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From Legends of the Bastille by Frantz Funck-Brentano, with an Introduction by Victorien Sardou, Authorised Translation by George Maidment, London :  Downey & Co. Limited; 1899; pp. 85-113.




HAVING sketched rapidly and with bold strokes the outlines of the history of the Bastille from its foundation to its fall, we intend to show how the rule to which prisoners in the fortress of the Suburb Saint-Antoine were submitted underwent its own process of transformation, parallel with the transformation of the prison itself. To understand the acts which follow, and which are of a kind to astound the mind of everyone in these days, it is necessary to remember what we have already said as to the character of the Bastille. It was the prison of luxury, the aristocratic prison of the ancien régime, the prison de luxe at a period when it was no dishonour, as we shall see later, to be confined there. We must remember the phrase of the minister of Paris writing to D’Argenson, in regard to a personage of but modest rank, that this individual did not deserve “consideration” enough to be put in the Bastille. Let us reflect on this observation of Mercier in his excellent Pictures of Paris : “The people fear the Châtelet more than the Bastille. Of the latter they have no dread, because it is almost unknown to them.”


We have shown how the Bastille, originally a military citadel, had become a prison of state; then, little by little, had approximated to the ordinary prisons, until the day when it died a natural death ere it could be assassinated. The same transformation took place in the treatment of the prisoners. Midway in the seventeenth century, the Bastille had none of the characteristics of a prison, but was simply a château in which the king caused certain of his subjects to sojourn, for one cause or another. They lived there just as they thought proper, furnishing their rooms according to their fancy with their own furniture, indulging their tastes in regard to food at their own expense, and waited on by their own servants. When a prisoner was rich he could live at the Bastille in princely style; when he was poor, he lived there very wretchedly. When the prisoner had no property at all, the kind did not for that reason give him furniture or food; but he gave him money which he might use as seemed good to him in providing himself with furniture and food :  money of which he could retain a part — a number of prisoners did not fail to do so — these savings becoming his own property. This system, the character of which it is important to recognize, underwent gradual modification during the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, approximating, without ever becoming identical with, the system of our modern prisons. Thus the king, instead of granting pensions individually to the poorest of the prisoners, came to endow the Bastille with a certain fixed number 87 of pensions for the less fortunate prisoners. The recipients of these pensions continued to enjoy them for long years, and if they did not wish the whole of the money to be expended on their support, the balance was handed over to them. So we see certain individuals getting little fortunes together by the mere fact of their having been prisoners in the Bastille — a circumstance which has so much surprised historians because they have not sought its cause. It even happened that prisoners, when their liberation was announced to them, asked to remain a little longer in order to swell their savings, a favour which was sometimes granted them. In the course of the eighteenth century the money destined to the maintenance of the prisoners at the Bastille could not be diverted from its purpose; the prisoners were no longer able to appropriate a part; the whole sum had to be expended.

It was only in the second half of the seventeenth century that the king had some rooms at the Bastille furnished for such prisoners as were without means of procuring furniture themselves. And it is very interesting to note that it was only at the extreme end of the century, under the administration of Saint-Mars, that certain apartments of the Bastille were arranged in the prison style with bars and bolts. Until then they had been simply the rooms of a stronghold.1


Let us follow the prisoner from his entrance to his exit.

When the lettres de cachet had been signed, it was usually a sort of sheriff’s officer who effected the arrest. He appeared in company with five or six men-at-arms, and signified the arrest by touching his quarry with a white staff. A coach was in waiting. The police officer politely begged the person he was instructed to secure to step into the coach, and took his place beside him. And, according to the testimony of various memoirs, while the vehicle was rolling along with lowered blinds, there was a pleasant conversational exchange of courtesies up to the moment of the prisoner’s finding himself within the walls of the Bastille. A certain Lafort was living in furnished apartments with a young and pretty Englishwoman whom he had abducted, when one evening, about sunset, a police officer arrived. The coach was at the door. Preliminaries were settled on both sides with as much politeness as if a visit or an evening party had been the topic of discussion. They all got into the vehicle, even the young man’s lackey who, beguiled by appearances, mounted behind. Arrived at the Bastille, the lackey lost no time in descending to open the door :  there was general astonishment, especially on the part of the poor servant, when he learnt that since he had entered the Bastille along with his master, he must stay with him.


