The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom

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This book is both an analysis of the Bastille as cultural paradigm and a case study on the history of French political culture. It examines in particular the storming and subsequent fall of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789 and how it came to represent the cornerstone of the French Revolution, becoming a symbol of the repression of the Old Regime. Lüsebrink and Reichardt use this semiotic reading of the Bastille to reveal how historical symbols are generated; what these symbols’ functions are in the collective memory of societies; and how they are used by social, political, and ideological groups.
To facilitate the symbolic nature of the investigation, this analysis of the evolving signification of the Bastille moves from the French Revolution to the nineteenth century to contemporary history. The narrative also shifts from France to other cultural arenas, like the modern European colonial sphere, where the overthrow of the Bastille acquired radical new signification in the decolonization period of the 1940s and 1950s. The Bastille demonstrates the potency of the interdisciplinary historical research that has characterized the end of this century, combining quantitative and qualitative approaches, and taking its methodological tools from history, sociology, linguistics, and cultural and literary studies.
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Editorial Reviews

Offers an analysis of the Bastille as cultural paradigm and a case study of the history of French political culture. Examines in particular the storming and subsequent fall of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789, and how it came to represent the cornerstone of the French Revolution as a symbol of the repression of the Old Regime. Investigates how historical symbols are generated, the functions of such symbols in the collective memory of societies, and how they are used by social, political, and ideological groups. Discussion moves from the French revolution to the 19th century to contemporary history, and from France to other arenas. Includes b&w photos and illustrations. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Meet the Author

Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink is chair of French Cultural Studies and Intercultural Communication at the Universität des Saarlandes, Germany. Rolf Reichardt is head of the scholarly reference department, Universität Mainz, Germany.

Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink is chair of French Cultural Studies and Intercultural Communication at the Universität des Saarlandes, Germany. Rolf Reichardt is head of the scholarly reference department, Universität Mainz, Germany.

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The Bastille

A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom

By Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink, Rolf Reichardt, Norbert Schürer

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8275-1


GENESIS OF A POLITICAL SYMBOL: The Bastille, 1715–1789

Anti-Bastille Journalism: Scandalous Stories of Prisoners

ORIGINALLY, "BASTILLES" WAS NOTHING MORE THAN A technical term for the municipal peel towers of the late Middle Ages built during the Hundred Years' War in Southern France. In the singular, the term also described the royal fortress with eight towers built between 1356 and 1382 at the gate to the Northwestern part of Paris, the later Faubourg Saint-Antoine. In the end, the use of the word was restricted to this edifice alone. The technical term-turned-proper name only started attaining a figurative meaning, and thus the character of a symbol, as the Bastille was increasingly refashioned from a fortress protecting Paris into a state prison. This remodeling had already begun during the reign of Louis XI (1461–83), but it occurred primarily during the time of Cardinal Richelieu. Finally, under the personal rule of the Sun King, not only rebellious aristocrats and spies but also loyal subjects were imprisoned in the Bastille if they had, like the superintendant of finance Fouquet, provoked the king or had, like many Protestants, refused to swear to the exclusive legitimacy of the Catholic religion. Because it was centrally located, beyond the rules of proper justice, and employed in a spectacular fashion, the Paris Bastille became the embodiment of terrifying absolutist domination and despotism in underground literature at the turn of the eighteenth century. In 1688, for instance, the satirist Claude Le Petit, who was later burned at the stake for writings offending the sovereign, published a successful Chronique scandaleuse, ou Paris ridicule (Scandalous chronicle, or ridiculous Paris; at least eight editions by 1714) with a passage on the Bastille, calling it a place that makes "everyone tremble." And a famous anonymous treatise from the opposition that was forming against Louis XIV around 1690 criticized "the despotic power of the court in France.... Since the richest and the most powerful are exposed to view most of all, they are also most in danger; if it pleases the despotic government, they are sent to the Bastille." This criticism was radical enough to warrant republishing in 1788. When the Sun King was carried to his grave in 1715 and his coffin had to be protected from the angry attacks of the destitute populace, the Bastille, at least among the upper classes, was considered a "trademark" of absolutism in France, and of its misuse of power. Motivated by the contemporary situation, the name of the fortress had gained semantic secondarity.

