Thursday, July 14, 2011

Storming the Bastille... 222 years ago.

Sans culotte styled trousers
I read just weeks ago that, allegedly, Marie Antoinette seems to have written in his diary the 14th of July of 1789: nothing special happened today, just some riot at a bakery near the Bastille

The diary of the queen does not seem to have been preserved in fact (though it did exist) and this seems more legend than fact but it reflects the deeper truth that sometimes events that mark a change of era can go almost unnoticed by the people living close to them. 

Because the French Revolution, for good or bad, marks the beginning of our era, a time where people wear pants and not anymore those fancy culottes sponsored by the aristocracy of the time, a time where some invisible god is not anymore the alleged reason of the political and social order (it has been replaced by the People, at least formally) and a time when there are not anymore inherited castes. 

After several decades of deep and protracted economical crisis, culminating in the near bankruptcy of the absolutist state. The core problem was, like now, that the wealthy (nobility and clergy) were not being taxed and all the costs laid on the shoulders of the so-called Third State, the common people (though some were affluent bourgeoises, indeed). 

Eventually the ministers needed to reform this failed system and for that they called the Estates-General or Parliament, which had not met in almost two centuries. Of course this aristocratic parliament was anything but democratic and was instead founded on the caste system, each estate (caste) having one vote. However the old system was soon subverted by the elect delegates of the Third State, which constituted themselves as National Constituent Assembly, an assembly representing "the People". 

Uh, wait a moment: just months before this was a planned tax reform that was opposed by the aristocrats and now we have a self-proclaimed constituent assembly overruling the King himself?

The King attempted to revert the process but riots ensued, culminating in the storming of the Bastille on this day 222 years ago. It was a symbolic feat, a direct challenge to the monarchy and its totalitarian police state. Fearing a counter-attack, the People and the National Guard (a bourgeois military corps) set up trenches and barricades.

Nothing of this was apparently known at Versailles, where not just Louis XVIII and Marie Antoinette resided but also where the National Assembly was meeting. So in a sense it is true that the authorities were largely unaware of what was going on in the streets of Paris and other places. 

They realized the next morning. Then the first Commune of Paris was formed, the revolutionary leader Jean-Sylvain Bailly was appointed new mayor and welcomed the King in his rather forced return from Versailles (July 27th) not under cheers of long live the king but of long live the nation.

A lot had yet to happen but a whole new era had begun for France as for all Europe and the whole World. It happened in just a few critical days or weeks in the midst of a deep structural crisis. Nobody really expected it, nobody was truly aware of what was happening or what it meant.

1790 depiction of the event by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand

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