Bastille prison had 5-star comforts, exhibit shows

A roaring fireplace, a warm bed, some wine and little pastries welcomed people to La Bastille. This was no charming inn, but the notorious French prison, stormed by an angry Parisian mob on July 14, 1789, in an outburst that helped set off the French Revolution.

For the first time, an exhibit in Paris has pulled together archives on the prison to offer a glimpse into the hidden world of the Bastille. It shows the inmates' relative comfort — and why it became such a target of revolutionary ire.

"I maintain it was a 5-star prison," said historian and Bastille expert Claude Quetel. He said the prison's privileged position came from being directly under the king's eye, both geographically and because it was where monarch after monarch sent his personal enemies.

It housed on average 40 inmates a year, each of whom had his or her own cell. The king's own physician would tend to the prisoners, who also benefited from the services of an apothecary and a midwife, according to Elise Dutray, co-curator of the exhibit. "Everyone would fuss over the prisoners," she said.

Wealthy inmates such as the philosopher Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade lived in private apartments and could bring their own household items, receive guests and even throw dinner parties, according to the curators.

But the Bastille was still a prison. Its eight imposing medieval stone towers made escaping particularly difficult. "There were three doors to a cell, and three locks to each door," Dutray said.

Built between 1370 and 1380 as a fort to protect the south of Paris, the Bastille proved a poor military defense. It was the famed Cardinal of Richelieu who in the 17th century converted the building into a prison.

The king could send whomever he wanted to prison without a trial, with a simple sealed letter.

"It was arbitrary, people would go in without knowing why, and would come out without knowing when," Dutray said.

People were not put in the Bastille for crimes such as theft or murder. They were there for troubling the social order. This included Protestants, homosexuals, prostitutes, traitors, and anyone who dared say anything against the king or his reign — which meant most of the prisoners were authors, publishers and book peddlers.

Life inside the Bastille had its limitations, and communications with the outside world were strictly controlled. One prisoner sent a message on his handkerchief written out of coffee and soot, on display in the exhibit. Another smuggled his out in a cheese. One prisoner sewed a message onto a piece of cloth, claiming his innocence and asking whoever found it to help him.

"Secret is the word that defines this prison. Prisoners who left the Bastille would have to sign a register promising to never talk about the prisoners they saw in the Bastille or what they lived through," Dutray said.

This meant not much was known about what went on in the prison. Members of the public relied on books with exaggerated accounts of torture and suffering to form their opinions.

The Bastille archives tell, as well, of a severely ill elderly woman who was imprisoned for being Protestant. Her daughter was allowed to accompany her in the prison, and she hid the gravity of her mother's condition so that her mother wouldn't have to convert to Catholicism to receive the Last Rites.

After her mother's death, "her daughter remained a prisoner because no one knew what to do with her, and finally after a few years she was sent to a convent for newly converted nuns," said Danielle Muzerelle, co-curator of the exhibition.

Louis XVI implemented reforms to the penitentiary system, abolishing torture in prisons in 1780 and destroying the unhealthiest prisons. He even had plans to destroy the Bastille and replace it with a public square named after himself. The plans were later revived, though the square today is called Place de la Bastille.

But the king's reforms had little effect on public opinion. The Bastille had symbolized royal abuse for generations.

"It was the most famous, the most feared and the most hated prison," Quetel said.

On July 14, 1789, the people of Paris, many of them starving, revolted against the king following the failure of negotiations to reform the system of privileges, the strict and unproductive social code that was ruining the country.

When they stormed the Bastille, there were only seven prisoners inside. The next day, Parisians began destroying the prison.

Today nothing remains of the Bastille except a few carved stones, a door and a couple of keys that are on display in the exhibit. Another key was sent as a gift by General Lafayette to George Washington and can be seen in Mount Vernon.

The free exhibit, called "La Bastille, or a Living Hell," is showing at the Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal through Feb. 11.