Modern history


The Bastille had an address. It was identified as No. 232, rue Saint-Antoine, as if it were some overgrown lodging house, full of chambres garnies and guests of different quality occupying rooms that varied according to their means and station. Its exterior court (except during the July rising) was open to the public, who could come and chat to the gatekeeper (who sat in the little lodge), lounge around the shops that crowded at its entrance or inspect the progress of the governor’s vegetable garden.

But it was also a fortress. Eight round towers, each with walls five feet thick, rose above the Arsenal and the faubourg. Paintings that celebrated the fall and demolition of the Bastille invariably made it look taller than it really was. The highest of the irregularly built towers was no more than seventy-three feet, but Hubert Robert, a specialist in the grandeur of ruins, gave it Babylonian eminence. In his painting, those walls became monstrous clifflike ramparts that could have been conquered only by the superhuman courage and will of the People.

Like so many others of its initial enthusiasts, Hubert Robert would himself end up a prisoner of the Revolution. But in 1789 he was already a devotee of Romantic aesthetics: the swooping emotions of the Sublime and the Terrible outlined in Edmund Burke’s first great publication. His great visual mentor was Giambattista Piranesi, whom he followed in offering views of the masonry of antiquity fallen into picturesque decay. Perhaps, then, he also shared Piranesi’s nightmare, the carceri d’inven-zione: prisons of the mind in which the mechanical genius of the modern age was applied to the science of confinement and pain. Certainly the elevation of the Bastille in his painting, with tiny figures scampering jubilantly over its battlements, suggests an immense Gothic castle of darkness and secrecy, a place into which men would disappear without warning and never again see the light of day until their bones were disinterred by revolutionary excavators.

That was the legend of the Bastille. Its reality was far more prosaic. Constructed at the end of the fourteenth century as a defense against the English, it had been converted into a state prison by Charles VI. It was Cardinal Richelieu, though, who gave it its sinister reputation as a place into which prisoners of state were spirited away. Throughout the reign of the Bourbons, most, though not all, of its prisoners were detained by lettres de cachet at the express warrant of the King and without any kind of judicial process. From the beginning, many of them were high-born: conspirators against the crown and its Ministers; others were religious prisoners, Protestants and, in the early eighteenth century, Catholic “convulsionaries” accused of fomenting heresy. There were two other important categories of detainees. The first were writers whose works were declared seditious and a danger either to public decency or order or both; the second were delinquents, usually young, whose families had petitioned the King for their incarceration.

Conditions varied widely. The infamous subterranean cachots, slimy with damp and overrun with vermin, were no longer in use by the reign of Louis XVI, but the calottes immediately below the roof were almost as bad, since they took in snow and rain in the winter and almost asphyxiated prisoners with heat in the summer. For the majority of prisoners, however, conditions were by no means as bad as in other prisons, in particular the horrors that prevailed at Bicêtre. (For thatmatter, compared with what twentieth-century tyrannies have provided, the Bastille was paradise.) Sums were allotted to the governor for the subsistence of different ranks: fifteen livres a day for conseillers of the Parlement, nine for bourgeois and three for commoners. Paradoxically, “men of letters,” who created the myth of a fortress of atrocities, were allotted the highest sum of nineteen livres a day. Even granting that the governor and his service undoubtedly made a profit on these allowances, they were considerably above the level at which most of the population of France attempted to subsist.

Most prisoners were held in octagonal rooms, about sixteen feet in diameter, in middle levels of the five-to seven-storied towers. Under Louis XVI they each had a bed with green serge curtains, one or two tables and several chairs. All had a stove or chimney, and in many rooms prisoners were able to ascend to a triple-barred window by a three-stepped staircase against the wall. Many were permitted to bring in their own possessions and to keep dogs or cats to deal with the vermin. The Marquis de Sade, who was held there until the week before the Bastille fell, took full advantage of these privileges. He brought in (among other things) a desk, wardrobe, nécessaire for his dressing needs; a full complement of shirts, silk breeches, frac coats in camel-brown, dressing gowns, several pairs of boots and shoes; his favorite firedogs and tongs; four family portraits, tapestries to hang on the white plaster walls; velvet cushions and pillows, mattresses to make the bed more comfortable; a selection of hats; three fragrances – rose water, orange water and eau-de-cologne – with which to anoint himself and plenty of candles and oil night lamps. These were necessary since on admission in 1784 he also brought in a library of 133 volumes, including Hume’s histories, the complete works of Fénelon, novels by Fielding and Smollett, the Iliad, the plays of Marmontel, travel literature about and by Cook and Bougainville in the South Seas as well as an Histoire des Filles Célèbres and the Danger dAimer Etranger.

If there ever was a justification for the Bastille, it was the Marquis de Sade. But if the crimes which put him there were unusually disgusting (by the standards of any century), his living conditions were not. He received visits from his long-suffering wife almost weekly and when his eyes deteriorated from both reading and writing, oculists came to see him on a regular basis. Like others in the “Liberty” tower, he could walk in the walled garden courtyard and on the towers. Only when he abused that right by shouting cheerful or indignant obscenities to passersby (which he did with increasing frequency in 1789) was it curtailed.

Food – that crucial event in the lives of prisoners – also varied according to social condition. The commoners detained in connection with the “flour war” riots of 1775 were probably fed gruels and soups, sometimes lined with a string of bacon or lardy ham. But even they had a decent provision of bread, wine and cheese. It was not necessary to be a noble, though, to enjoy a much better cuisine. The writer Marmontel drooled when he recalled “an excellent soup, a succulent side of beef, a thigh of boiled chicken oozing with grease [an eighteenth-century compliment]; a little dish of fried, marinaded artichokes or of spinach; really fine Cressane pears; fresh grapes, a bottle of old Burgundy and the best Moka coffee.”

