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Bastille
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Bastille

Bastille is a French word meaning 'castle' or 'stronghold'. Used as a single word ("la Bastille" in French, "the Bastille" in English) it invariably refers to the former Bastille Saint-Antoine - Number 232, Rue Saint-Antoine - in Paris.

Its storming, and subsequent demolition, in 1789 by a large crowd became the symbol for the beginning of the French Revolution. The event is commemorated on Bastille Day (Quatorze juillet), the French national holiday.

Table of contents
1 Early history
2 Storming
3 Historical assessment
4 Demolition
5 The area today

Early history

Built around 1370 as part of the defences of Paris, the structure was converted into a prison in the 17th century by Charles VI, housing mainly political prisoners, but also religious prisoners, 'seditious' writers, and young rakes held at the request of their families. It began to acquire a poor reputation when it became the main Bourbon prison for those taken under lettres de cachet.

By the late 18th century the building was made up of eight close-packed towers, around 24 meters (80 feet) high, surrounding two courtyards and the armoury. The prisoners were held within the five- to seven-storey towers, each having an room around 4.6 meters (15 feet) across and containing various articles of furniture. The infamous cachots - the oozing, vermin-infested sub-surface cells were no longer in use. The governor of the prison was given a daily allowance per prisoner, the amount depending on their status - from nineteen livres per diem for scientists and academics down to three for commoners. In terms of standards there were many worse prisoners in France, notably the other Parisien jail, the dreaded Bicêtre. However, in terms of popular literary accounts, the Bastille was a place of horror and oppression - a symbol of autocratic cruelty.

Storming

On July 2, 1789, the Bastille prisoner Marquis de Sade reportedly shouted out of his cell to the crowd outside, "They are killing the prisoners here!", causing somewhat of a riot. He was immediately transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton.

The confrontation between the commoners and the ancien régime ultimately led to the people of Paris storming the Bastille on July 14, 1789. At this point, the jail was near empty, only seven inmates were housed there - four forgers, two 'lunatics' and one 'deviant' aristocrat, the Comte de Solages. The attackers were mainly seeking to acquire the large quantities of arms and ammunition stored there - on the 14th there were over 13,600 kg (30,000 lb) of gunpowder stored at the Bastille. The garrison, reinforced on the 7th, consisted of just 32 men of the Salis-Samade regiment together with 82 other staff and guards. The walls mounted eighteen eight-pound guns and twelve smaller pieces. The governor was Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor and actually born within the Bastille.

The list of vainqueurs de la Bastille has around 600 names and the total of the crowd was probably less than a thousand. The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the guns and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two deputies were invited into the fortress and negotiations began, another deputy was admitted around noon with definite demands. The negotiations dragged on and the crowd grew and also became impatient.

Around 13:30 the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard and the chains on the drawbridge to the inner courtyard were cut - crushing one unfortunate vainqueur. About this time gunfire began, the identity of the first firer has never been properly identified. The crowd seems to have felt it had been 'tricked', drawn into a trap and the fighting became more intense and attempts by deputies to organise a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers.

The firing continued and at 15:00 the attackers were reinforced by gardes françaises and other veterans carrying weapons taken from the Invalides earlier in the day, and also two cannons. With the possibility of a mutual massacre suddenly apparent Governor de Launay ordered a cease fire at 17:00. A letter offering his terms was stuck through a gap in the inner gates and acrobatically retrieved by the besiegers. The demands were refused but de Launay capitulated and the gates to the inner courtyard were opened and the vainqueurs swept in to liberate the fortress at 17:30.

Ninety-eight attackers had died and just one defender. De Launay was seized and dragged towards the Hôtel de Ville in a storm of abuse. Outside the Hôtel a discussion as to his fate began, following a particularly unpleasant suggestion from a man called Desnot, de Launay shouted "Enough! Let me die!" and kicked Desnot in the groin. De Launay was instantly stabbed repeatedly and fell to the street, his head was then sawn off and fixed on a pike to be carried through the streets.

Historical assessment

Many historians believe that the storming of the Bastille was more important as a rallying point and symbolic act of rebellion than any practical act of defiance. No less important in the history of France, it was not the image typically conjured up of courageous French patriots storming a towering fortress and freeing hundreds of oppressed peasants. This myth-making began on July 17, 1789 with the publication of the Révolutions de Paris with a colourful description of the attack and an entirely false description of the many prisoners freed.

Demolition

The propaganda value of the Bastille was quickly seized upon, notably by the showy entrepreneur Pierre-François Palloy, "Patriote Palloy". The fate of the Bastille was uncertain, but Palloy was quick to establish a claim - organising a force of 500 demolition men around the site on the 15th. Over the next few days many notables visitied the Bastille and it seemed to be turning into a memorial. But Palloy secured a license for demolition from the Permanent Committee at the Hôtel de Ville and quickly took complete control.

Palloy secured a fair budget and his crew grew to around 1,000 men. Palloy had control over all aspects of the work and the workers, even to the extent of having two hanged for murders. He put much effort into continuing the site as a paying attraction and producing a huge range of souvenirs, including much of the rubble. The actual demolition proceeded apace - by November the structure was largely demolished

The area today

The former location of the fort is currently called the Place de la Bastille, and some of the remains (although not at their original location) are still visible nearby.