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The Storming of Bastille & the Great Fear

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  • 0:02 The Bastille and its Symbolism
  • 1:09 France in Crisis
  • 2:14 That Fateful Day
  • 4:50 The Great Fear
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the storming of the Bastille, which took place on July 14, 1789 in Paris. We will also examine the Great Fear that ravaged the French countryside in 1789.

The Bastille and its Symbolism

Paris' famous Bastille was built in 1370 as a medieval fortress designed to protect the city from outside attack. By the 17th century, it had been converted into a state prison, and when the French Revolution began in 1789, the Bastille was home to mostly noble prisoners, often spies and those detained for political reasons. A major feature of Paris' cityscape, the Bastille was an imposing structure with thick, hundred-foot walls, an eighty-foot-wide moat, eight towers, and two drawbridges.

Although it had been designed and intended as a symbol of security and order, many Parisians came to despise the Bastille as a symbol of despotism and tyranny. When they surveyed the massive structure, they remembered the absolute monarch who was in control of it. They recalled all the troubles that had plagued France: the class struggles, the unequal treatment and sufferings of the common people, the debt, the high taxes, the wars, and the bad harvests. The Bastille reminded Parisians of everything that was wrong with their country.

France in Crisis

By 1789, France was immersed in a major crisis. The country's troubles had come to a head, and the government was bankrupt. The Estates General, an assembly of delegates from the clergy, the nobility, and the common people, met in May of that year to try to come up with some kind of solution. They failed, and the frustrated Third Estate, or common people, broke off from the Estates General and formed their own National Assembly.

Responding to the upheaval among their leaders, the residents of Paris turned restless. Mobs formed, riots broke out, and King Louis XVI sent troops to Paris in an attempt to control the city. Although the people were pleased when the king legalized the National Assembly, they were furious when he dismissed their favorite government minister, Jacques Necker, who had a way of soothing their fears. More riots crashed through the city as revolutionary leaders spurred on the upset people, hoping the havoc they created would send a strong message to the king.

That Fateful Day

Naturally, the crowds turned their attention to the symbol of everything the people resented, namely, the Bastille. The prison's commander, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, was awfully nervous by the morning of July 14, 1789. He had already received some reinforcements, but he knew that he simply didn't have the manpower to hold the Bastille against a massive, angry mob. What's more, only two days before, the government had sent 250 barrels of gunpowder to help defend the Bastille. That action proved to be a mistake, for it only made the Bastille a more tempting target. The soldiers in residence worked hard to reinforce the prison while dodging pot shots from the crowds below, and the intensity of the situation continued to heighten.

Early in the morning on July 14, a mob armed with muskets, swords, and various homemade weapons gathered at the Bastille. They were intent upon seizing the newly-delivered gunpowder and freeing the prisoners, who, at the moment, numbered only seven. The crowd demanded Launay's surrender, but he refused. He tried to reason with the people, sending delegations to say that while he would not give up the Bastille, he would order his soldiers to hold their fire. He even showed the mob that the prison's cannons were not loaded.

That was another big mistake. It only gave the angry people more confidence, and three hundred of them stormed over the prison's outer wall into the courtyard. They opened the first drawbridge to admit the rest of the mob and tore off toward the second drawbridge. Launay's soldiers opened fire, killing or wounding about a hundred people. The crowd's fury only increased.

Around 3 p.m., a company of deserters from the French army arrived with five cannons. They vigorously joined in the attack against the Bastille and Launay knew that he was in big trouble. There was no way he and his few men were going to stop this enraged mob. Hoping for safety for himself and his soldiers, Launay decided to surrender.

The crowd quickly overran the Bastille, grasped Launay and the prison's other defenders, freed the prisoners, and seized gunpowder, weapons, and anything else they could carry. Soon, they were marching triumphantly through the streets. Chaos reigned in the city, and Launay's hope for safety turned to despair. He was executed by the mob along with many of his men.

The Great Fear

After the fall of the Bastille, panic spread throughout France. Rural peasants across the country were already paranoid and agitated, so it didn't take much to stir them up to a fever pitch. The peasants had their own set of grievances against their seigneurs, the noble landlords who charged them high rents and exorbitant taxes and forced them to labor on their grandiose personal projects. As rumors flew that the nobles were hiring brigands to murder their peasants, the peasants decided to act.

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