The French Fascination with the Cadavers of the Bastille

tags: French Revolution, Paris, French history, Bastille

Nicole Bauer is Assistant Professor of European History at the University of Tulsa. She specializes in the cultural history of early modern France and the French Revolution. Her new book is Tracing the Shadow of Secrecy and Government Transparency in Eighteenth-Century France.

In the summer of 1790, a year after the storming of the Bastille, the French press reported that so many cadavers were being found in the ruins of the fortress that the accumulation of remains was beginning to get in the way of demolition work. Workers were being bribed by curious onlookers, eager for a glimpse of the long-hidden victims of the despotism of the royal regime. It became such a problem that officials intervened and forbade the practice of paying workers to see skeletons. Eventually, the workers pooled their profits, donated them to a charity organization, and the corpses were collected and given a funeral. 

The event turned into a grand and solemn ceremony, including a formal march comprised of officials from the committee in charge of the demolition, several clergymen, over eight hundred demolition workers, and a detachment of the National Guard. Speeches were given to commemorate the dead—deemed victims of tyranny—who had been killed in secret but were now finally honored in public. 

The horror and fascination that produced this strange and macabre ceremony had deep roots. By the time of the French Revolution, the Bastille had become a hated symbol. By eighteenth-century standards, though, it was a relatively comfortable prison where inmates were not badly treated. Yet literature on the prison flourished in the decades leading up to the Revolution. What placed the Bastille in a class apart from the other prisons of the city was the secrecy that surrounded it. Prisoners who were arrested for crimes such as theft and even murder, and processed through the ordinary channels of justice were sent to the police headquarters, the Chatêlet, or sometimes the madhouse, Bicêtre. Prisoners arrested because of lettres de cachet, secret orders for imprisonment that the king could use at any time, on the other hand, were often the black sheep in a family looking to safeguard its honor, or those under suspicion whom the police wanted to interrogate at length, and they were sent to the Bastille. Towards the end of the reign of Louis XIV, the chief of police gained permission to have permanent access to the Bastille and to place a commissioner there for interrogations; it soon became the location of the closely guarded police archives. The Bastille was independent of the cours de justice where magistrates handed down public sentences, and with lettres de cachet imprisonment was indefinite, and arrests were kept quiet.[1] The fortress was therefore a place deliberately shrouded in mystery. Both inmates and turnkeys were sworn to secrecy since the police believed that enforced silence helped them keep control over an investigation, helped preserve the honor of families who hoped to suppress the merest breath of scandal, and served as an instrument of intimidation. 

Because of this secrecy and because of the Bastille’s use as a deterrent for vociferous dissidents, many of those who had been imprisoned there published memoirs of the abuses they suffered. These memoirs usually exaggerated the horrors of the Bastille to conform to their target audience’s negative views of the French regime. One example are the famous memoirs of Constantin de Renneville, written early in the eighteenth century, that more or less established the so-called “Black Legend” of the Bastille with graphic descriptions of torture.[2] By century’s end, the trickle of Bastille literature had become a flood, and famous figures like the Comte de Mirabeau, the lawyer Simon Linguet, and the fraudster and escape artist, the Chevalier de Latude, not to mention Voltaire, had all written poems, manifestos or memoirs decrying government abuses in prisons, especially the Bastille. Inspired by Enlightenment principles, they believed that the government’s institutionalized secrecy left it prone to corruption and to committing abuses.

Read entire article at Age of Revolutions