Most often the officer and his companions surprised their quarry early in the morning, on rising from bed. Imagine then the coach with the prisoner and the police officer inside, arriving before the Bastille, in the first court in front of the castle keep. “Who goes there?” cries the sentinel. “The king’s writ!” replies the officer. At this, the shops we have seen attached to the flanks of the château are bound at once to be shut. The soldiers on guard have to turn their faces to the wall, or perhaps to pull their hats over their eyes. The coach passes the outpost, a bell sounds. “Advance!” cries the officer on duty. The drawbridge is lowered and the coach rattles over the stout iron-clamped boards. For greater secrecy, spies and prisoners of war were taken in by a private door leading to the gardens of the Arsenal.

Officers and noblemen presented themselves before the Bastille alone, unless they were accompanied by relatives or friends. “It is my intention,” the king had written to them, “that you betake yourselves to my château of the Bastille.” And no one dreamt of declining the royal invitation. Further, when the governor desired to transfer one of them from one prison to another, he contented himself with telling him so. We find in the Journal of Du Junca, king’s lieutenant2 at the 90 Bastille, several notes like the following :  “Monday, December 26, 1695, about ten o’clock in the morning, M. de Villars, lieutenant-colonel of the regiment of Vosges infantry, came and reported himself a prisoner, as ordered by M. Barbezieux, though he was a prisoner in the citadel of Grenoble, whence he came direct without being brought by anyone.”3 On the arrival of the prisoner, the king’s lieutenant, accompanied by the captain of the gates, came to receive him as he got out of his carriage. The officers of the château at once led the new-comer into the presence of the governor, who received him civilly, invited him to sit down, and after having endorsed the lettre de cachet conversed with him for some time. Under Louis XIV. the governor in most cases even kept his new guest, as well as the person who had accompanied him, to lunch or dinner. Meanwhile his quarters had been got ready. We read in Du Junca’s Journal that on January 26, 1695, a certain De Courlandon, a colonel of cavalry, presented himself for incarceration at the Bastille. There being no room ready to receive him, the governor asked him to go and pass the night in a neighbouring inn, at the sign of the 91 Crown, and to return next day. “Whereupon M. de Courlandon did not rail to return about eleven o’clock in the morning, having dined with M. de Besmaus (the governor), and in the afternoon he entered the château.

The reader will not be surprised at learning that the prospect of incarceration at the Bastille did not always strike the future prisoner with terror. We read in the Memoirs, of the Duke de Lauzun:4 “Scolded for two hours on end by everybody who fancied himself entitled to do so, I thought I could not do better than go to Paris and await developments. A few hours after my arrival, I received a letter from my father telling me that it had been decided to put us all in the Bastille, and that I should probably be arrested during the night. I determined at least to finish gaily, so I invited some pretty girls from the Opera to supper, so that I might await the officer without impatience. Seeing that he did not arrive, I determined on the bold move of going to Fontainebleau and joining the king’s hunt. He did not speak to me once during the chase, which was such a confirmation of our disgrace that on our return no one gave us the customary salute. But I did not lose heart; in the evening I was in attendance, and the king came to me. ‘You are all,’ he said, ‘hotheaded rips, but funny dogs all the same; come along and have supper, and bring M. de Guéméné and the Chevalier de Luxembourg.’ ”


Before the new arrival was installed in the chamber prepared for him, he was taken to the great council hall, where he was requested to empty his pockets. Only notorious rogues were searched. If the prisoner had upon him money, jewels or other articles such as knives and scissors, the use of which was not allowed by the regulations, they were done up in a parcel which he himself sealed, with his own seal if he had one; if not, with the seal of the Bastille. Finally he was conducted to the room reserved for him.

Each of the eight towers of the Bastille contained four or five stories of rooms or cells. The worst of these rooms were on the lowest floor, and these were what were called the “cells,” — octagonal vaults, cold and damp, partly under ground; the walls, grey with mould, were bare from floor to ceiling, the latter a groined arch. A bench and a bed of straw covered with a paltry coverlet, formed the whole appointments. Daylight feebly flickered through the vent-hole opening on to the moat. When the Seine was in flood, the water came through the walls and swamped the cells; and then any prisoners who might happen to be in them were removed. During the reign of Louis XIV. the cells were sometimes occupied by prisoners of the lowest class and criminals condemned to death. Later, under Louis XV., the cells ceased to be used except as a place of punishment for insubordinate prisoners who assaulted their guardians or fellow-prisoners, or for turnkeys and sentinels of the Château who had committed breaches of discipline. They stayed in the cells for 93 a short time in irons. The cells had fallen into disuse by the time the Revolution broke out; since the first ministry of Necker, it had been forbidden to confine in them anyone whatever, and none of the warders questioned on July 18 remembered having seen anyone placed in them. The two prisoners, Tavernier and Béchade, whom the conquerors of the 14th of July found in one of these dungeons, had been placed there, at the moment of the attack by the officers of the château, for fear lest amid the rain of bullets some harm should befall them.

