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Place de la Bastille, Part 2

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.

  Hopital de Bicestre, ca. 18th-19th century.
l'Hôpital de Bicestre (old French spelling),
outside the Faubourg St-Marcel, ca. 18th-19th century.
Ancient prison, military hospital, and insane asylum.

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,
A tyrant rules here, the devil is his slave,
For Satan punishes only the guilty,
But Bernaville may cut down Innocence herself."
(Lüsebrink, 9-10)

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.

Masque de fer, from Alexandre Dumas
Illustration of Masque de fer
from Alexandre Dumas'
Le vicomte de Bragelonne

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.

  The Man in the Iron Mask, DVD video cover
The Man in the
Iron Mask,
DVD video cover

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)

Famous Prisoners

(Click on any name to read a biography.)

Louis François Armand du Plessis, duc de Richelieu;
Hugues Aubriot;
François de Bassompierre;
Claude de Bourdeille, comte de Montrésor;
Jacques Pierre Brissot;
James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton;
Charles François Dumouriez;
Giuseppe Marco Fieschi;
Nicolas Fouquet;
Marguerite de Launay, Baronne Staal;
Doctor Alexander Manette (fictional);
Louis Pierre Manuel;
François Henri de Montmorency-Bouteville, duc de Luxembourg;
André Morellet;
Antoine Nompar de Caumont;
Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy;
Comte de Rochefort (fictional);
François de La Rochefoucauld;
René Auguste Constantin de Renneville;
Pierre François de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal;
Marquis de Sade;
Charles de Valois, Duke of Angoulême;
John Vanbrugh;

GO TO NEXT PAGE » Storming of the Bastille


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