This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for July 14, 2017: Carrying Water to the Field

July 14, 2017: on this day: storming of the Bastille

It was on this day in 1789 that an angry French mob stormed the Bastille prison in Paris, an event that launched the French Revolution. The Bastille was a medieval fortress, built in the 14th century, with eight towers, each 80 feet tall. It was used as a prison, and it had a reputation as a place where political prisoners and enemies of the royal family would rot away in miserable dungeons without a proper trial. By 1789, under the rein of Louis XVI, the Bastille didn’t have many prisoners, and the conditions were relatively comfortable — some wealthy prisoners even brought their own servants. Nonetheless, regular people considered the Bastille a symbol of royal oppression.

In June, the National Assembly had formed, a political body representing the common people of France. Rumors flew that King Louis XVI was trying to overthrow the National Assembly. At the same time, Parisians were starving, and the nation was on the brink of economic collapse. A few days before the storming of the Bastille, King Louis XVI abruptly dismissed his Minister of Finance, a man who had wide popular support. Angry citizens took to the streets — there was widespread looting, with food and weapons stolen. They gathered thousands of guns but needed gunpowder, and the Bastille was known to contain a large store of ammunition. By midmorning, thousands of people had gathered outside the Bastille, demanding gunpowder and the release of prisoners. They soon grew tired of negotiating and attacked. The fighting lasted several hours. Almost 100 attackers were killed and just one guard. But the mob was successful, and flooded into the prison. There turned out to be only seven prisoners to liberate: four forgers, two lunatics, and an aristocrat accused of incest. The mob killed the governor of the Bastille and paraded around the city with his head on a pike.

When King Louis XVI returned that evening from a day of hunting, one of his noblemen recounted the day’s events at the Bastille. Louis is said to have asked, “So this is a revolt?” to which his duke replied: “No, Sire, this is a revolution!”