The worst rooms after the cells were the calottes, the rooms on the floor above. In summer the heat was extreme in them, and in winter the cold, in spite of the stoves. They were octagons whose ceilings, as the name implies, were shaped like a skull-cap. High enough in the centre, they gradually diminished in height towards the sides. It was impossible to stand upright except in the middle of the room.

The prisoners were only placed in the cells and calottes under exceptional circumstances. Every tower had two or three floors of lofty and airy chambers, and in these the prisoners lived. They were octagons from fifteen to sixteen feet in diameter, and from fifteen to twenty feet high. Light entered through large windows approached by three steps. We have said that it was only towards the end of Louis XIV.’s reign that these rooms were arranged like prison cells with bars and bolts. They were warmed with open fireplaces or stoves. The ceiling was whitewashed, the floor of brick. On the 94 walls the prisoners had chalked verses, mottoes, and designs.

One artistic prisoner amused himself by decorating the bare walls with paintings. The governor, delighted at seeing him thus find relaxation moved him from room to room; when he had finished filling one with his designs and arabesques, he was placed in another. Some of these rooms were decorated with portraits of Louis XIV. placed above the chimney-piece, a characteristic detail which helps to show what the Bastille was at this period :  the château of the king, where the king received a certain number of his subjects, as his willing or unwilling guests.

The best rooms in the Bastille were those that were fitted up in the eighteenth century for the accommodation of the staff. These were what were called the “suites.” In this were placed invalids and prisoners of distinction.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the furniture of these apartments was still extremely simple :  they were absolutely empty. The reason of this we have indicated above. “I arrived,” says Madame de Staal, “at a room where there was nothing but four walls, very filthy, and daubed all over by my predecessors for want of something better to do. It was so destitute of furniture that someone went and got a little straw chair for me to sit on, and two stones to support a lighted faggot, and a little candle-end was neatly stuck on the wall to give me light.”

The prisoners sent to their own homes for a table, bed, 95 and chair, or they hired these from the upholsterer of the Bastille. When they had nothing to bless themselves with, the government, as we have already said, did not provide them with furniture. It gave them money, sometimes considerable sums, which permitted them to adorn their rooms after their own fancy. This was the case in regard to all prisoners up to 1684. At this date the king ordered the administration to supply furniture to those of the prisoners whose detention was to be kept secret, for, by getting in bedding from their own houses or the houses of friends, they made known their arrest. D’Argenson had a half a dozen of the rooms permanently furnished, others were furnished under Louis XV.; under Louis XVI., almost all were furnished. The appointments were very modest :  a bed of green baize with curtains, one or two tables, several chairs, fire-dogs, a shovel, and a small pair of tongs. But after having undergone examination, the prisoner retained the right of getting in furniture from outside. And in this way the rooms of the prisoners were sometimes adorned with great elegance. Madame de Staal relates that she had hers hung with tapestry; the Marquis de Sade covered the bare walls with long and brilliant hangings :  other prisoners ornamented their rooms with family portraits :  they procured chests of drawers, desks, round tables, dressing-cases, armchairs, cushions in Utrecht velvet; the inventories of articles belonging to the prisoners show that they managed to secure everything that they thought necessary. The Abbé Brigault, who 96 was imprisoned at the same time as Madame de Staal and for the same affair, brought into the Bastille five armchairs, two pieces of tapestry, eleven serge hangings, eight chairs, a bureau, a small table, three pictures, &c. The list of effects taken out of the Bastille by the Comte de Belle-Isle when he was set at liberty includes a library consisting of 333 volumes and ten atlases, a complete service of fine linen and plate for the table, a bed furnished with gold-bordered red damask, four pieces of tapestry on antique subjects, two mirrors, a screen of gold-bordered red damask matching the bed, two folding screens, two armchairs with cushions, an armchair in leather, three chairs in tapestry, an overmantel of gilt copper, tables, drawers, stands, candlestick of plated copper, &c. We might multiply examples, even from among prisoners of middle station.

It was the rule that prisoners newly arrived at the Bastille should be examined within twenty-four hours. It sometimes happened, however, that one or another remained for two or three weeks before appearing before the magistrate. The Châtelet commissioner, specially delegated to the Bastille for these examinations, founded his questions on notes supplied him by the lieutenant of police, who, indeed, often went in person to see the prisoners. A special commission was appointed for affairs of importance. Dumouriez says that he was examined after nine hours of detention by three commissioners :  “The president was an old councillor of 97 state named Marville, a man of intelligence, but coarse and sarcastic. The second was M. de Sartine, lieutenant of police and councillor of state, a man of polish and refinement. The third was a maître des requêtes5 named Villevaux, a very insincere and disputatious fellow. The clerk, who had more intelligence than any of them, was an advocate named Beaumont.”