But the Bastille did not become the prominent institutionalized state symbol of the old France throughout society until later in the eighteenth century. This enhancement in significance and emotional appeal, registered in numerous scattered sources, was supported by journalism, which was increasing and intensifying its activity with the Enlightenment. Mostly, former prisoners of the Bastille breached the oath they were usually forced to take—to maintain complete silence concerning their imprisonment—by publishing their narratives. These form a series of scandalous stories that refer to each other and become more intense and radical from one to the next, conforming to a repeated basic pattern (table 1): The victim of the Bastille tends to stress his noble (in the cases of Latude and the imaginary Count de Lorges, invented) origin and his economic and social ascent, which was interrupted. He places the blame for the arrest not on himself but on the base motives of other captives, mistresses, ministers, and police officers, on their fear of legitimate criticism and their envy of (sexual) rivals. The authors denounce the arrest warrants made out in the name of the king (lettres de cachet) as well as their assaultlike arrest, often made possible only by deception and falsehood, and their subsequent secret commitment to the state prison. They further complain about bodily searches, the removal and confiscation of personal items, insidious interrogation by the governor of the Bastille, and imprisonment in badly furnished, barely lit and ventilated, either too cold or too hot cells secured by thick walls and heavy doors and locks. They particularly stress not only the physical suffering they are subjected to—from hunger and thirst to illness and supposed poisoning (Linguet) to chaining in underground dungeons (cachots) on bread and water—but at least as much the humiliations and mental agonies, which are arbitrary acts of revenge by the governor. If a prison break is successful, it is staged as an adventure story and serves as a vehicle in which the martyr of the Bastille is presented as a hero of the oppressed people. Since the most spectacular of these scandalous stories were immediately translated into other Western European languages, we can here quote most of them from contemporary translations. In this respect, the following "collection of cases" documents not only the development of the symbol "Bastille" in France but also its dissemination into the German and English cultural spheres.

Constantin de Renneville provides the first tale of woe. Renneville was a middle-class tax official from Normandy, who as a Protestant went to the Netherlands at the end of the seventeenth century and worked for the French secret service there. At the same time, however, he also spied for the Dutch government and for that reason was imprisoned in the Bastille from 1702 until 1713. Supported by a pension from George I in his London exile after his release, he took revenge by way of a sensational indictment that presented his sufferings as representative of those of all prisoners of the Bastille. In the title, he likened the function and the inner defects of the state prison to those of the Catholic Inquisition as it could be observed in Spain and its South American colonies. In the engraving for the first chapter of the work, the fortress, which had not been remodeled since the fifteenth century, proves its suitability as a dark image of threat and terror (figure 2). The caption supporting that image holds the governor of that time, Bernaville, responsible for the similarity between the Bastille and the Inquisition in Peru. In a free translation, the caption in the German version of Renneville's account reads:

The castle where cruelty, misery, and persecution howl,
Which should make the bottom of hell shudder in amazement,
Which would make the devil feel dread if he lived here,
Is now subject to the wild Bernaville.

Another stanza of four lines later adds:

Mortals, be frightened by this image of hell,
A tyrant rules here, the devil is his slave,
For Satan punishes only the guilty,
But Bernaville may cut down Innocence herself.

In great detail and in a tone of passionate indignation, Renneville tells the story of how he was persecuted and arrested through lower-level ministerial vindictiveness, neither formally charged nor sentenced, of how the prison guards stole his valuables, the commanding officer embezzled his daily allowance, and the doctor aggravated his illnesses rather than healed them. The common prison cells in themselves were torture enough:

The walls were dirty and soiled with filth; only the ceiling was still fairly clean and white. The furniture consisted of a small broken feeding table, a small collapsed chair of straw on which one could no longer safely sit; and the entire room was swarming with fleas; in a minute I was covered with them. The names of the prisoners were written on the unclean walls. Here, a camp bed, a thin mattress, a feather pillow, a vile torn cover eaten by moths were laid down for me. I had never seen so much vermin, and I only kept myself free of it through constant effort to exterminate it.... I ate poorly, and slept even worse. In addition, the room was filled with rotten and unhealthy fumes, and every quarter of an hour, the sentry tolled a bell that was so close to my room that it seemed it was hanging from my ears.

