1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bastille
BASTILLE (from Fr. bastir, now bâtir, to build), originally any fortified building forming part of a system of defence or attack; the name was especially applied to several of the principal points in the ancient fortifications of Paris. In the reign of King John, or even earlier, the gate of Saint Antoine was flanked by two towers; and about 1369 Hugues Aubriot, at the command of Charles V., changed it into a regular bastille or fort by the addition of six others of massive structure, the whole united by thick walls and surrounded by a ditch 25 ft. wide. Various extensions and alterations were afterwards effected; but the building remained substantially what it was made by the vigorous provost, a strong and gloomy structure, with eight stern towers. As the ancient fortifications of the city were superseded, the use of the word bastille as a general designation gradually died out, and it became restricted to the castle of Saint Antoine, the political importance of which made it practically, long before it was actually, the only bastille of Paris. The building had originally a military purpose, and it appears as a fortress on several occasions in French history. When Charles VII. retook Paris from the English in 1436, his opponents in the city took refuge in the Bastille, which they were prepared to defend with vigour, but the want of provisions obliged them to capitulate. In 1588 the duke of Guise took possession of the Bastille, gave the command of it to Bussy-Leclerc, and soon afterwards shut up the whole parlement within its walls, for having refused their adherence to the League. When Henry IV. became master of Paris he committed the command of the Bastille to Sully, and there he deposited his treasures, which at the time of his death amounted to the sum of 15,870,000 livres. On the 11th of January 1649 the Bastille was invested by the forces of the Fronde, and after a short cannonade capitulated on the 13th of that month. The garrison consisted of only twenty-two men. The Frondeurs concluded a peace with the court on the 11th of March; but it was stipulated by treaty that they should retain possession of the Bastille, which in fact was not restored to the king till the 21st of October 1651.
At a very early period, however, the Bastille was employed for the custody of state prisoners, and it was ultimately much more of a prison than a fortress. According to the usual account, which one is tempted to ascribe to the popular love of poetical justice, the first who was incarcerated within its walls was the builder himself, Hugues Aubriot. Be this as it may, the duke of Nemours spent thirteen years there in one of those iron cages which Louis XI. called his fillettes; and Jacques d’Armagnac, Poyet and Chabot were successively prisoners. It was not till the reign of Louis XIII. that it became recognized as a regular place of confinement; but from that time till its destruction it was frequently filled to embarrassment with men and women of every age and condition. Prisoners were detained without trial on lettres de cachet for different reasons, to avoid a scandal, either public or private, or to satisfy personal animosities. But the most frequent and most notorious use of the Bastille was to imprison those writers who attacked the government or persons in power. It was this which made it so hated as an emblem of despotism, and caused its capture and demolition in the Revolution.
Of the treatment of prisoners in the Bastille very various accounts have been given even by those who speak from personal experience, for the simple reason that it varied greatly in different cases. The prisoners were divided into two main classes, those who were detained on grounds of precaution or by way of admonitory correction, and those who lay under presumption or proof of guilt. The former were subject to no investigation or judgment, and the length of their imprisonment depended on the will of the king; the latter were brought to trial in the ordinary courts or before special tribunals, such as that of the Arsenal—though even in their case the interval between their arrest and their trial was determined solely by the royal decree, and it was quite possible for a man to grow old in the prison without having the opportunity of having his fate decided. Until guilt was established, the prisoner was registered in the king’s name, and—except in the case of state-prisoners of importance, who were kept with greater strictness and often in absolute isolation—he enjoyed a certain degree of comfort and freedom. Visitors were admitted under restrictions; games were allowed; and, for a long time at least, exercise was permitted in open parts of the interior. Food was both abundant and good, at least for the better class of prisoners; and instances were not unknown of people living below their allowance and, by arrangement with the governor, saving the surplus. When the criminality of the prisoner was established, his name was transferred to the register of the “commission,” and he became exposed to numerous hardships and even barbarities, which however belonged not so much to the special organization of the Bastille as to the general system of criminal justice then in force.
Among the more distinguished personages who were confined in this fortress during the reigns of Louis XIV., XV. and XVI., were the famous Man of the Iron Mask (see Iron Mask), Foucquet, the marshal Richelieu, Le Maistre de Sacy, De Renneville, Voltaire, Latude, Le Prévôt de Beaumont, Labourdonnais, Lally, Cardinal de Rohan, Linguet and La Chalotais. While no detestation is too great for that system of “royal pantheism” which led to the unjust and often protracted imprisonment of even men of great ability and stainless character, it is unnecessary to give implicit credence to all the tales of horror which found currency during the excitement of the Revolution, and which historical evidence, as well as a priori considerations, tends to strip of their more dreadful features, and even in many cases to refute altogether. Much light of an unexpected kind has in modern times been shed on the history of the Bastille from the pages of its own records. These documents had been flung out into the courts of the building by the revolutionary captors, and after suffering grievous diminution and damage were finally stored up and forgotten in the vaults of the library of the (so-called) Arsenal. Here they were discovered in 1840 by François Ravaisson, who devoted himself to their arrangement, elucidation and publication.
At the breaking out of the Revolution the Bastille was attacked by the Parisians; and, after a vigorous resistance, it was taken and razed to the ground on the 14th of July 1789. At the time of its capture only seven prisoners were found in it. A very striking account of the siege will be found in Carlyle’s French Revolution, vol. i. The site of the building is now marked by a lofty column of bronze, dedicated to the memory of the patriots of July 1789 and 1830. It is crowned by a gilded figure of the genius of liberty.