As you probably know, la fête nationale, or the French national holiday, is celebrated every July 14. As Tim explains in his Bastille day post, this celebration is held (partly) in commemoration of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, an event that is often noted to have begun the French Revolution. But Bastille Day, as it is known in English, is even more a commemoration of the French revolutionary ideals: la liberté, l’égalité, la fraternité.
In fact, the Bastille held more symbolic importance than anything else when the first French citoyens (citizens) stormed its walls. In July 1789, it only housed seven elderly prisonniers (none of whom had committed violent crimes). Rather, the French who were rebelling against the monarchy originally wanted to loot the prison for ammunition to use in their fight for representation.
Here are some more facts about the Bastille that you may not be aware of:
- The Bastille was originally built around 1370 under the rule of King Charles V. Although the site of the Bastille is now located in central Paris, it was originally part of the defense wall to protect the old city. The Bastille was only converted into a prison in the 1700s by Cardinal Richilieu.
- During its time as a prison, the Bastille housed many famous “guests,” including the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, was imprisoned there for eleven months in 1717 for his writing, which was critical of the French monarchy. He ended up in the Bastille again in 1726 and was only released upon his promise that he would leave France for England.
- Another famous prisoner of the Bastille was the Marquis de Sade, who wrote 120 Days of Sodom while there. He secretly wrote this novel on small pieces of paper that were smuggled into the prison and that he would then hide in his cell. He was released from the Bastille in 1789, right before the storming of the Bastille, and was convinced that his manuscript had been destroyed in the looting. However, it was eventually found to have survived and was later published.
- The Bastille was unique for French prisons at the time because prisoners could be sent there to pay for crimes they had committed without standing a trial. Instead, petty criminals would be issued a lettre de cachet (or a letter with a royal seal) that they would be arrested and detained at the prison. Because these prisoners did not need to face a trial, their reputations were still intact. This led many aristocratic families to choose to send members of their family who had committed small crimes to this prison as a way to preserve their reputations. The French monarchy, before 1789, had planned to shut down this prison for that very reason.
- After the Bastille was overrun and destroyed, it remained a largely open and empty space housing a lone column and then a fountain. Then, in 1808, Napoleon planned on building an enormous (78-foot-high) bronze elephant there. The bronze statue was never completed, although a plaster statue was finished in 1814. Today, the Place de la Bastille is a square in central Paris that features the July column in commemoration of the storming of the Bastille and is a popular spot for young Parisians to go out to restaurants and clubs!
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