We have found many instances of prisoners who spoke in high terms of their judges. And it cannot be said that prisoners at the Bastille escaped judgment. A Châtelet commissioner examined them and sent the official report of his examination, with a statement of his opinion, to the lieutenant of the police. He decided whether the arrest should be sustained. Moreover, it would be a mistake to compare the lieutenant of police under the ancien régime with the prefect of police of to-day; the lieutenants of police, selected from former maîtres des requétes, had a judicial character :  the documents of the period call them “magistrates”; they issued decrees without appeal and pronounced penal sentences, even condemning to the galleys; they were at the same time justices of the peace with an extensive jurisdiction. In addition to the examination held on the entrance of a prisoner, the lieutenants of police, in the course of their frequent visits, addressed to the 98 ministers of Paris reports on the prisoners, — reports in which they discussed the evidence, and which constituted veritable judgments.

When the prisoner was recognized as innocent, a new lettre de cachet soon set him at liberty. The verdict of “no true bill” often supervened with a rapidity which the decisions of our police magistrates would do well to emulate. A certain Barbier, who entered the Bastille on February 15, 1753, was found not guilty and set at liberty the next day. Of the 279 persons imprisoned in the Bastille during the last fifteen years of the ancien régime, thirty-eight benefited by the dropping of the indictment.

Finally — and here is a point on which the new method might well model itself on that of the Bastille — when a detention was recognized as unjust, the victim was indemnified. A great number of examples might be mentioned. An advocate named Subé left the Bastille on June 18, 1767, after a detention of eighteen days; he had been falsely accused of the authorship of a book against the king, and received compensation to the tune of 3000 livres, more then £ 240 of our money. A certain Pereyra, imprisoned in the Bastille from November 7, 1771, to April 12, 1772, and then from July 1 to September 26, 1774, having been found to be innocent, was reinstated in all his property, and received from the king a life pension of 1200 livres, more than £ 100 to-day. A certain number of those accused in the Canada case, when the charge was withdrawn, 99 received a life pension on leaving the Bastille. At other times, the detention of an individual might throw his family into want. He was kept in the Bastille, if it was thought he deserved it, but his people were assisted. Under date September 3, 1763, the duke de Choiseul writes to the lieutenant of police :  “I have received the letter you did me the honour of writing to me in favour of the children of the Sieur Joncaire-Chabert. I have the pleasure to inform you that I have got for them a second subsidy of 300 livres (nearly £ 30 to-day) in consideration of the sad condition you informed me they were in.” Louis XIV. guaranteed to Pellisson, at his liberation, a pension of 2000 crowns. The Regent granted to Voltaire, when he left the Bastille, a pension of 1200 livres. Louis XVI. awarded to Latude an annuity of 400 livres, and to La Rocheguérault an annuity of 400 crowns. The minister Breteuil pensioned all the prisoners whom he set at liberty. Brun de Condamine, confined from 1779 to 1883, received on leaving a sum of 600 livres. Renneville speaks of a prisoner to whom Seignelay gave an important situation in compensation for his detention at the Bastille. We hear of one, Toussaint Sacquart, a commissioner of the Châtelet and of police, whose offices were restored to him when he came out of the Bastille. In fact, contrary to detention in our modern prisons, incarceration in the Bastille did not cast the slightest slur on the prisoner’s character, even in the eyes of those to whom his arrest was due, and instances have been known of men who, on their release from the 100 Bastille, not only were reinstated in public offices, but reached the highest positions.

Until his examinations were quite completed, the prisoner was kept in close confinement. None but the officers of the château were allowed to communicate with him. And during this time he lived in solitude, unless he had brought a servant with him. The administration readily permitted the prisoners to avail themselves of the services of their valets, who were boarded at the king’s expense. It even happened that the government sometimes gave their prisoners valets, paying not only for their board, but also their wages at the rate of 900 livres a year. One might cite prisoners of inferior rank who thus had servants to wait on them. Two or three prisoners were sometimes put together in one room. Prison life has no greater terror than solitude. In absolute solitude many of the prisoners became mad. In company, the hours of captivity seemed less tedious and oppressive. Father and son, mother and daughter, aunt and niece, lived together. Many might be named. On September 7, 1693, a lady named De la Fontaine was taken to the Bastille for the second time. The first time, she had been imprisoned quite alone; but this new detention evoked the compassion of the lieutenant of the police, who, to please the poor lady, sent her husband to the Bastille, locked him up with her, and gave them a lackey to wait on them.

