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Thursday, July 14, 2016

"Vive la France! Vive la République!" -- A Little Irreverent History for Bastille Day

Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël

What we call "Bastille Day" is the French national holiday, marking the beginning of the end for the French monarchy and the rise of the French Republic.   What happened? A mob of revolutionaries (300, maybe--estimates of their numbers vary, since they increased as the day went on) attacked an infamous fortress that was being used as a prison for political prisoners. No one was quite sure how many prisoners were there, either, because none of them were ever brought to trial. 

One of its most famous inmates was the Marquis de Sade. You may remember him as the French aristocrat whose claim to fame was as a rapist, a pedophile, and a writer about explicit acts of sexual cruelty. His name gave rise to our word sadistic. Anyway, in 1789, he was locked in the Bastille on a charge of treason, but the walls could not silence him.  Several days before the riots broke out, he was caught hanging out of one of the windows and shouting about prisoners being murdered inside the Bastille. He was quickly removed to an insane asylum, so he missed the beginning of the revolution. Once it started, however, he was freed and continued his exercise of perfect freedom unrestrained by morality, law, or religion—free, that is, until Napoleon had him recommitted to the asylum in 1803 for various acts well beyond the standards of morality. He died there in 1814.

But back to the Bastille. On July 14, a violent mob attacked the Bastille because of a report that it also held a large cache of ammunition and gunpowder.  The commander had several cannons, but in an attempt to pacify the crowd, the told them the cannons were unarmed. Instead, the mob took that as an invitation to take control of the fort.  At the end of the ensuing fight, about 200 attackers were killed, along with the hapless commander and seven other  defenders. The mob took control of the armaments and released the seven pathetic prisoners, who turned out to be minor offenders, not  the symbols of royal oppression they had hoped for.

Nevertheless, the Storming of the Bastille marked the beginning of the French Revolution and the eventual doom of Louis XVI and his cake-eating queen, Marie Antoinette. The first celebration of the  Fête de la Fédération was held on July 14, 1790. Reports of the occasion speak of a four-day celebration of freedom marked by fireworks, lots of wine, and people running naked through the streets to display their “freedom.” Be that as it may, the celebrations continued every year. As an uninformed tourist in Paris on July 14, 1983, I learned the hard way that no one sleeps in Paris on that night while the revelry continues in the streets.

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