Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Violence broke out everywhere as peasants attacked their landlords' homes, destroyed documents that recorded their names, obligations, and debts, and sometimes even held nobles hostage. The Great Fear, as the uprising is typically called, reached its peak at the end of July of 1789. On August 4, however, the National Assembly abolished the seigneurial system. The peasants settled down within a few days; they had gotten exactly what they wanted. With the fall of the Bastille and the Great Fear, France had been turned on its ear. The old ways of early days had been violently erased, and now the country faced the challenge of finding a new path.
The Bastille was a Paris prison that came to symbolize everything that was wrong with France and everything that the French people resented about their country. After the Third Estate broke off from the Estates General and formed the National Assembly, the people of Paris grew restless and riots broke out in the city. When King Louis XVI sacked the people's favorite government minister, Jacques Necker, the violence escalated.
On July 14, 1789, a mob attacked the Bastille, seeking to seize gunpowder and free prisoners. Commander Bernard-René Jordan de Launay refused to surrender, and with a few of his men did his best to defend the Bastille. Finally, however, with the help of a company of deserters from the French army, the mob overran the prison, marched triumphantly through the streets, and executed Launay.
As news of the Bastille's fall spread, paranoid and agitated peasants rose up against their seigneurs, or noble landlords, attacking the nobles' houses, destroying records, and even taking hostages. This uprising, called the Great Fear, reached its peak at the end of July. On August 4, the National Assembly abolished the seigneurial system and the peasants settled down. France's government and customs, however, had been turned upside down, and the country now had to find a new path toward the future.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons