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The Paris Bastille

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The Bastille as a Symbol of Tyranny
Mortals, be frightened by this image of hell,
A tyrant rules here, the devil is his slave,
For Satan punishes only the guilty,

But Bernaville may cut down Innocence herself.
(Lüsebrink, 9-10)

Bernaville was the governor of the Bastille during the imprisonment of Renneville, from 1702 to 1713.


2.1 The Paris Bastille

This poem accompanied an account of the Bastille by Constantine de Renneville, a middle class tax official who was incarcerated in 1702 for spying for the Dutch government. His account of suffering in the Bastille included sleeping with rats on damp straw, eating only bread and water, and being exposed to extreme cold. In one passage he says,

Liberators discover prisoners in the Bastille 1789

"Under an opening in the wall, I saw human bones; it was like a cemetery, and since I found the cellar in parts without paving, I dug and found a corpse wrapped in rags . . . the warder said that they had kept the sorry remains in his cell; two other men and one woman had suffered the same fate." (Lüsebrink, 11)


Eyewitness accounts by Renneville and others in the early eighteenth century helped form the public opinion of the Bastille which eventually made it a symbol of absolute power and terror. Historians Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink and Rolf Reichardt assert,

Because it was centrally located, beyond the rules of proper justice, and employed in such a spectacular fashion, the Paris Bastille became the embodiment of terrifying absolutist domination and despotism in underground literature at the turn of the eighteenth century. -Lüsebrink, 6

Living in the Bastille

Accounts of the living standards in the Bastille vary.

  • Some prisoners attest to torture and being chained in dark, damp cells.
  • Other accounts claim that prisoners of the Bastille were among the bast-treated prisoners in Europe at the time.
One resident, perhaps the most famous of those imprisoned in the Bastille was the Man in the Iron Mask, thought by some to have been the twin brother of Louis XIV. This prisoner "had the best accommodating which that castle could afford: nothing which he desired was refused him. His strongest passion was for linen of extraordinary fineness and for lace" -Lüsebrink, 15

A Brief History of the Paris Bastille
The Bastille, originally called the Chastel Saint-Antoine, was first built between 1356-1382 to serve as a fort for the protection of the city. However, it became a state prison under the reign of Cardinal Richelieu, and was used to hold everyone from rebellion aristocrats and spies, to citizens who provoked the king or refused to accept Catholicism.
On July 14, 1789, 7,000 citizens broke into the weapons depot at the Esplanade des Invalides and captured several cannons and 40,000 rifles. There was, however, neither gunpowder nor ammunition in the Esplanade. Anticipating a possible riot, these had been transferred to the Bastille the night before.


2.3 Storming the Bastille, 1789

After several attempts to obtain the necessary supplies peacefully, a mob of citizens gathered around the Bastille. The governor of the Bastille fired on them. As a result,

. . .Citizens- mostly craftsmen from the Paris suburbs, small merchants and former soldiers-streamed . . . to the Bastille by the thousands, armed with pikes, knives, axes, and a few solitary rifles. (XXX, ?)

The growing mob posed little threat to the fortress until soldiers garrisoned there began to aid them. The mob eventually took control of the fortress, obtained the gunpowder, released the 7 prisoners, and killed the governor of the Bastille.

 


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