about the



Released prisoners had good reasons NOT to write about the experience. For one thing, they'd promised not to, as a standard condition of being released. It was also likely they'd find themselves back there if they did. Still, a few people did, though from England or when events (like the Revolution) made it less dangerous. The three most famous of these are:

  • Constantin de Renneville - Renneville was probably imprisoned for spying. Though he wasn't a favored prisoner, he did initially get some of the castle's better treatment before going through everything down to its worst. When he was released, he went right off to England and wrote The French Inquisition (L'Inquisition Francaise), which he later expanded. His account has been criticized for exaggeration and sensationalism, but many of the people he mentions have been shown to exist and a number of his notes are confirmed by others.

  • Henri Masers de Latude - Latude's honesty can be judged by the fact that his real name (virtually forgotten) was Jean Danry (itself a contraction). He went so far as to mourn the death of his "father", the Marquis de Latude. He was most famous for having escaped both from the Bastille and Vincennes, and then writing a memoir about it: Despotism Unveiled. Though this came out after fall of the Bastille (1790), an unauthorized version was put out before it by someone else and Latude himself was already dining out on his lurid anecdotes. As a result, he may have had some influence on the popular ideas of the prison and its subsequent fall. His status as an ex-prisoner - and victim of Madame Pompadour (whom he'd, very unwisely, tried to scam) - made him something of a hero after the Revolution started. A status he milked for all he could.

  • Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet - As a lawyer, Linguet had made himself popular with the public, but so unpopular with his colleagues that he got disbarred. Then he became a journalist, and proceeded to again make himself very popular with the public, but so unpopular with many other writers that many actually rejoiced when he was finally put in the Bastille in 1780. The moment he got out (after twenty months), he went back to England and wrote the blistering Memoirs of the Bastille, which appeared in 1783 and immediately became a sensation. More than one author has said that he helped cause its fall.

None of these writers was exactly dependable or unbiased, and all three should be read with care. But their accounts are considered classics and all have been confirmed in large part by other sources.

A number of memoirs include accounts of the Bastille as well. These are some of the most well-known:

  • General Charles-François Dumouriez had a long career that extended well beyond the Revolution. Early on, he was caught between two powerful men when Louis XV sent him on a mission in Hamburg but asked him to hide it from the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The latter had Dumouriez arrested abroad and brought back to the Bastille, an experience described in the general's Life and Memoirs.

  • Pierre de La Porte, a valet of Louis XIII's queen (the Spanish Anne of Austria), was imprisoned in hopes of pressuring him into revealing compromising information about his mistress and describes his stay in his memoirs.

  • The writer Jean-François Marmontel was briefly imprisoned for some humorous comments and tells the story lightly in his memoirs.

  • Abbé Morellet tells the story of his stay in the Bastille (for a literary offense)in his Unpublished Memoirs on the Eighteenth Century and on the Revolution . He too took his stay lightly.

  • Madame de Staal, a famous memoirist of the first half of the eighteenth century, was still Marguerite Jeanne Delaunay and a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Maine when the latter plotted against the Regent. Like La Porte, Delaunay was sent to the Bastille to pressure her to give information against her mistress. Her account is above all concerned with her romantic intrigues there (!).

Finally, there's the other side of the coin - the Bastille as seen through official eyes. While many of the castle's archives were scattered or destroyed at its fall, far more remained. From 1866 to 1904, François Ravaisson-Mollien published extracts from these Archives de la Bastille in nineteen volumes. They are full of colorful anecdotes and inside looks at some of the great trials of the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, as well as simple administrative details which generally show efficient functionaries at work, neither cruel nor overly compassionate. Very much worth a glance for readers of French.

copyright 2005 Jim Chevallier.
Please do not reproduce, extract or post elsewhere without prior permission.

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