Sunday, 11 October 2015

Everyday life in the Bastille

Print showing the Porte Saint-Antoine and the Bastille in the mid-18th century

Most historians now admit that, by 1789, the great "State prison" where political prisoners of the likes of Fouquet and the Man in the Iron Mask were detained in conditions of secrecy under lettres de cachet was already a place of myth. Louis XVI's ministers were well aware that the fortress had become an obsolete symbol of all that was unenlightened and arbitrary about royal government. It is a striking revelation to learn that in 1784 plans already existed to demolish the fortress and replace it with a place Louis XVI on almost the exact site of the modern place de la Bastille.  In the meantime the Bastille  continued to function in a scaled down fashion and conditions were gradually brought into line with prisons elsewhere in Paris.

Profile of the prison population

The Bastille could hold between forty and fifty prisoners but it was never full.

 Apart from confinements for religious reasons - which was at the discretion of the Church and peaked in the 1730s -   the majority of arrests were based on valid laws and, in the last forty-five years before the Revolution, concerned economic and moral rather than political offences.  A third were for the writing and production of “forbidden books”. During the reign of Louis XVI the number of prisoners dropped dramatically and the average length of confinement fell from three years to one or two months.  There were a few peaks coinciding with notable public events:  the bread riots of 1775 (31 prisoners); the affair of the diamond necklace in 1786 (11 prisoners) and the revolt of the judges in Rennes in 1788 (12 prisoners).  However generally by the 1780s there were often only a handful of prisoners: ten in September 1782, seven in April 1783, and seven when the Bastille fell on 14th July 1789. As Linguet complained, numbers were oftenmade up by ordinary felons.

The conditions of detention, though harsh, were said to compare favourably with those in other gaols. Imprisonment in the Bastille was counted by the government as a favour, due to the high ranking prisoners detained.  Accounts vary in their verdict:  privileged prisoners such as  Morellet, Marmontel, Dumouriez - were well-treated and approached the experience with a certain bravado.  At the other end of the scale was Linguet was bitter in his indictment, both of the physical deprivation and the psychological trauma of open-ended imprisonment.

Arrest and detention

According to the instructions issued by the Baron de Breteuil in 1784 lettres de cachet were required to specify the probable length of detention. All prisoners were supposed to be examined within twenty-four hours of arrival, though admittedly this rule was loosely applied.  They appeared before a Commissaire du Châtelet or, in important cases, the Lieutenant of Police in person.  In every case a report on the prisoner was drawn up by the Lieutenant, on the basis of which another lettre de cachet could be issued making a pronouncement of  non-lieu (ie. no grounds for prosecution) and ordering the prisoner's release.  During the reign of Louis XVI 38 verdicts of non-lieu were ordered out of a total of 240 prisoners detained, that is just under a sixth.  Any prisoner unjustly incarcerated could seek compensation. In practice, there were often private negotiations for release or transfer.

Procedures clearly varied according to the standing of the prisoner. Linguet describes the humiliating official process of being searched, stripped of personal possessions and having his name inscribed in the prison register. Others were more gently treated. Marmontel, the editor of the Mercure de France, was imprisoned for a mere eleven days in 1759. His Memoirs give a semi-comic account of his arrival by in a coach accompanied by the Lieutenant.  His cell was comfortably furnished and he was allowed his books and the services of  his personal servant.  The son of the President of the Parlement of Aix-en-Provence, was said to have shared the governor's table every day under the pseudonym of Saint-Julien. It was generally possible to receive visitors; the Marquis de Fresne was even allowed to leave the Bastille to see his mother and to visit a spa for his rheumatism!

