Monday, July 14, 2014

Storming of the Bastille

Fig.1: Makes me think of summer!
National holidays are a great excuse for patriotic citizens to kick their feet up and recall a glorious event in their history that defines their past and has echoed throughout time. Many celebrate their declarations of independence, such as the United States, India, and Brazil. Others honor the official formation of their government, like Canada and Australia. Some sad places like Greenland party just because it's the longest day of the year and will finally get a few precious hours of sunlight (their only chance to finally get some shoveling done). And then there's France. Out of all the magnificent moments in their illustrious history, what event do they choose to commemorate as their national holiday? The time when an out-of-control mob stormed a royal prison that was only holding seven people and was planning on closing anyway, and then murdered its surrendering officers in gruesome fashion before sticking their heads on pikes and parading them through Paris (fig.1). Cause that's the thing we want to remember while grilling burgers and gazing up at the fireworks! Yes, the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 became the catalyst that really got the French Revolution going, but even that turned pretty darn ugly in a couple years. Is this the example we should be setting for our French children? They're rude enough as it is!

Now the reasons behind the French Revolution are often complicated and difficult to explain, but I'm going to try to present it in the simplest and cutest way I know how: France was a group of baby pandas without any bamboo. They had a bunch of bamboo before, but they used all of it helping their American black bear friends win independence from those dastardly British zookeepers, and now they didn't have any bamboo for themselves. The big panda, Louis XVI, called together an assembly of pandas to solve the bamboo problem. Unfortunately, the pandas disagreed how they should put forth their panda votes. The special pandas with black patches on their panda bellies thought they should have their panda votes count more than the regular patchless pandas, even though patch pandas were a huge minority. The no-patch pandas decided to form their own panda assembly with the intention of changing up the whole panda system, which the patch-belly pandas and the big panda tried squishing with their big panda butts. Because of this, all the regular pandas got mad at them for spending more time being panda pains than trying to solve the whole bamboo thing! (So there you have it: now you have a complete understanding of the issues regarding France's system of social estates and regressive taxation, as well as the inner-struggles between the sans-culottes and the bourgeoisie within the Third Estate and the National Constituent Assembly, right? No? Well I freaking tried, okay?!)

Fig.2: "Oh, you mean the patches they wore in Les Mis?"
Sure, if that's the only way you musical freaks can relate
to anything...
Back in the world of men, Paris was in a state of disarray. The common folk wholeheartedly supported the Assembly that championed their cause against the nobility and the king, and many formed militias in order to better organize their rabble rabble rabble. They proudly wore cockades of blue, white, and red (fig.2) in order to show their support for the popular cause, and one was even presented to King Louis XVI as a sign that the people still supported him (he reluctantly accepted it, even though its color scheme didn't match any of his outfits). Things started to get out of control, however, on July 11, 1789 after the king dismissed his finance minster, Jacques Necker, who was seen as a champion for the people and eye candy for the ladies. Parisians went out into the street to protest this decision and have a good old fashioned riot. The French Guards were sent in to break up the crowd, but many of the rank-and-file sympathized with the protestors, and they weren't completely trusted by the officers to do their duty. Paris was more lawless than Green Bay, Wisconsin on Opening Kickoff.

As was sporting during a riot, much looting took place in the streets. The most sought-after item wasn't weapons or flat-screen TVs, but simple bread (topped with simple Nutella), which was increasingly scarce to the common classes following the economic downturn. Nevertheless, guns and ammunition were desperately needed, especially after rumors circulated that the king would send in his mercenary force of unfriendly Germans to quell the rebellion. Parisians soon attacked the Hôtel des Invalides, a hospital for wounded soldiers that also happened to be an arsenal (seems like two silly things to put together). They took around 30,000 muskets, and wisely passed on the hospital food. Unfortunately they needed gunpowder lest they wanted to try using the guns as baseball bats to hit the bullets back at the army, so they hatched a plan on July 14 to attack the infamous Bastille Prison (fig.3).

Fig.3: The Bastille on a non-storming day.
Originally built as a fort to protect Paris against those nosy Englishmen during the Hundred Years War, the Bastille was eventually seen as a place dark and dingy enough to store their unwanted prisoners. Louis XIV (different from Louis XVI; get your Roman numerals in order) utilized the Bastille extensively to imprison folks that plotted against him, disagreed with him, believed in a slightly different religion than him, or dared to wear the same shade of turquoise pantaloons as him. This was usually done in secret without any of that due process crap, and often people thrown in the Bastille were not heard of again for years (not even a Facebook status update). It wasn't long before the Bastille gained a nasty reputation as a symbol of royal tyranny just as much as his pantaloons. Even though its significance dwindled throughout the 18th century (it only held seven prisoners by 1789, most of them for forgery, which is really the Aquaman of crimes), it still held a negative image to the citizens of Paris. So when information came through to the rebellious folk about all the ammunition being hoarded at the Bastille, it gave them two good reasons to take the place down.

