It is the day regarded as the birth of modern France, and an annual national holiday because of that grand association. Almost 230 years go, on 14 July 1789, the Bastille fortress fell into the hands of the people (sometimes referred to as “the Mob” by those less sympathetic to the French Revolution).
The Bastille had glowered over the poorer quarters of Paris, its cannons pointing with intent over the Faubourg St Antoine, one of the city’s most downtrodden areas, which huddled against the flanks of the fortress. A symbol of power and oppression, its capture was a potent sign of how the times were changing. And yet, for some, the people’s triumph was less practical than emblematic.
That great Whig historian of modern French history, Alfred Cobban, summed it up in his characteristically trenchant and caustic style in A History of Modern France Volume 1: 1717-1799 (1957):
“Rumour and pamphleteers had for years been disseminating a picture of its dungeons packed with wretched state prisoners. It was the obvious stronghold from which the royal troops would sally forth to commence their slaughter of the Parisians. It was in fact garrisoned by eighty Invalides and thirty Swiss…
“The prisoners who poured out of the dungeons of the Bastille consisted of four forgers, two lunatics, and a dissipated young noble. The people set about demolishing the fortress, but the task was taken over by professional housebreakers, who made a considerable profit out of the affair.”
That reality is sobering, even somewhat dispiriting. But, as Cobban goes on to point out:
“The episode was a striking one, but the actual events have been greatly exaggerated by the romantic historians of the nineteenth century … The significance of the fall of the Bastille lies in its symbolic value. The important fact was that the king had lost control of Paris and even with the troops called to Versailles had no prospect of regaining it.”
So much for the Whig view, history as unstoppable progress to freedom and enlightenment, panning out at last in liberal democracy and constitutional democracy. Here is another perspective, from the communist historian and intellectual Eric Hobsbawm:
“Counter-revolution turned a potential mass uprising into an actual one … In fact counter-revolution mobilised the Paris masses, already hungry, suspicious and militant. The most sensational result of their mobilisation was the capture of the Bastille, which has rightly made July 14th into the French national day, ratified the fall of despotism and was hailed all over the world as the beginning of liberation.
“Even the austere philosopher Immanuel Kant of Koenigsberg, it is said, whose habits were so regular that the citizens of that town set their watches by him, postponed the hour of his afternoon stroll when he received the news, thus convincing Koenigsberg that a world-shaking event had indeed happened. What is more to the point, the fall of the Bastille spread the revolution to the provincial towns and the countryside …
“Within three weeks of July 14th the social structure of French rural feudalism and the state machine of royal France lay in fragments.” (From The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, published in 1962.)
Turbulence and possibility
What preceded the revolution was a time of turbulence and possibility, limited certainty and confusion. No one has ever captured the decade and a half before 1789 better than Charles Dickens, in the opening paragraphs of A Tale of Two Cities (1859).
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
“There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.”
The “king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France” were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Louis was guillotined on 21 January 1793. Marie Antoinette was executed in October of that year. Hope and despair have alternated in France ever since; at present, under Emmanuel Macron, it is the worst of times.