The examinations being ended, the prisoners enjoyed a greater liberty. They could then enter into communication 101 with the people of the town. They obtained permission to see their relatives and friends. These sometimes paid them visits in their rooms; but as a rule the interviews took place in the council-hall, in presence of one of the officers of the château. They were usually permitted to discuss only family affairs and business matters. All conversation on the Bastille and the reasons for their imprisonment was forbidden. The rules of the prison increased in severity as time went one. Towards the end of Louis XV.’s reign the lieutenant of police went so far as to prescribe the subjects of conversation which would alone be permitted in the course of the visit’s the prisoners received. “They may talk to the prisoner about the harvest his vineyards will yield this year, about cancelling a lease, about a match for his niece, about the health of his parents.” But it is necessary to read the Memoirs of Gourville, Fontaine, Bussy-Rabutin, Hennequin, Madame de Staal, the Duke de Richelieu, to form a general idea of life at the Bastille under Louis XIV. and under the Regent. Several prisoners were free to move about through the château wherever it seemed good to them; they entered the rooms of their fellow-prisoners at all hours of the day. The governor contented himself with locking them in their own rooms at night. The prisoners who had the “liberty of the court” organized games of bowls or tonneau, and hobnobbed with the officers of the garrisons. Fontaine relates that they might have been seen from the top of the towers, collected fifty at a time in the inner court. 102 Bussy-Rabutin’s room was open to all comers :  his wife and friends visited him; he gave dinners to persons from court, plotted love intrigues there, and corresponded freely with his friends and relatives. Several prisoners even had permission to take a walk into the town on condition of their returning to the château in the evening. Two brothers were placed in the Bastille together. They went out when they pleased, taking turns; it was sufficient for one or other to be always at the Château. The officers of the staff gossiped with the prisoners and gave them advice as to the best means of obtaining their liberty.

This animated, courtly, and elegant life is described with infinite charm by Madame de Staal, whom we have already cited. “We all used to spend a part of the day with the governor. We dined with him, and after dinner I enjoyed a rubber of ombre with Messieurs de Pompadour and de Boisdavis, Ménil advising me. When it was over we returned to our own apartments. The company met again in my rooms before supper, for which we returned to the governor’s, and after that we all went to bed.”

As to the manner in which the prisoners were fed and looked after, that is surprising indeed, and what we shall say about it, though rigidly accurate, will perhaps be regarded as an exaggeration. The governor drew three livres a day for the maintenance of a man of inferior rank; five livres for the maintenance of a tradesman; ten livres for a banker, a magistrate, or a man of 103 letters; fifteen livres for a judge of the Parlement; thirty-six livres for a marshal of France. The Cardinal de Rohan had 120 francs a day spent on him. The Prince de Courlande, during a stay of five months at the Bastille, spent 22,000 francs. These figures must be doubled and trebled to give the value they would represent to-day.

We read, too, with the greatest astonishment the description of the meals the prisoners made. Renneville, whose evidence is the more important in that his book is a pamphlet against the administration of the Bastille, speaks in these terms of his first meal :  “The turnkey put one of my serviettes on the table and placed my dinner on it, which consisted of pea soup garnished with lettuce, well simmered and appetizing to look at, with a quarter of fowl to follow; in one dish there was a juicy beef-steak, with plenty of gravy and a sprinkling of parsley, in another a quarter of forcemeat pie well stuffed with sweetbreads, cock’s combs, asparagus, mushrooms, and truffles; and in a third a ragoût of sheep’s tongue, the whole excellently cooked; for dessert, a biscuit and two pippins. The turnkey insisted on pouring out my wine. This was good burgundy, and the bread was excellent. I asked him to drink, but he declared it was not permitted. I asked if I should pay for my food, or whether I was indebted to the king for it. He told me that I had only to ask freely for whatever would give me pleasure, that they would try to satisfy me, and that His Majesty paid for it all.” The 104 “most Christian” king desired that his guests should fast on Fridays and in Lent, but he did not treat them any the worse on that account. “I had,” says Renneville, “six dishes, and an admirable prawn soup. Among the fish there was a very fine weever, a large fried sole, and a perch, all very well seasoned, with three other dishes.” At this period Renneville’s board cost ten francs a day; later he was reduced to the rate of the prisoners of a lower class. “They much reduced by usual fare,” he says; “I had, however, a good soup with fried bread crumbs, a passable piece of beef, a ragoût of sheep’s tongue, and two custards for dessert. I was treated in pretty much the same manner the whole time I was in this gloomy place; sometimes they gave me, after my soup, a wing or leg of fowl, sometimes they put two little patties on the edge of a dish.”