But the greatest sufferings were caused by the dark, unheated underground dungeons into which captives were thrown for refractoriness, after attempts to escape, or merely on the inclination to make them suffer. He, too, had languished in such a cachot:

Under an opening in the wall, I saw human bones; it was like a cemetery, and since I found the cellar in parts without paving, I dug, and found a corpse wrapped in rags. I stood still with disgust and horror, and it hardly reassured me that the warder said that they had kept the sorry remains of a captive there for a while who had hanged himself in his cell; two other men and one woman had suffered the same fate. A strong chain was attached to the middle of the cellar; a countless number of rats settled down around me, and slept with me. Whoever had been imprisoned here before me had made them so tame that they ate and slept with him; he had even given them names, and when he called them one after the other, they came running; if he wanted to be rid of them, he lightly struck their tails, and they ran back to their holes. What was a pastime for him became a terrible nuisance for me, and I had difficulties freeing myself of it.... 1 stayed in this wretched prison for twenty-two days, lying naked, only in a shirt and sleeping pants on straw that had rotted from the dampness, and received only bread and water as nourishment. My hands and feet were beset by such trembling that I feared a paralysis of my whole body. The cold nights brought about such a discharge that my entire face was swollen.

Renneville followed up this eyewitness account of his suffering with three further volumes in 1724 that imaginatively transformed the love and prison stories of three dozen supposed additional victims of the Bastille into a veritable series of novels in the fashion of the time.

Renneville's fantastic story of suffering came to serve as a model. Most of the subsequent anti-Bastille pamphlets used it to confirm their accusations. It is related to the following captive's report, for example, in at least two respects. Renneville himself mentions the successful prison break of Bucquoy de Manican on 5 May 1709, which took place during his imprisonment; the prologue to the German translation of Bucquoy's story in turn quotes Renneville at length and likens the two works: "Anyway, the count and abbot Bucquoy and Mr. Renneville agree in calling the Bastille the hell of the living." The adventures of both were a common topic of conversation among educated people. Leibniz (in Vienna) and the Prussian electress Sophie (in Hannover), for instance, exchanged pertinent information in early 1714 and wrote that it was "a recommendation to have been in the Bastille" and that it seemed as if Bucquoy had "left it more gloriously than other" prisoners. That Bucquoy was reported on in the form of letters written in 1711 from a lady in Paris to a lady in The Hague conforms with the kind of communication typical of the early baroque era.

The adventure story of the self-proclaimed "Count" Bucquoy, an escaped cleric who was arrested in Burgundy on 9 June 1707 for espionage and salt smuggling, hardly reads like the ordeal of innocence persecuted. Rather, Bucquoy, who is presented as "a very quick person" and a "sworn enemy of despotism in France," deftly manages to secure all desired privileges in the Bastille by feigning illnesses. He suffers no torture and is well provided for. "For in the Bastille the prisoners are not kept on water and bread, but the King wants to do well by them, for which He pays well enough." Nevertheless, the governor is accused of not having a "compassionate heart," because he had some windows bricked up after an escape attempt. Rumors concerning secret murdering devices and death cells in the La Chapelle tower are circulated without challenge: "From this latter, hardly anyone usually comes out, unless he also at the same time leaves his life; and it is said that the same place houses the drawbridges described earlier, which many say that people whom one wants to transport to the next world secretly are forced to jump across." In short, the Bastille appears as the instrument of an inquisitory state of injustice. "And actually the whole world speaks of the Bastille as a place even the innocent must be afraid of." This demonization is additionally supported in a "rather racy engraving" that

presents hell and the devil—to be more precise, under the names Beelzebub and Astaroth—[as synonymous with] the names of the president of that Bastille, Mr. d'Argençon, and the governor of the same, Mr. Bernaville, [and presents them] so ambiguously that the words ou d'Argençon le President can be understood to mean either "The hell of the living, where d'Argencon is president" or "Beelzebub, or d'Argencon the president." The same equivocation was also used with Bernaville's name.

Even though the accompanying prologue doubts that "a temporal prison" such as the Bastille can be likened to eternal hell or a human being to Satan, this is exactly what the title page suggests (figure 3) by caricaturing the Paris police chief and the governor of the Bastille as tormenting, vindictive devils. In contrast to the earlier picture in Renneville, the iconic and hence symbolic quality of the Bastille has been enhanced. Abbe Bucquoy also becomes a stock figure of anti-Bastille journalism; when Latude's escape story caused an uproar on the eve of the Revolution, that of his predecessor was rewritten as a continuous narrative and republished.

