Let Me Tell You About Bastille Day

My Francophile-ness started before my first trip to Paris in 2007.  I had been reading up on Marie Antoinette and the French revolution and I was absolutely fascinated.  In it's simplest form, it's like reading about the beginning of a new fraternity on campus and how it ends up half succeeding/half becoming part of another fraternity that already existed.

In honor of this year's Bastille Day, I figured a humorous history lesson was in order.  Most of the information included is coming from my favorite book on the French Revolution, Vive La Revolution by Mark Steel.

Long and short of it, the poor people living in Paris were sick and tired of being hungry and dirty (well, allegedly the French still stink, so maybe they didn't mind being dirty).  Versailles while now only a 20 minute train ride away, was quite a hike back in those days, and therefore felt like another land.  The perception was that the rich King Louis XVI and his Austrian wife Marie Antoinette were living it up and gambling away all of their taxes - this was especially thought of the queen.  Reality is still hazy here.  Yes, the king and queen did live like kings and queens, and the queen did have gambling problems, but they were both also extremely charitable and in my personal opinion did not realize how bad it was in Paris until it was too late to fix.  If only they were able to text....

The poor people in Paris were inspired by America's revolution with Britain.  If those Yankees could beat Britain from a whole other continent (with French help of course) than why couldn't they do the same thing on their own land?  Enter Robespierre.

Robespierre was a lawyer, and from what I can tell, his job was a lot less stressful than the lawyers I meet in Chicago.  He was a member of the Estates-General, which was divided into three (totally unfair and biased) sections.  Robespierre and his buddies were the brains and the off-the-cuff idea generators that started the fraternity, I mean, started the revolution. Let's call it Sigma Sigma Phi (silly, silly French).

These other buddies included:

  • Danton - know for his ugliness and rude character
  • Desmoulins - had a stutter except when speaking in front of the Estates-General

I won't bore you with the rest of the details here - just know that other sub-fraternities were formed inside the bigger Sigma Sigma Phi and that these frat boys ousted the King and Queen only to have Napoleon declare himself Emperor a couple decades later.  Nice job, guys, really effective way to get rid of the monarchy - put an emperor in place.

Part of the shenanigans of this fraternity, though, involved the storming of the Bastille, on July 14, 1789.  The Bastille was actually a prison, and according to Wikipedia, "represented royal authority in the center of Paris."  There was also gun powder held at this particular prison that the frat boys wanted to get their hands on to help in their revolutionary efforts.

At 10:00am, these people arrived at the prison entrance and demanded the gun-powder.  Some were let inside for a "gentleman's conversation" over breakfast, but when that took forever, all of the other people waiting outside got pissed and thought their friends were being beaten to death.  You know how mob mentality works - one person states the most ridiculous thing possible and everyone believes them.

So let's do the math.

Lots of angry poor French people + weapons + red wine + symbol of monarchy/authority + rumors = storming of the Bastille

If this was actually a fraternity, it might look like this:

Frat boys + popped collars + Natty Ice + other fraternity trying to block the new house + rumors = bar brawl

To start, they lit the house on fire of the guy who ran the prison - Governor de Launay.  Then they started busting down the drawbridges.  Once inside, all hell broke loose.  The Governor lost his head (literally - they chopped it off) and they released all of the prisoners - all 7 of them.  Good job, guys.  You rescued 7 comrades.  Oh well, all in the name of liberty!

Needless to say, this event became a focal point in the revolution.  It re-ignited the fire that the rest of the revolution survived off of, and by the end of 1793, both King Louis XVI and his wife Marie had been executed.

The Bastille prison is no longer there, but if you are ever in Paris, here are some great places you can visit to see some pieces of French Revolution history:

  • Concorde Place - where Marie and Louis met their ends, along with many others, via the Guillotine
  • Versailles - where the royals lived prior to their ousting
  • Conciergerie - the prison Marie Antoinette was held in - they even have a replica of her cell and the list of names of all those killed by the Guillotine

In closing, Robespierre himself ended up getting his head lopped off, so turns out you can start a revolution but it won't end until you yourself have been whacked.  And to think, it all started because they wanted to be like the Americans...interesting...

Happy Bastille Day everyone, and Viva la France!

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