, and the Scarlet Pimpernel stories of Baroness Emma Von Orczy, we know how the French aristocracy were persecuted and guillotined during the French Revolution. We seldom hear of much good that came out of that struggle. But, a mere three weeks after the fall of the Bastille, on August 4, 1789, feudalism in France was abolished.
The word, bastille, entered French from the Late Latin, bastilia (tower or bastion of a castle; a small fortress). Middle English took bastille, untranslated, directly from French. By 1790, bastille meant “prison” in English.
Bastille Day, July 14, is commemorated in France as the French national holiday with celebrations all across France. The oldest and biggest parade in Europe takes place in Paris on that day.
The French have carried this sense of liberation all over the world. Today, Bastille Day is observed in such diverse countries as New Zealand, India, Hungary, the U.S., Belgium, and South Africa. Curiously, despite its Frenchness, Bastille Day receives limited notice in Quebec although there are scattered parades and celebrations.
Here in Manitoba, the most attention the day gets is in the small community of Saint-Claude where there’s a ceremony at the town cenotaph, a mass, a community barbecue, etc., this year on the Sunday before the actual day.
However, Canadians of French origin don’t generally identify with those downtrodden masses who stormed the Bastille on that long-ago July 14.