Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The Bastille once stood in the heart of Paris — a hulking, heavily-fortified medieval fortress, which was used as a state prison. During the 18th century, it played a key role in enforcing the government censorship, and had become increasingly unpopular, symbolizing the oppressiveness and the costly inefficiency of the reigning monarchy and the ruling classes.
On 14 July 1789, the prison of Bastille was stormed by revolutionaries. It housed, at the time, only seven prisoners — including two “lunatics” and one “deviant” aristocrat — but the storming of the fortress was not just a tactical victory. Its fall at the hands of the Parisian militia and the city’s peasants was a symbolic and ideological victory for the revolutionary cause, and became the flashpoint for one of the most tumultuous periods of European history. With the fall of the Bastille, the French Revolution had begun, which would eventually culminate in the bloody toppling of a regime which had existed for nearly 800 years. This day is celebrated across France as Le quatorze juillet, the first milestone along the road to the French Republic. In English-speaking countries, it is called Bastille Day.
To mark Bastille Day, and the 225th anniversary of the French Revolution, we’ve made a selection of informative scholarly articles free to read on the Very Short Introductions online resource and University Press Scholarship Online. Want to find out about the French Revolution, how it began, what happened, and why it is perhaps one of the most pivotal events in modern European history? Then carry on reading.
Why did the French Revolution happen?
“Why it happened” in The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by William Doyle
The years of build up to the French Revolution were full of uncertainty and confusion. Why the Revolution happened was not because of a single event, but instead it was caused by a number of developments at the end of the 1780s. This chapter provides a brief overview of these events, taking a look at how important the financial problems were in causing the initial unrest and the significance of the role of the monarchy.
What happened at the Storming of the Bastille?
“‘Thought blew the Bastille apart': The Fall of the Fortress and the Revolutionary Years, 1789-1815” in The Place de la Bastille: The Story of a Quartier by Keith Reader
During the late 1780s, France was suffering under a crippling economic crisis, throwing the lavish expenditures of the ruling classes and the economic incompetence of the state into bass relief. The Bastille, incredibly costly to maintain and a symbol of state oppression, had become increasingly unpopular with the masses for this reason, among others. This chapter focuses on the events which culminated in the storming and eventual ruin of the fortress, and the ensuing revolutionary years.
How has the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen been used throughout French history?
“Rights, Liberty, and Equality” in Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France since the Eighteenth Century by Jeremy Jennings
The Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (The Deceleration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) was passed in August 1789 by France’s National Constituent Assembly. It was a cornerstone of the Revolution, and set out the rights of man as “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression,” and is one of the most important documents in the history of human rights. Exploring the content of the Déclaration, this chapter goes on to examine how the language of rights it set out was used in key, formative moments in subsequent French history.
What were the Marquis de Sade’s politics during the French Revolution?
“Sade and the French Revolution” in The Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction by John Phillips
Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, or the Marquis de Sade, was a French aristocrat, politician, and writer accused by many of political opportunism during the Revolution. He portrayed himself as both a feudal lord and the “liberator” of Bastille, when he called for revolution from his cell. He was a theatrical man with many opportunities to self-dramatize during the Revolution, making it difficult to clearly understand his political position. This chapter examines this through his thoughts and writings during the Revolution.
How was Marie-Antoinette represented?
“Pass as a Woman, Act like a Man: Marie-Antoinette as Tribade in the Pornography of the French Revolution” in Homosexuality in Modern France ed. by Jeremy Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan
Marie-Antoinette, the ill-fated Austrian princess who married Louis XVI, and who met her fate under the guillotine in 1793 at the present-day Place de la Concorde, has long been a much-maligned figure of the Revolution — her name now synonymous with large wigs, “let them eat cake,” and cold indifference to the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. In this chapter, the pornographic pamphlets distributed about the Queen during the Revolution are analysed, paying particular attention to her supposed homosexuality and licentiousness, and the role this took in the anti-monarchist propaganda of the period.
What literature was inspired by the Revolution?
“Around the Revolution” in French Literature: A Very Short Introduction by John D. Lyons
Throughout the 1700s many in France grew more and more sceptical: about the absolute nature of the monarchy and around the idea that authority was established by divine providence. This chapter looks at how the literature of the time was inspired by and reflected this dissatisfaction, including Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro and The Marquis de Sade’s Justine ou les Malheurs de la Vertu.
What was the Terror?
“Off with their Heads: Death and the Terror” in The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution by Dan Edelstein
The guillotine has come to embody the darker side of the French Revolution, especially during the Reign of Terror which lasted from September 1793 to July 1794. The death toll of The Terror is almost incomprehensible, with 16,500 victims meeting their ends under the guillotine. Maximilien Robespierre is the figure most closely associated with this bloody period, and yet, “in one of the more bitter ironies of history” as this chapter says, he started his career as an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Here, the genesis of The Terror is detailed, the differences between the French and American Revolutions set out, and the concept of the hostis humani generis (enemy of humanity) introduced — an enemy who could only be met with death.
How did the French Revolution change France?
“The French Revolution, politics, and the modern nation” in Modern France: A Very Short Introduction by Vanessa R. Schwartz
The French Revolution, unlike others, managed to effect change from within, with the new government making some radical changes, even starting a new calendar, to differentiate themselves from the old regime. This chapter looks at how history and symbols were used by this new government to symbolize and mythologize their nation.
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