Towards the end of Louis XV.’s reign, Dumouriez eulogizes the cookery of the Bastille in almost the same terms. On the day of his entrance, noticing that they were serving a fish dinner, he asked for a fowl to be got from a neighbouring eating-house. “A fowl!” said the major, “don’t you know that to-day is Friday?” “Your business is to look after me and not my conscience. I am an invalid, for the Bastille itself is a disease,” replied the prisoner. In an hour’s time the fowl was on the table. Subsequently he asked for his dinner and supper to be served at the same time, between three and four o’clock. His valet, a good cook, used to make him stews. “You fared very well at the Bastille; 105 there were always five dishes a dinner and three at supper, without the dessert, and the whole being put on the table at once, appeared magnificent.” There is a letter from the major of the Bastille addressed in 1764 to the lieutenant of police, discussing a prisoner named Vieilh, who never ate butcher’s meat; so they had to feed him exclusively on game and poultry. Things were much the same under Louis XVI., as Poultier d’Elmotte testifies :  “De Launey, the governor, used to come and have a friendly chat with me; he got them to consult my taste as regards food, and to supply me with anything I wished for.” The bookseller Hardy, transferred in 1766 to the Bastille with the members of the Breton deputation, declares frankly that they were all treated in the best possible way. Finally, Linguet himself, in spite of his desire to paint the lot of the victims of the Bastille in the most sombre colours, is obliged to confess that food was supplied in abundance. Every morning the cook sent up to him a menu on which he marked the dishes he fancied.

The account books of the Bastille confirm the testimony of former prisoners. The following, according to these documents, are the meals that La Bourdonnais enjoyed during July, 1750. Every day the menu contains soup, beef, veal, beans, French beans, two eggs, bread, strawberries, cherries, gooseberries, oranges, two bottles of red wine, and two bottles of beer. In addition to this regular bill of fare we note on July 2, a fowl and a bottle of Muscat; on the 4th, a bottle of Muscat; on the 7th, tea; 106 on the 12th, a bottle of brandy; on the 13th, some flowers; on the 14th, some quails, on the 15th, a turkey; on the 16th, a melon; on the 17th, a fowl; on the 18th, a young rabbit; on the 19th, a bottle of brandy; on the 20th, a chicken and ham sausage and two melons; and so on.

Tavernier was a prisoner of mean station, son of a doorkeeper of Pâris de Montmartel. He was implicated in a plot against the King’s life, and was one of the seven prisoners set free on the 14th of July. He was found out of his mind in his cell. After he had been led in triumph through the streets of Paris, he was shut up at Charenton. He was a martyr, people exclaimed. He was certainly not so well off in his new abode as he had been at the Bastille. We have an account of what was supplied to him at the Bastille in addition to the ordinary meals, in November, 1788, in March and May, 1789, three of the last months of his imprisonment. In November we find :  tobacco, four bottles of brandy, sixty bottles of wine, thirty bottles of beer, two pounds of coffee, three pounds of sugar, a turkey, oysters, chestnuts, apples, and pears; in March :  tobacco, four bottles of brandy, forty-four bottles of wine, sixty bottles of beer, coffee, sugar, fowls, cheese; in May :  tobacco, four bottles of brandy, sixty-two bottles of wine, thirty-one bottles of beer, pigeons, coffee, sugar, cheese, &c. We have the menus of the Marquis de Sade for January, 1789 :  chocolate cream, a fat chicken stuffed with chestnuts, pullets with truffles, potted ham, apricot marmalade, &c.


The facts we are describing were the rule. The prisoners who were treated with the least consideration fed very well. Only those who were sent down to the cells were sometimes put on bread and water, but that was only a temporary punishment.

When a complaint was formulated by any prisoner in regard to his food, a reprimand to the governor soon followed. Then the lieutenant of police inquired of the person concerned if he was better treated than formerly. “His Majesty tells me,” writes Pontchartrain to de Launey, “that complaints have been raised about the bad food of the prisoners; he instructs me to write to you to give the matter great attention.” And Sartine wrote jokingly to Major de Losmes :  “I am quite willing for you to get the clothes of Sieur Dubois enlarged, and I hope all your prisoners may enjoy as excellent health.”

