A Prisoner's Account
The governor of the prison was given a daily allowance per prisoner, the amount depending on their status from nineteen livres per diem for scientists and academics down to three for commoners. In terms of standards, there were many worse prisons in France, including the dreaded Bicêtre(1), just south of Paris. However, in terms of popular literary accounts, the Bastille was a place of horror and oppression a symbol of autocratic cruelty.
Constantine de Renneville, a middle class tax official, was incarcerated from 1702 to 1713 as a spy for the Dutch government. He described Charles Le Fournière Bernaville, governor of the Bastille during his imprisonment, in the following text:
"Mortals, be frightened by this image of hell,
Renneville's account of suffering in the Bastille included sleeping with rats on damp straw, subsisting on only bread and water, and being exposed to extreme cold. In one passage he says:
"Under an opening in the wall, I saw human bones; it was like a cemetery, and since I found the cellar in parts without paving, I dug and found a corpse wrapped in rags ... the warder said that they had kept the sorry remains in his cell; two other men and one woman had suffered the same fate." (Lüsebrink, 11)
It was the eyewitness accounts by Renneville and others in the early 18th century which undoubtedly helped to form public opinion of the Bastille as a symbol of absolute power and terror. Historians Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink and Rolf Reichardt ("The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom") asserted:
"Because it was centrally located, beyond the rules of proper justice, and employed in such a spectacular fashion, the Paris Bastille became the embodiment of terrifying absolutist domination and despotism in underground literature at the turn of the eighteenth century."
(1.) The first human test of an early version of the French guillotine was conducted on three corpses at the Bicêtre prison in April 1792.
The Man in the Iron Mask
The Man in the Iron Mask was a prisoner believed to have been held in the Bastille prison from an unknown date to his death on November 19, 1703. The identity of this man has been thoroughly discussed, mainly because no one ever saw his face as it was hidden by a black velvet mask, which later re-tellings of the story have said to have been an iron mask.
The first surviving records of the masked prisoner are from July 1, 1669, when Louis XIV's minister Louvois sent a masked prisoner to the care of governor marquis de Saint-Mars of the Pignerol prison. Saint-Mars was ordered to take special care of this prisoner. He was to be kept incommunicado and Saint-Mars was told to threaten him with death if he ever tried to talk about anything else than his own personal affairs. The prisoner was to be treated well but he had been ordered to remain silent and masked at all times. Saint-Mars himself had been ordered to feed him.
The fate of the mysterious prisoner and the extent of apparent precautions his jailers took created much interest and many legends. Contemporary claims about his identity included that he was a Marshal of France; or Oliver Cromwell; or François de Vendôme, Duc de Beaufort. Later ones included James, Duke of Monmouth; Armenian patriarch Avedick; the playwright Molière; and the unacknowledged older or twin brother of Louis XIV. Alexandre Dumas used the last theory in his book, which is also the basis for the 1998 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, and Gérard Depardieu.
In 1801 there emerged a legend, probably created by supporters of Napoleon Bonaparte, that the mysterious prisoner was the real Louis XIV himself and that Mazarin had him replaced by a more suitable candidate. Legend also held that he had married in prison and sired a son, who would have been taken to Corsica to become one of Napoleon's forefathers. This was most probably an intentionally spread political rumor.
(for expanded article on this topic, click here)
(Click on any name to read a biography.)
Louis François Armand du Plessis, duc de Richelieu;
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