No other printed reports joined these early, exemplary histories of prisoners until the middle of the eighteenth century, when several were published after a long interruption. Although they are not comprehensive enough to be included in table 1, they contributed to the evolution of the image of the Bastille and were again and again used in journalistic accounts to prove the arbitrariness and sufferings to which the prisoners were defenselessly subjected. The greatest sensation was caused, however, by news, spread earlier by word of mouth, of the so-called man in the iron mask. This prisoner was committed in 1698, died after a short illness in 1703 at the age of about forty-five, and was pseudonymously buried in the cemetery adjacent to the prison, which was a common procedure. Encoded as an anecdote of "Asian despotism" as late as 1745, the story was put in circulation after 1751, mainly through Voltaire's successful The Age of Louis XIV. Introducing his chapter 24, Voltaire speaks of "an affair the parallel of which is not to be met with in history," one surrounded by the "utmost secrecy." His "news" is limited to the following:

This prisoner wore ... a masque, of which the lower part had steel springs, contriv'd so that he could eat without taking it off. Orders were given, that if he shewed any inclination to discover himself, he should be immediately killed.... This stranger being carried to the Bastile [sic], had the best accommodations which that castle could afford: nothing which he desired was refused him. His strongest passion was for linnen [sic] of extraordinary fineness, and for lace. His table was always served in the most elegant manner; and the Governor seldom sat down in his presence.... This unknown person died in 1703, and was buried in the night, in the parish of St. Paul. What increases the wonder is, that at the time ... no considerable person disappeared in Europe.

When minister Michel de Chamillard, one of the few initiated into the mystery, was begged by his son-in-law on his knees to confide the secret to him, he "answered him, it was a secret of State, and he had sworn never to reveal it."

This "report," which contains more allusions and ambiguous embellishments than verifiable facts, set off endless speculations as to whether the "murder victim" had been an illegitimate brother of Louis XIV or some other rival of the king and even supplied the subject and title for an adventure novel. No matter how much these speculations varied, they all contributed to the "man in the iron mask" becoming something like an embodiment of the principle of secrecy that shielded the Bastille and to the formation in the developing public sphere of the impression that this secrecy must be covering up political assassinations attributable to state "despotism." Hence, Louis-Sébastien Mercier was able to claim in 1786 that the man in the iron mask had been deliberately forgotten behind the walls of the Bastille and that "it would have been less barbaric and much more sure ... to kill him than to thus cruelly let him live."


Excerpted from The Bastille by Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink, Rolf Reichardt, Norbert Schürer. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Editors' Introduction
Translator's Note
Introduction 1
1 Genesis of a Political Symbol: The Bastille, 1715-1789 6
Anti-Bastille Journalism: Scandalous Stories of Prisoners 6
The Reality-Forming Power of the Symbolic: Prison Practice versus Social Consciousness 26
2 The Storming of the Bastille: The Historical Event as Collective Symbolic Action 38
The Storming of the Bastille: Causes and Process 38
How a Decisive Event in World History Is "Made": The Symbolic Exaggeration of 14 July 1789 47
3 Revolutionary Symbolism under the Sign of the Bastille, 1789-1799: A Prime Example of the Self-Mystification of the French Revolution 79
Radicalization and Diversification of a Collective Symbol 79
The New Heroes: The Role-Model Function and Self-Staging of the Victors of the Bastille 86
Martyrs of Freedom, Victims of Despotism: The Triumph of the Prisoners of the Bastille 106
"The Patriot" Palloy: Conqueror of the Bastille and Vulgarizer 118
The Patriotic Cult of Relics: The Staging of the Bastille Stones in Paris and in the French Provinces 131
The Symbolic Foundation of National Identity: Festivals, Speeches, and Monuments Commemorating 14 July 1789 147
Revolutionary Activism under the Sign of the Bastille 169
Echo and Export of Bastille Symbolism Abroad: Germany as a Significant Example 181
4 Bastille Symbolism in Modern France: The Republican Legacy of the French Revolution 205
Heroic Martyrs of Freedom in History and Literature 205
The Storming of the Bastille: A National Act of Faith 212
Utilizations in Domestic Politics: From the July Revolution to the Resistance 220
Final Remarks: On the Origin and Function of a Historical Symbol 241
Appendix Reports on the Storming of the Bastille, 1789 247
Notes 251
Works Cited 287
Index 297
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