Further, the king clothed those of the prisoners who were too poor to buy their own clothes. He did not give them a prison uniform, but dressing-gowns padded or lined with rabbit skin, breeches of coloured stuff, vests lined with silk plush and fancy coats.6 The commissary at the Bastille appointed to look after the supplies took the prisoners’ measure, and inquired about their 108 tastes, and the colours and styles that suited them best. A lady prisoner named Sauvé asked to have made for her a dress of white silk, dotted with green flowers. The wife of commissary Rochebrune spent several days in going the round of the Paris shops, and then wrote in despair that no dressmaker had such a material, the nearest approach to it being a white silk with green stripes :  if Madame Sauvé would be satisfied with that, they would send to take her measure. “Monsieur le major,” writes a prisoner named Hugonnet, “the shirts they bought me yesterday are not a bit what I asked for, for I remember having written ‘fine, and with embroidered ruffles,’; instead of which these things are coarse, made of wretched linen, and with ruffles at best only fit for a turnkey; and so I shall be glad if you will send them back to the commissary; and let him keep them, for I declare I won’t have them.”

The governor also saw that the prisoners had some means of diversion. The poorest he provided with pocket-money and tobacco.

About the beginning of the seventeenth century, a Neapolitan named Vinache died at the Bastille, after founding a library there for the use of his fellow-prisoners. This library was gradually augmented by donations from the governors, by gifts from various prisoners, and even by the generosity of a citizen of Paris whose compassion had been excited for the lot of the prisoners. The books consisted of romances, works of science and philosophy, and religious books, light literature predominating. 109 The lieutenant of police, Berryer, struck out of the list of books that were being sent one day to the binder a “poem on the greatness of God,” as being on “too melancholy a subject for prisoners.” The prisoners also procured books from outside. We have mentioned the Comte de Belle-Isle, who had more than three hundred books and atlases at the Bastille. La Beaumelle collected a library of more than 600 volumes. The administration, moreover, never refused to get for the prisoners, out of the royal funds and sometimes at considerable expense, such works as they said were necessary to their studies. The works of Voltaire and Puffendorf were readily placed in their hands. Finally, under Louis XVI., they were allowed to read the gazettes.

After the permission to have books and to write, the most coveted favour was that of walking exercise. Refusal of this was rare. The prisoners might walk, either on the towers of the Bastille, or in the inner courts, or lastly along the bastion, which was transformed into a garden. To fresh invigorating air the platform of the towers added the attraction of the finest view. Fontaine relates that Sacy went to the top of the towers every day after dinner. He there walked about in company with the officers, who gave him news of the town and the prisoners.

In their rooms the prisoners amused themselves with feeding cats and birds and animals of all kinds :  they taught dogs tricks. Some were allowed to have a violin or a clavecin. Pellisson was shut up with a Basque who 110 used to play to him on the musette. The Duke de Richelieu boasts of the operatic airs he sang in parts with his neighbours in the Bastille, Mdlle. De Launay among them, with her head at the bars of her window; “we got up choruses of a sort, with fine effect.”

Other prisoners killed time with embroidery, weaving or knitting; some made ornaments for the chapel of the château. Some devoted themselves to carpentry, turned wood, made small articles of furniture. Artists painted and sketched. “The occupation of M. de Villeroi was somewhat singular :  he had very fine clothes, which he was for ever unpicking and sewing together again with much cleverness.” The prisoners who lived several in one room played at cards, chess, and backgammon. In 1788, at the time of the troubles in Brittany, a dozen noblemen of that country were shut up in the Bastille. They lived together, and asked for a billiard table to amuse themselves; the table was set up in the apartments of the major, and there these gentlemen went for their games.

The prisoners who died in the Bastille were interred in the graveyard of St. Paul’s; the funeral service was held in the church of St. Paul, and the burial certificate, bearing the family name of the deceased, was drawn up in the vestry. It is not true that the names of the deceased were wrongly stated in the register in order that their identity might be concealed from the public. The Man in the Iron Mask was inscribed on the register of St. Paul’s under his real name. Jews, Protestants, 111 and suicides were buried in the garden of the château, the prejudices of the period not allowing their remains to be laid in consecrated ground.

Those who were liberated had a happier fate. Their dismissal was ordered by a lettre de cachet, as their incarceration had been. These orders for their liberation, so anxiously expected, were brought by the court “distributors of packets” or by the ordinary post; sometimes relatives and friends themselves brought the sealed envelope, in order to have the joy of taking away at once those whose deliverance they came to effect.

