Jeanne Koré Salvato

hen we hear the phrase, “The Storming of the Bastille,” we feel it’s a rousing moment in French history.  To storm, to liberate. Even if we didn’t quite know what the Bastille was when we first learned about this event, which took place on 14 July 1789, we figured it was momentous, big, fireworks-glamorous, if there is such a hyphenated word. 

Uncle Wiki confirms this importance for France:  “The French National Day is the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, a major event of the French Revolution, as well as the Fête de la Fédération that celebrated the unity of the French people on 14 July 1790. Celebrations are held throughout France. One that has been reported as ‘the oldest and largest military parade in Europe’ is held on 14 July on the Champs-Élysées in Paris in front of the President of the Republic, along with other French officials and foreign guests.” I would like to add many low flying planes perform, which is exciting.

And yet if you look a little more closely you will see that we are not in Kansas, so to speak.

READER:  Of course, we are not in Kansas, we are in France.  But I assume you mean this metaphorically, and that there is more than meets the eye here.

ME: Yes, that is well said, if I do say so myself!

READER:  (Dear lord.)

This prison was an impressive building dominating the Paris skyline.  It all started in 1370, when Charles V of France wanted a fortification, in case the English tried to attack, which is called a bastide. Somehow the “d” became an “l” on the French tongue and Bastille is what linguists call a corruption of bastide.  Charles VI further fortified it by closing up the openings, and then other fortification measures occurred until we have with 8 towers, at 100 feet high, a very imposing fortress.

Now the Encyclopedia Britannica lets us in on some interesting info. “The Bastille was used as a state prison from the 17th century. Its capture by a mob on July 14, 1789, during the early years of the French Revolution, was a symbolic blow at tyranny rather than an act of liberation for tyranny’s victims. The prison had been virtually unused for years and was scheduled for demolition by the monarchy; it held on that day only four counterfeiters, two madmen, and a young aristocrat who had displeased his father. The Bastille was demolished after its capture.”

Now Louis XIV, remember him, the Sun King, over at Versailles?  He used the Bastille as a prison for members of the upper class who had either opposed him or angered him. During his reign the Bastille was a formidable place.

First Louis XIV story:  I was walking my sweet little Lola when I lived in Versailles and as Lola was meandering around, a man was in the same vicinity as we were, with a dog also meandering around.  “Not a day goes by that I don’t give thanks to Louis XIV”(b. 1638-d. 1715), the man said. Mind you, we were now in 2015, 300 years later. And why might that be, I asked him, wondering who we would give thanks to daily from the same time frame. My neighbor was giving thanks to somebody who was around 50 years before the US was even a country. “Well,” the man answered, “all of present day Versailles was marshland, and without his genius it would have remained so.”

Man in the Iron Mask Remains a Mystery

Second Louis XIV story:  I wonder if the Man in the Iron Mask would agree that the king was such a genius.  The Man in the Iron Mask was placed in prison thanks to Louis XIV.  It all started in an exquisite jewel of a chateau southwest of Paris called Vaux le Vicomte.  Owned by the king’s finance manager, Nicolas Fouquet, the chateau was built by a famous architect Louis Le Vaux, its interior overseen by the painter Charles Le Brun, and the landscape by the genius André le Nôtre. (Le Nôtre is something of our Frederick Olmstead, who designed Central Park in New York City, and, as it happens, also designed Highland Park, in Rochester, just down the street from where I live.)

Fouquet’s most lovely, well-proportioned and unostentatious chateau even had a king’s bedroom, but it raised the king’s ire that such beauty did not belong to the king.  Fouquet ended up in prison due to embezzlement.  (Did he really do that?) Upon visiting Vaux-le-Vicomte, at least back in the day, we learned that Fouquet was considered a candidate for the man in the iron mask, although that idea seems to have fallen out of fashion. In any case, Louis XIV took Vaux-le Vicomte as his model for Versailles, using the same crew, but, I mean, seriously?  The Palace of Mirrors?  Versailles is many things, but an exquisite jewel is not among them.

Vaux le Vicomte

Back to storming the Bastille.

How many people?  Four counterfeiters (that’s four), plus two madmen, who, let us hope did not have multiple personality disorders, so we will call that just two, and a bored, dissolute, wealthy man’s son, who rather than going into politics winds up in prison?  I get up to seven.  

The point, dear reader, it turns out, was not the people.  The point was the arms and the ammunition, muskets, canons and gunpowder held in the cellars.  A big crowd of over two hundred, including the French guards who usually defended government property, tried to persuade the commander of the prison, who at first was not very responsive, but then opened the gates to avoid a massacre.  Then, there was a misunderstanding.  Excuse me? What kind of a misunderstanding could there be?  Here is Uncle Wiki:  “According to the official documents, about 200 attackers and just one defender died before the capitulation. However, possibly because of a misunderstanding, fighting resumed. In this second round of fighting, de Launay and seven other defenders were killed, as was Jacques de Flesselles, the prévôt des marchands (“provost of the merchants”), the elected head of the city’s guilds, who under the feudal monarchy also had the competences of a present-day mayor.”

You can see why teachers say not to rely on Wikipedia.  (Although, of course we do.) What in the world was the misunderstanding? “You don’t really want the ammunition?” says the provost. “Yes, we do.”

The country was starving because of a poor wheat harvest, so the price of bread skyrocketed.  There were three so-called estates at the time: first, the nobles, second, the clergy, and third, the merchants and everybody else. They were banding together for the first time.  The Finance Minister who was sympathetic to the third estate had been fired under the rule of Louis XVI.  The people were up in arms. Literally.  They feared an armed reprisal from the monarchy.  So they needed ammunition.  Hence the Bastille. Shortly after the storming of the Bastille, we have the amazing document called The Rights of Man and of the Citizen, drafted in Versailles at the handball court just down the street from where I lived.  A bit down at the heels for a monument, but no less interesting for all that.

The vagabonds, Estragon and Vladimir, may well have wanted to storm the Bastille had they been there and alive then, but then again, I don’t think they would have left off waiting for Godot to do it. And I’m not sure they would have been so politically engaged.  In Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, they are very busy thinking, or trying not to think, or reflecting on what it was like having had to think. The Bastille no longer exists today, and that kind of thinking, of storming, is likewise no longer in their minds. When Estragon says he is tired of breathing, it’s as if the essential parts of being a human being no longer cohere.  If they are having such trouble keeping those basic elements up and going in their own person, how could they possibly engage in collective action?  Can we?

The Bastille of the future


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