In a word... Bastille

The myth of great heroism behind the French revolution was fake news

Storming the Bastille

Storming the Bastille

 

It surely is one of the great examples of “fake news”. Or, of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Today, Bastille Day in La France is taken as symbolic of the great heroism that lay behind the French revolution. A sham.

On July 14th, 1789, about 900 people gathered outside the Bastille in an attempt to get at its well-stocked supply of gunpowder. This would be portrayed as an attempt to free prisoners incarcerated there in shocking conditions since time immemorial for things they had not done. Not so.

There were seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time. They included four convicted forgers, a count imprisoned for sexual misdemeanours and two mentally ill men. Not the stuff of myth. But hey.

Within hours of its capture the Bastille had assumed a status as the powerful symbol of revolutionary spirit in France. It still does. Back then it was soon described as a “place of slavery and horror”, containing “machines of death”, “grim underground dungeons” and “disgusting caves” where prisoners were left to rot for up to 50 years.

After capture it was searched for evidence of torture. Old pieces of armour and bits of a printing press were taken out and presented as evidence of sophisticated torture equipment. More myth.

Stories about the rescue of a fictional count supposedly incarcerated by Louis XV, and the similarly imaginary discovery of the skeleton of the Man in the Iron Mask (never existed) in the dungeons were widely circulated as fact in Paris.

In the following months more than 150 publications in the city used the storming of the Bastille as a theme, while the events were the basis for a number of plays in its theatres.

By November 1789 most of the Bastille had been destroyed, but the legend lived on. This was thanks in great part also to the work of French novelists such as Alexandre Dumas, for example.

He used the Bastille and the legend of the “Man in the Iron Mask” in his The d’Artagnan Romances. These included The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later.

And there was Charles Dickens, who drew on fictions about the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities, where Dr Manette was “buried alive” for 18 years.

Still, vive La France libre.

Bastille, from French for “fortress, gate tower”

inaword@irishtimes.com

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