No one wanted to be in the Bastille. But once there, life for the more privileged could be made bearable. Alcohol and tobacco were allowed, and under Louis XVI card games were introduced for anyone sharing a cell as well as a billiard table for the Breton gentry who requested one. Some of the literary inmates even thought a spell in the Bastille established their credentials as a true foe of despotism. The Abbé Morellet, for example, wrote, “I saw literary glory illuminate the walls of my prison. Once persecuted I would be better known… and those six months of the Bastille would be an excellent recommendation and infallibly make my fortune.”

Morellet’s admission suggests that as the reality of the Bastille became more of an anachronism, its demonology became more and more important in defining opposition to state power. If the monarchy was to be depicted (not completely without justice) as arbitrary, obsessed with secrecy and vested with capricious powers over the life and death of its citizens, the Bastille was the perfect symbol of those vices. If it had not existed, it is safe to say, it would have had to be invented.

And in some senses it was reinvented by a succession of writings of prisoners who had indeed suffered within its walls but whose account of the institution transcended anything they could have experienced. So vivid and haunting were their accounts that they succeeded in creating a stark opposition around which critics of the regime could rally. The Manichean opposition between incarceration and liberty; secrecy and candor; torture and humanity; depersonalization and individuality; open-air and shut-in obscurity were all basic elements of the Romantic language in which the anti-Bastille literature expressed itself. The critique was so powerful that when the fortress was taken, the anticlimactic reality of liberating a mere seven prisoners (including two lunatics, four forgers and an aristocratic delinquent who had been committed with de Sade) was not allowed to intrude on mythic expectations. As we shall see, revolutionary propaganda remade the Bastille’s history, in text, image and object, to conform more fully to the inspirational myth.

The 1780s were the great age of prison literature. Hardly a year went by without another contribution to the genre, usually bearing the title The Bastille Revealed (La Bastille Dévoilée) or some variation. It used the standard Gothic devices of provoking shudders of disgust and fear together with pulse-accelerating moments of hope. In particular, as Monique Cottret has pointed out, it drew on the fashionable terror of being buried alive. This was such a preoccupation in the late eighteenth century (and not only in France) that it was possible to join societies that would guarantee to send a member to one’s burial to listen for signs and sounds of vitality and to insure against one of these living entombments.

In what was by far the greatest and deservedly the most popular of all the anti-Bastille books, Linguet’s Memoirs of the Bastille, the prison was depicted as just such a living tomb. In some of its most powerful passages Linguet represented captivity as a death, all the worse for the officially extinguished person being fully conscious of his own obliteration.

Linguet’s memoir burned with the heat of personal betrayal. He had, he said, been lured back to France in 1780 from England, where he had been publishing his Annales Politiques, on the express understanding that he would, in effect, be immune from prosecution. Almost as soon as he returned, he was whisked off to the Bastille because of his attack on the Maréchal Duras. His account of the physical conditions he endured is far more harrowing than anything experienced by Morellet, Marmontel or de Sade and is not altogether borne out by the Bastille archives. But there is no reason to assume he lied when he wrote of “two mattresses eaten by worms; a cane chair of which the seat had but a few strings holding it together, a folding table… two china pots, one to drink from, and two paving stones to hold a fire.” (Some time later the warders brought him some fire irons and tongs – though not, he complained, brass dogs.) His worst moments came when the eggs of mites and moths hatched out and all his bed and personal linen was transformed into “clouds of butterflies.”

However squalid these conditions, it was the mental rather than the physical ordeal of imprisonment that caused Linguet the most suffering and which he communicates with astonishing originality in his little book. The memoir is, in fact, the first account of prison psychology in Western culture and for the modern reader has a kind of prophetic power that still makes it disturbing reading. Michel Foucault was quite wrong in assuming that the categorization of prisoners was one of the techniques which was most repressive. For Linguet objected most strenuously to exactly the lack of such a categorization. “The Bastille, like death itself,” he lamented, “equalizes all whom it engulfs: the sacrilegious who have meditated on the ruin of their patrie as well as the courageous man who is guilty only of having defended his rights with excessive ardor” (that is, himself). Worst of all was having to share the same space with those confined for moral abominations.

Everything about the regime of the prison, even when it seemed, superficially, to take the edge off brutality, appeared part of a sinister design to strip the prisoner of his identity: the “I” which for Romantics was synonymous with life itself. On admission, for example, potentially dangerous objects – a category which included both scissors and money – were confiscated and inventoried, to be returned on release, exactly like modern procedure. The reasons for these confiscations were read out to the prisoner, a business which Linguet found deliberately humiliating: the systematic reduction of a rational adult to the dependency of a child. He found that condition reinforced by all manner of petty tyrannies, such as being obliged to have an escort while being exercised in the little high-walled yard.

Even worse was the inability to communicate, particularly galling for a writer and terrible in captivity of indeterminate length. Seized without warning – and usually at night – from the living world, the victim of this state abduction was then deprived of all means of communicating his existence to friends or family beyond the walls. For most prisoners this was not in fact a problem, but for some time Linguet was deprived of writing materials and it was this helplessness that most oppressed him. The massive thickness of the walls, which made it impossible to speak to, or hear, other prisoners or indeed even summon a doctor in case of sudden sickness, only added to the sense of live burial. The walls of the Bastille then became the frontier between being and nonexistence. When the prison barber was brought to him, Linguet made the grim quip that became famous: “, Monsieur, you wield a razor? Why don’t you raze the Bastille?”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!