Every year on 14 July, the French celebrate – “le jour de la prise de la Bastille” – the storming of the prison in Paris, which marks the French Revolution of 1789. Today, the highlight is the parade on the Champs Elysées, attended by The President of the Republic, usually followed by concerts, dancing, music and parties in the cities, towns and villages throughout France.
The revolution came about through the complete mess that the government at the time had made of the countries finances and the huge inequalities between the nobles and the peasants – it was going to break at some point, and it finally did in 1789. Government debts were exacerbated when the French fought in the American Revolution, which was also a contributory factor – some sort of copycat revolution.
The country was nearly at bankruptcy point in 1787, and a loaf of bread was so expensive that it cost nearly a week’s wage for a peasant – people were starving and dying of starvation, while the nobles were living in such a luxurious and rich lifestyle that caused deep divisions and hatred between the rich and the abject poor.
Here are a few facts :
1. Peasants had to pay taxes to their noble, The King and to the church – The nobility were exempt from paying most taxes.
2. Over 18,000 (some estimates go as high as 40,00) people were beheaded at The Guillotine during the Revolution and the ensuing ‘Reign of Terror’, organised by Robespierre – who was then beheaded at The Guillotine on July 28 1794.
3. Thomas Jefferson was U.S. Minister to France during The French Revolution.
4. Charles Dickens’ book, “A Tale of Two Cities” was set during the French Revolution.
5. When the prison of La Bastille was stormed on July 14 1789, there were only seven prisoners inside, but the revoltionaries were really after the huge stock of arms and powder that was kept within the walls.
6. The Imperial and Prussian armies threatened retaliation on the French population if it were to resist the reinstatement of the monarchy by creating the Brunswick Manifesto.
7. King Louis XVI was executed on 12 January 1793 – the charge was conspiring with the enemies of France (Prussia and Austria) – he was executed under the name of Citoyen Louis Capet, which led to the declaration of war against France by many of the former neutral countries in Europe.
8. The Guillotine once stood in the square called, Place de La Révolution – today it is known as Place de la Concorde.
9. King Louis XVI was nearly not executed – but for a 73 vote majority, 361 voted for the execution and 288 against.
10. The radical militants of the peasant classes were called “Les Sans Culottes” – ‘Culottes’ are generally meant to mean ‘knickers’ or underwear, but at the time it was a way of distinguishing the peasants who wore long trousers ‘Pantallons” and the nobility, who wore silk knee breeches.
11. A new decimal calendar and way of telling the time was adopted by the revolutionaries on a basis of ten – including a 10 day week, each day was divided into ten hours – each hour had 100 minutes and each minute had 100 seconds.
12. The original name of The French National anthem “La Marseillaise” was originally called the “The Song of The Army of The Rhine” and was not written in Marseille. The writer, Rouget-de-L’Isle was nearly guillotined later, due to the song.
13. It is believed that Marie Antoinette paid her executioner with a purse full of gold coins to ensure that the blade of the Guillotine was sharp, thus ensuring a quick and clean death.
14. Louis XVI was, said to be involved in improving the invention of the guillotine, by suggesting the use of a triangular blade – to ensure a sharper, quicker cut of the head – something that he would experience first-hand some years later.
15. Bastille is an alternative spelling of the Provençal word, ‘Bastida’ (built) or the French, ‘Bastide’, meaning fortification. A verb, ‘Embastiller’ means to garrison troops in a prison.
16. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens of 1789, whose proclamation of“natural, imprescriptible, and inalienable” rights served as the model for the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
17. The Marquis de Sade was among the 7 prisoners in The Bastille Prison when the revolutionaries stormed it on 14 July 1789.
18. 10,000 African slaves were freed after the Revolution.
19. The Protestant and Jewish religions, that were illegal before 1789, now were legal after the Revolutionaries took power in France.
20. When the royal family attempted to escape France, they were recognized because the king’s face was on all of the coins, so they didn’t get very far.
21. Nicolas de Condorcet, who had written one of the revolutionary constitutions, went into hiding during the “Reign of Terror”. When those who sheltered “counter-revolutionaries” started going to the guillotine, he left his hiding place and walked into the countryside. Although he was by this time an ordinary “citizen,” he gave away his aristocratic roots when he ordered an omelet made of 12 eggs. He was arrested and probably committed suicide in jail so he wouldn’t be guillotined.