The governor, or, in his absence, the king’s lieutenant, came into the prisoner’s chamber and announced that he was free. The papers and other effects which had been taken from him on entrance were restored to him, the major getting a receipt for them; then he signed a promise to reveal nothing of what he had seen at the château. Many of the prisoners refused to submit to this formality, and were liberated notwithstanding; others, after having signed, retailed everywhere all they knew about the prison, and were not interfered with. When the prisoner only recovered his freedom under certain conditions, he was required to give an undertaking to submit to the king’s pleasure.

All these formalities having been completed, the governor, with that feeling for good form which characterized the men of the ancien régime, had the man who had been his guest served for the last time with an excellent dinner. If the prisoner was a man of good 112 society, the governor would even go so far as to invite him to his own table, and then, the meal over and the good-byes said, he placed his own carriage at the prisoner’s disposal, and often entered it himself to accompany him to his destination.

More than one prisoner thus restored to the world must have felt greatly embarrassed before a day was past, and have been at a loss what to do or where to go. The administration of the Bastille sometimes gave money to one and another to enable them to get along for a time. In December, 1783, a certain Dubu de la Tagnerette, after being set at liberty, was lodged in the governor’s house for a fortnight until he had found apartments that would suit him. Moreover, many of the prisoners were actually annoyed at being dismissed :  we could cite examples of persons who sought to get themselves sent to the Bastille; others refused to accept their liberty, and others did their best to get their detention prolonged.

“Many come out,’ says Renneville, “very sad at having to leave.” Le Maistre de Sacy and Fontaine affirm that the years spent at the Bastille were the best years in their lives. “The innocent life we lived,” says Renneville again, “Messieurs Hamilton, Schrader, and myself, seemed so pleasant to M. Hamilton that he begged me to write a description of it in verse.” The Memoirs of Madame de Staal represent her years at the Bastille as the happiest she ever knew. “In my heart of hearts, I was very far from desiring my liberty.” 113 “I stayed at the Bastille for six weeks, observes the Abbé Morellet, “which sped away — I chuckle still as I think of them — very pleasantly for me.” And later, Dumouriez declares that at the Bastille he was happy and never felt dull.

Such was the rule of the celebrated state prison. In the last century there was no place of detention in Europe where the prisoners were surrounded with so many comforts and attentions :  there is no such place in these days.

But in spite of these very real alleviations, it would be absurd to pretend that the prisoners were in general reconciled to their incarceration. Nothing is a consolation for the loss of liberty. How many poor wretches, in their despair, have dashed their heads against the thick walls while wife and children and concerns of the utmost gravity were summoning them from without! The Bastille was the cause of ruin of many; within its walls were shed tears which never dried.

An eighteenth-century writer thus defined the state prison :  “A bastille is any house solidly built, hermetically sealed, and diligently guarded, where any person, of whatever rank, age, or sex, may enter without knowing why, remain without knowing how long, hoping to leave it, but not knowing how.” These lines, written by an apologist for the old state prison, contain its condemnation, without appeal, before the modern mind.


1  It may be noted that the different escapes contributed to the gradual tightening of the rules of the Bastille. After the escape of the Comte de Bucquoy, such ornaments as the prisoners could attach cords to were at once removed, and knives were taken from them; after the escape of Allègre and Latude, bars of iron were placed in the chimneys, and so forth.

2  The second of the four principal officers of the Bastille. The officers were :  (1) the governor; (2) the king’s lieutenant; (3) the major; (4) the adjutant. There was also a doctor, a surgeon, a confessor, &c. the garrison consisted of Invalides. — T.

3  The most surprising instance is that of an Englishman, who returned spontaneously from England to become a prisoner in the Bastille. “On Thursday, May 22, 1693, at nightfall, M. de Jones, an Englishman, returned from England, having come back to prison for reasons concerning the king’s service. He was located outside the château, in a little room where M. de Besmaus keeps his library, above his office, and he is not to appear for some days for his examination, and is to be taken great care of.” — Du Junca’s Journal.

4  This was not the Lauzun already mentioned, but his nephew, Armand Louis de Gontaut, duke de Biron (1747-1793), who was notorious throughout Europe for his gallantries. — T.

5  An official of the royal council, whose function originally was to examine and report on petitions to the king. He became a sort of superior magistrate’s clerk. — T.

6  “1751, March 2. I have received a letter from Dr. Duval (secretary to the lieutenant of police), in which he tells me that M. Berryer (lieutenant of police) is struck with the cost of the clothes supplied to the prisoners for some time past; but, as you know, I only supply things when ordered by M. Berryer, and I try to supply good clothes, so that they may last and give the prisoners satisfaction.” — Letter from Rochebrune, commissary to the Bastille, to Major Chevalier.

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