France’s national holiday is called Bastille Day, named after the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. In French, it’s called Le quatorze Juillet, so the first thing you ought to know is that a French person might look at you funny if you wish them a Happy Bastille Day (although they might look at your funny regardless, so maybe just say what you want).
Anyway, to Americans, Bastille Day looks a lot like the 4th of July. FIreworks, parades, food, the works.
But why celebrate the storming of a building which was, at the time, a prison? Democracy, of course!
Why is “Bastille Day” a big deal?
If you remember back to high school history class, you may remember that the French grew tired of their monarchy in the 18th century. The working class weren’t getting much for their labor while the royal and upperclasses lived in luxury. That might sound familiar, but in this case, a group of people organized enough to light the spark (literally – because the Bastille was also full of gunpowder) of the French Revolution.
Now, the Revolution wouldn’t take place right away. Those things really are hard to organize. But if you really didn’t excel in high school history, you may remember this revolution simply as the one where the royals (including Marie Antoinette) lost their heads at the guillotine. (Long story short, France got a had constitutional monarchy after the first Revolution. It would take more revolutions to get to an actual democracy.)
In the end, Bastille Day is a celebration of independence from what the French saw as the tyranny of monarchy. It was the tipping point towards democracy.
What happened on Bastille Day?
So, what exactly happened on July 14, 1789? What does a “storming of the Bastille” even mean? Well, it involved revolutionaries heading to Bastille to liberate people they saw as political prisoners.
Interestingly, most of the actual political prisoners were moved to a more fortified location a bit earlier, and all that remained in the Bastille that day were 7 people – 4 who were in for forgery, an Irish man labeled a “lunatic” and accused of spying, a guy who had tried to assassinate the King Louis XV, and an aristocrat suspected of murder. But they did escape!
Some people like to tell the story that the aristocrat in question was the Marquis de Sade, a revolutionary philosopher and writer of erotic fiction depicting unrestrained sexual activity, some of which was violent (Sadism/sadist is derived from these works). But he had actually been transferred to another facility a few days earlier. What he had in common with the aristocrat is that they had both been imprisoned by a letter from family involuntarily committing them. But that’s really besides the point and just a bit of trivia.
The interesting part is that the the liberation of prisoners didn’t really mean much. Also, the Bastille was going to be leveled and turned into an open space soon anyway. The reason it still stands today is because it’s the symbol of a movement (or the beginning of one, anyway).
Now, If that wasn’t a satisfying description of the storming of the Bastille (and if you’re truly interested in history, it shouldn’t be), then check out the Wikipedia page dedicated to that fateful day. We know, we know, Wikipedia has it’s issues. But professional historians are typically the ones editing those “major” pages, and we confirmed it’s one you can trust.
For proper book-length treatments of the French Revolution, try this list.