Tuesday, July 14, 2009

14 July 1789: The Storming of the Bastille

14 July, or "Bastille Day," is probably, along with the Fourth of July, the best-known national holiday in the world (come on: how many of you can name another?), yet its history is little known. For example, few of us realize that it was not always, even under republican governments, a French national holiday. It assumed its modern form only in 1880, nearly a decade after the creation of the Third Republic.

official military celebration of Bastille Day, 1880:
distribution of flags to the army (Épinal print)

It is telling that my recently retired UMass colleague, Charles Rearick, chose to make Bastille Day of 1880 the literal and symbolic starting point of his Pleasures of the Belle Époque:
A warm, sunny day, it was a holiday unlike any other. Not even a rainstorm in the evening could spoil it. In Paris it had begun with a volley of cannon shots at 8 A.M.; in the country, several hours earlier, villagers had awakened to fanfares of rifle fire and ringing church bells; firecrackers and band music followed. Streets were bedecked with flags and bunting, and in some places banners, garlands, and triumphal arches as well. Parts of central Paris became a gala stage et, a sparkling mosaic of red, white, and blue. t night, gas lamps and electric lights and Venetian lanterns brought a rare cheering radiance to main streets and squares. Fireworks from six locations emblazoned and bombarded the night sky. No one could take July 14, 1880, as just another day.
. . . . . . . . . .
That fête of 1880 was special in a way that no later Bastille Day could be. It was the first time since the French Revolution that all France could legally celebrate the most stirring and epoch-making event of the Revolution: the storming of the Bastille. The story of July 14, 1789, remained vivid in French memories through oral tradition, popular prints, a commercial panorama in Paris, and dramatic histories by Jules Michelet and Louis Blanc, as well as a press campaign by the popular republican leader Léon Gambetta and his associates. Yet through the nineteenth century successive governments had opposed any public demonstration of enthusiasm for the day. Why would rulers anxious about public order want to encourage a memory of bloody revolt? Like its monarchist and Bonapartist predecessors, the government of the Third Republic feared renewed crowd risings, and for almost a decade it too rejected the Bastille commemoration. After less conservative leadership took over in the late 1870s, it adopted the Bastille fête only with reluctance, as a token concession to the strengthening left.
Rearick quotes the mayor of one southern republican stronghold as declaring, "Joy was in all hearts, the enthusiasm was indescribable. The oldest inhabitants of the city do not ever recall having seen a similar fête, so brilliant and complete."

Medal commemorating the first modern Bastille Day festivities:
Obverse: the Bastille, with date, 14 July 1789
Reverse: "Souvenir of the National Holiday and the Distribution of Flags,
14 July 1880"

Read last year's post.

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