Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Tuesday, July 14 is Bastille Day.

Why does Bastille Day invoke so much pride and what is the meaning?

The Bastille was a well-known prison in Paris built in the late 14th century. During the reign of King Louis XVI—and throughout the reigns of previous Louis—it was used to hold political prisoners, often arrested by secret warrants or "lettres de cachet." Any person deemed a threat to the status quo—including Voltaire—may have spent time in the Bastille. As such, it became a symbol of royal tyranny.

1780s France was rife with economic hardship due to a noble class exempt from taxes and the French crown's subsidizing the American Revolutionary War. While nobility paid essentially nothing, peasants were subject to feudal dues. This, coupled with two years of famine and a weak political system, led to civil unrest. On July 14, 1789, a mob of Sans-culottes attempted to take hold of the Royal store of gunpowder at Les Invalides, only to find that it had been moved to the Bastille. The peasants then moved to the Bastille, rallied and stormed the prison, capturing the gunpowder and freeing political prisoners.

In reality, only seven prisoners were set free in what is now widely regarded as the beginning of the French Revolution, but it's a moot point as it was the gunpowder they were after (either way, two birds with one stone, right?).

While the Revolution got off to a slow start (a year later the French were again pledging loyalty to Louis, Marie Antoinette and the dauphin), the bloodshed and hysterics in the years to come made up for it. Unrest once again set in, resulting in the grimly named Reign of Terror (1793-1794), the subsequent beheading of the despised Antoinette and Louis XVI (proving after all that it wasn't so good to be the king) and later the Napoleonic Wars.

The fracas has long since passed as the French are now onto their sixth republic; yet the revolutionary motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité remains, as does the toppled Bastille as a symbol of revolution and democracy. In honor of this auspicious day, enjoy the local Francophonie festivities and check out the Revolutionary reads below.

For an overview of the French Revolution, turn to A Concise History of the French Revolution.

In Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France, historian Lucy Moore examines the lives of French women of varying socioeconomic statuses and discusses the appeal of political involvement to women at the time.

If it's insight into French culture you seek, check out Julian Barnes's Something to Declare: Essays on France and French Culture.

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