People think of the Bastille-the infamous prison in Paris-as a symbol of oppression. They imagine it to have been full of suffering peasants before the French Revolution. In fact, it was a fairly luxurious jail and detention center for unruly nobles.
Rooms were adequately heated and well lit. Prisoners could pass the time as they chose, plan their own meals, entertain guests and keep servants and pets. Some were permitted to make daily trips into town. Food was plentiful; each prisoner was given three bottles of burgundy or champagne every day.
There were only seven prisoners in the Bastille when it was “liberated” by the mobs of the revolution.
These seven inmates were criminals of one kind or another, and deserved some form of imprisonment. Four were common forgers, two were insane. Last but not least was the Count of Solages-placed there by his family for moral crimes and to escape the death penalty. One of the madmen was a crazy Irishman with a three-foot beard who believed he was God-a delusion that others, in the next few months, were to share.
The Bastille garrison consisted of 32 Swiss Guards and 82 pensioners, 17 cannons and an ample supply of muskets to defend the fortress. The governor of the Bastille was a humane nobleman, the Marquis de Launay. After some negotiations, the firing of one cannon, a short siege and much confusion, the fortress surrendered. Some of the pensioners were killed outright after “promises of protection.”
De Launay’s head was hacked off and placed on a pike-a scene that would be repeated throughout the bloody French Revolution. The Reign of Terror had begun. The rest is history or “mis-history” depending on what one reads and studies. Nearly 1,000 persons in Paris attacked the Bastille, out of a total population of 800,000. It was clearly the work of an organized minority.
The French Revolution gave full play to the basest instincts of mankind. If it also called out the noblest, the balance was definitely on the wrong side. The revolution corrected no wrongs that would not have been remedied without resort to the terror.
Before Louis XVI came to the throne, more than half the land in France belonged to peasants. It was a prospering country, not a poor one. The victims of the revolution were not just the royal family and high nobility, but people from all walks-including thousands of priests, monks, nuns and bishops. The Catholic Church never recovered from the onslaught of 1792-1814. Is it any wonder that the Irish-born British statesman Edmund Burke, a friend of true liberty (not license), called the French Revolution “that putrid carcass, that mother of all evil.”
If we want to celebrate the French, let us celebrate them for other reasons than Bastille Day. Let us celebrate them for their beautiful women and wonderful food (or is it the other way around?). Better yet, commemorate St. Joan of Arc and the other great Catholic and royalist saints, heroes and martyrs of old France.