Cells and dungeons

The eight towers of the Bastille all had names - Bertodière, Bazinière, Comté, Trésor, Chapelle, Coin, Liberté, Puits They had three to six rooms on top of each other, with one or two prisoners per room.  They were of vast size and almost all had a large open hearth where a fire was kept burning in winter.  The walls were massively thick.   According to Linguet, De Launay, the last governor of the Bastille, had had double sets of bars placed on all the windows after an escape attempt in 1779, these being  positioned in such a way as to prevent any view.  “Perfect ice-houses” in winter, in summer the cells were “moist suffocating stoves”. Linguet, whose room faced out onto the moat, complained bitterly of the fetid smell of sewage from the rue St Antoine which emptied into the moat when the river overflowed.  Furnishings in the cells could be arranged according to the wishes of the prisoners, who were also able to bring in their own furniture (as did the Count de Belle-Isle in 1759); The rich could arrange a certain degree of comfort:  La Beaumelle in 1753 had bookcases built for his private library of more than six hundred volumes.  The Marquis de Sade, who was transferred from Vincennes in 1784 had his rooms entirely redecorated (to say nothing of wine shipped in from Burgundy and frequent unsupervised visits from his wife).   Linguet, on the other hand, reported bitterly that the inventory of his room consisted only of : “two matresses half eaten by the worms, a matted elbow chair…a tottering table, a water pitcher, two pots of Dutch ware…and two flagstones to support the fire". De Launay obstructed his smallest efforts to acquire new furnishings,  new wall hangings or adequate fuel (Linguet, p.64-72)

The Bastille of myth - prisoners liberated from a dungeon on 14th July 1789
Each tower had a cachot (dungeon) in its foundations and a calotte at the top where conditions were much harsher.  By the middle of the century dungeons used were only for punishment.  Latude left a vivid account of eighteen months in a dungeon with his feet chained to an enormous pillar, forced to lie on a bed of straw and fed only bread and water, with the only daylight filtered through a narrow chink in the wall.  

During the reign of Louis XVI, however, not one single prisoner was held in a dungeon: Necker as Inspector General expressly forbade the practice in 1776.  On  30 April 1780 Louis XVI demonstrated his enlightened sensibilities with a decree ordering the destruction of all underground “cachots"; those merely detained on suspicion should not be punished in advanced of the verdict, whilst  the “obscure suffering” of convicted criminals contributed nothing to public order. 

The prison regime

Here again, conditions were not as terrible as popularly supposed. As a royal prison the Bastille  was subject to careful administration. State prisoners were not allowed money, but between 6 and 26 livres was allotted for board, according to the rank of the prisoner.  Needy prisoners were clothed at the state’s expense and allowed to select material according to their own taste.  Latude, who complained of his “half-rotted rags”, was in fact given an considerable amount of bedding and clothing, including a new fur-lined coat which he sold after his second escape.  The food supplied by the Bastille's kitchens was generally held to be good and plentiful.  Some prisoners drew only half the daily ration and had the rest paid out on release. It was also possible to buy in supplies: many prisoners had their own wine. 

Prisoners who enjoyed "freedom of the yard", were allowed to walk about and to play communal games bowls or billiards.  Almost all were allowed to leave the cells for exercise in the inner courtyard or, more rarely on the upper platform. Warm baths, medicine cabinets and the services of specialist doctors were available. Interestingly the Bastille had quite an extensive library, the catalogue of which survives.  On Malesherbes's orders prisoners were given leave to read and write, though their letters were examined. They could also bring in personal possessions such as musical instruments, and even work, provided their tools did not threatened escape. 


Books and website on the Bastille are legion!  I have taken my facts and figures mainly from:

Jacques Godechot, The taking of the Bastille: July 14th 1789 (English trans. 1970), p.86-98.

Hans-Jürgen LüsebrinkRolf Reichardt, The Bastille: a history of a symbol of despotism and freedom (Duke University Press, 1997), p.27-32.

French reassessment of conditions in the Bastille has been led by Claude Quétel whose latest work is La Bastille dévoilée par ses archives (2013).  You can hear him discuss his conclusions here:
And for an earlier interview

Claude Quetel has also written a revealing biography of Latude: Escape from the Bastille: the life and legend of Latude (English trans. Polity Press 1990)

Also recommended:
Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet, Memoirs of the Bastille (English trans. 1783)  With notes and introduction by Jim Chevallier (2005)
Mr Chevalier has a very informative section on the Bastille on his website:
See particularly the section on food in the Bastille

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