Mad Myths of Bastille Day

Kate Farrell (author of Story Power) retells George W. Rutler’s story of Bastille Day, a holiday which celebrates the storming of Bastille.

While the old adage says that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it, those who do not know history can also be fooled. “Bastille Day” is the celebration of an inflated myth. Propagandists—and later romanticists like Alexandre Dumas with Man in the Iron Mask and the amiably pathetic Doctor Manette of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities—made the storming of the prison the first thrust of the liberators. 

The Bastille was far from a fetid torture chamber. It had a storied history. While at times it must not have been a congenial hospice, the number of prisoners dwindled under benign Louis XVI, making it the equivalent of an American “white collar” place of custody, with tapestries, paintings, a library, and at least one personal chef.

On July 14, 1789, there were only seven inmates, a couple of them mental patients. Ten days earlier, the Marquis de Sade, not a paragon of virtue, ran along the rampart of the prison shouting lies about inmates being murdered. This was too much for the congenial warden, the Marquis René Jourdan de Launay, to handle, and so the aristocratic patron of sadism was remaindered to a lunatic asylum in Charenton. The Marquis de Sade left behind his unfinished 1785 magnum opus, The 120 Days of Sodom, in the Bastille.

Yet the myth of the dank dungeon persists. The one-pound-three-ounce key to the Bastille now hangs in Mount Vernon, the proud gift of the Marquis de Lafayette to President George Washington, sent in the summer of 1790 via Thomas Paine to New York where it was displayed as a relic at a presidential reception and then through Philadelphia to Virginia.

As for the Bastille, its remnant prisoners were an afterthought since the revolutionaries had pulled down its gates to get hold of 250 barrels of gunpowder.

Indeed, the confused inmates seemed reluctant to leave. The kindly, if dour, Marquis de Launay was dragged out and brutally stabbed, and then a butcher named Matthieu Jouve Jourdon sawed his head off. The prison was soon torn down, but bits and pieces are preserved as relics.

It takes a propagandist skilled in shamelessness to airbrush the Reign of Terror, but it has been done many times, not least of all by our own Thomas Jefferson.


During the Revolution, Cathedral of Notre Dame was ransacked by thousands of hysterics and had most of its treasures looted, which included the decapitation of 28 statues of the Kings of Judah along with statues on the other portals. The building was renamed a Temple of Reason with a woman dancing as a goddess on a fabricated “mountain” replacing the altar. Relics, vestments, and furnishings were destroyed, and images of saints were replaced with busts of such benignities as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin.

Part of the lead roof was pulled down to make bullets and the consequent leakage hastened the weakening of the stone fabric. The sonorous bronze bells were smashed and melted to be cast as cannons.

The whole edifice might have been destroyed had not Napoleon attempted some repairs in the whitewashing and neo-classical pastiche theatrical set for his coronation, a triumph of nouveau riche over ancien régime. Only a 19th century, gothic revival movement, animated in part by Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and the mystique of Quasimodo, prevented the ravaged shrine from being totally demolished.



Note: Bastille Day, France’s National Day on July 14th, is traditionally celebrated with a military parade on the Champs-Elysées. With Covid-19 declining everywhere in France, the parade will be back this Wednesday July 14, 2021, on the world’s most beautiful avenue. And there might even be an audience to attend it.

Story Power by Kate Farrell

Story power

Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories

Stories are everywhere. The art of storytelling has been around as long as humans have. And in today’s noisy, techy, automated world, storytelling is not only prevalent—it’s vital. Whether you’re interested in enlivening conversation, building your business brand, sharing family wisdom, or performing on stage, Story Power will show you how to make use of a good story.

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