The crowd showed up outside the Bastille that afternoon yelling more than just, "Trick or treat!" They demanded its surrender and the release of gunpowder, but wouldn't mind if some candy was thrown in there as well. The governor of the fortress was Bernard-René de Launay, a son of a previous governor and had actually been born inside the Bastille nearly fifty years prior, and loved its cold, stone walls with all his cold, stone heart. Under his command were about eighty veteran soldiers who had been given the post as an easy job before retirement, as well as thirty Swiss mercenaries (whose inherent neutrality made them pretty much useless). De Launay knew his beloved Bastille wouldn't hold out against such a formidable and grumpy mob, so he invited representatives in for negotiations. This might have settled the whole matter, but the crowd grew impatient as crowds do (waiting for Axl Rose to come out on stage on time is always a nightmare), and some restless folks decided to pass the time by cutting down the chains of the drawbridge. Whether de Launay made the order for his troops to fire upon the crowd remains a question lost to the distractible eye of history. Nevertheless, fire they did, and it was on like La Planète de Donkey Kong.

Fig.4: Nothing like an old-fashioned summer storming.
The attack of the Bastille was slow-going at first, as the mob still was without gunpowder, and pretend-shooting with their muskets was only doing so much. But then the low-ranking French Guards deserted their posts all around Paris and joined in the siege, giving them some much needed firepower. Although only one defender died compared to about a hundred attackers, the Bastille wasn't a young lad anymore and just could not take a siege all night like its college days. After two hours, de Launay accepted the fate of his favorite oppressive dungeon and ordered a ceasefire. He opened the gates around 5:30 that July 14th, and the crowd rushed in like it was Black Friday...

...With just as deadly consequences. Despite calls for order by the protest leaders, the crowd immediately killed three officers and lynched two of the veteran soldiers. De Launay was dragged to the Hôtel de Ville, Paris's city hall, suffering through beatings, abuse, and rush-hour traffic on the way there. Some sources say that as the crowd decided over whether to have a trial for the governor, de Launay screamed, "Let me die!" and kicked a nearby chef in the groin. In response, he was stabbed several times (deservedly so; you don't mess with a man's family jewels like that), and died while gazing off in the direction of his adored Bastille, the only prison he ever loved. His head, as well as those of his fallen officers, were cut of and displayed on pikes (return to the glorious image in fig.1) to demonstrate the power of the common people of Paris. Yeah, I thought they were cuter when we imagined them as pandas too.

Fig.5: Audience members in the front were lucky enough
to sit in the "Splash Zone!"
The famous story goes that when one of Louis XVI's advisers told him about the fall of the Bastille, the king asked, "Is this a revolt?" to which the adviser responded, "No, sire. It is a revolution!" (The drama of the scene was soon ruined by a drunken Marie Antoinette bursting in with her low-cut gown and babbling about cake or something.) Nevertheless, it was a revolution! Paris was effectively under control of the people and dually represented by the Assembly. Outside the city, local governments free of royal control were established and nobles were terrorized out of their châteaux. Much of the aristocracy fled France for their own safety, crashing the markets on caviar and Grey Poupon without them. Before you knew it, King Louis XVI lost his power, his wealth, and then, in 1793, his head (fig.5). In a matter of ten years, France transformed from a monarchy, to a republic, to an oligarchy of guillotine-loving radicals, to a dictatorship by a power-hungry midget. Sounds like my teenage years all over again!

But through all that, the French remember the fall of the Bastille with warm memories. Its first anniversary in 1790 was commemorated with a huge parade and feast, in which even Louis XVI attended and blessed the head of pig (foreshadowing much?). The Bastille was promptly torn down, with its stones sent all around France as mementos of the conquest over tyranny, a scene that would replay itself with the selling of seats from old Yankee Stadium. The day was celebrated off and on unofficially until 1880 when the Assembly declared it to be the official French national holiday, to be commemorated with more parades and feasts, as well as eventually fireworks when the mortality rate for handling them dipped below 50%. Given France's tipsy-turvy history from the late 18th century onward, maybe it's fitting that biggest jubilee recognizes a day when chaos and violence filled the air. Maybe the Americans should switch their holiday from July 4th to July 12th to honor Disco Demolition Night.

Fig.6: Hooray for unnecessary riotous bloodshed!

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