Today, 232 years ago to the day, a Parisian mob stormed the medieval fortress known as the Bastille. When Louis XVI asked whether the people were in rebellion, de la Rochefoucauld told him “no, Your Majestty, this is not a rebellion but a revolution”. And to this day, July 14 is marked as the beginning of the French Revolution, and since 1880 “quatorze Juliet” has officially been the French national holiday.
The French Revolution was a sufficiently pivotal event that, back in the Lowland, we divided history according to it. Antiquity was everything prior to 476 (fall of the West Roman Empire); the Middle Ages ended in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople and hence the East Roman, a.k.a. Byzantine, Empire); the New Era ended with the French Revolution; and everything after was referred to as the Newest Era. English-speaking sources would agree on the first two, but typically place the border between Early Modern History and Late Modern History somewhat earlier, e.g., at the American Revolution. (The somewhat oxymoronic term “Contemporary History” is a loan translation of the German term Zeitgeschichte, which typically refers to the post-WW I era.
Contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t a mass liberation of “prisoners of conscience”. At the time, the Bastille held just seven prisoners — four forgers, a would-be regicide, an Irish madman believing himself to be Jesus and Caesar at the same time, and an incestuous nobleman incarcerated at the request of his own family. The eighth prisoner, the infamous Marquis de Sade, had been transferred away shortly before.
But there was more at the Bastille than a handful of prisoners — the police archives, part of the royal archives, and — most importantly — a large store of gunpowder. The revolutionaries had ‘liberated’ about 28,000 muskets from the Hôtel des Invalides [idiomatically: Veterans Hall], but little ammunition — that was why they really went after the Bastille, symbolic value aside.
Of course, the revolution quickly started eating its own, and auspicious beginnings turned into a reign of terror, followed by a Directoire (a “Directorate” of five oligarchs ruling France after the fall of Robespierre) and eventually by the rise of Napoleon — who left his permanent stamp on Europe, not just France. (That is a subject for another blog post — suffice to say I cannot recommend Andrew Roberts’s brilliant biography of Napoleon enough.)
Across the English Channel, the way the revolution quickly degenerated into a bloodbath led a Whig parliamentarian by the name of Edmund Burke to compose his Reflections on the Revolution in France — widely seen as the foundational document of modern conservatism.
All in all, Europe was never the same after July 14, 1789.
As a parting bonus, here is a recent cover of the Rush song “Bastille Day” about the events.