No, Marie-An­toinette did not say, “Let them eat cake,” and the Bastille wasn’t a ma­jor prison.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By David A. Bell Twit­ter: @DavidAvromBell David A. Bell teaches French history at Prince­ton. His “Shad­ows of Revo­lu­tion: Re­flec­tions on France, Past and Present” is forth­com­ing from Ox­ford Univer­sity Press.

Two hun­dred twen­tysix years af­ter the fall of the Bastille, the French Revo­lu­tion stirs pas­sions mostly among his­to­ri­ans like my­self. But many of the myths sur­round­ing the revo­lu­tion have proved more dif­fi­cult to ex­tin­guish. Even the name Bastille Day is some­thing of a mis­nomer. France’s na­tional hol­i­day ac­tu­ally com­mem­o­rates two sep­a­rate events: the fall of the Bastille fortress in Paris to rev­o­lu­tion­ary crowds on July 14, 1789, but also — be­cause 19th­cen­tury leg­is­la­tors wanted some­thing less bloody to celebrate — the mas­sive, peace­ful “Fes­ti­val of Fed­er­a­tion” held through­out the coun­try on July 14, 1790, to ex­press the French peo­ple’s com­mit­ment to lib­erty and unity. To mark this year’s re­mem­brance, here are the real sto­ries be­hind five other ca­nards.

1 When told that the starv­ing poor had no bread to eat, Queen Marie-An­toinette replied, “Let them eat cake.”

Just three years ago, the New York Post not only re­peated this myth but claimed that it “re­put­edly sparked the French Revo­lu­tion.” In fact, the French word was not “gâteau” (cake) but “brioche” (a bread­like pas­try), and the queen never made the re­mark. Ver­sions of it, at­trib­uted to sev­eral ear­lier French rulers, cir­cu­lated as early as the 1600s and ap­peared most fa­mously in Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau’s “Con­fes­sions,” which was writ­ten be­fore Marie-An­toinette even mar­ried the fu­ture Louis XVI. It ex­pressed the wide­spread pop­u­lar con­vic­tion that lux­ury-be­sot­ted roy­als nei­ther un­der­stood nor cared for the famine-prone poor.

Marie-An­toinette, while no paragon of hu­mil­ity or sim­plic­ity, had gen­uine char­i­ta­ble in­stincts to­ward poor peo­ple. But af­ter 1789, her op­po­si­tion to the French Revo­lu­tion made her one of the most hated fig­ures in the coun­try. Misog­y­nis­tic jour­nal­ists de­picted her as a mur­der­ous, he­do­nis­tic, sex­u­ally in­sa­tiable les­bian plot­ting to be­tray the coun­try to France’s en­emy, her na­tive Aus­tria (their pam­phlets had ti­tles like “The Royal Dildo” and “Na­tional Bor­dello Un­der the Aus­pices of the Queen”). The pur­ported cal­lous re­mark about the poor was just ic­ing, so to speak, on the brioche.

In the fall of 1793, less than a year af­ter the ex­e­cu­tion of her hus­band, King Louis XVI, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment put Marie-An­toinette on trial for crimes that in­cluded the al­leged sex­ual abuse of her son. Found guilty, she died on the guil­lo­tine.

2 The French Revo­lu­tion was an upris­ing of the down­trod­den.

Charles Dick­ens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” is only the best known of many nov­els that por­tray France’s wretched poor tak­ing re­venge on their aris­to­cratic op­pres­sors dur­ing the revo­lu­tion. (Not on the list, please note, is Vic­tor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” source of the pop­u­lar mu­si­cal, whose cli­mac­tic scenes take place dur­ing the Parisian in­sur­rec­tion of 1832, not the events of 1789).

But the poor­est of the poor played rel­a­tively lit­tle part in a revo­lu­tion that be­gan among wealthy nobles and pro­fes­sion­als in meet­ing halls at Ver­sailles, weeks be­fore the fall of the Bastille. Even the dra­matic pop­u­lar vi­o­lence that re­peat­edly drove the revo­lu­tion for­ward was mostly car­ried out by men with more than a lit­tle to lose. In the coun­try­side, as many his­to­ri­ans have shown, it was di­rected against elite fief-hold­ers, and the taxes and tolls they col­lected above all from well-off, en­tre­pre­neur­ial peasants. In the cities, the ur­ban mil­i­tants who called them­selves “sans-cu­lottes” (“with­out breeches” — i.e. those who did not dress like the wealthy) mostly came from the ranks of ar­ti­sans, shop­keep­ers and clerks. Their lead­ers, though they of­ten called them­selves sim­ple la­bor­ers, in fact in­cluded pro­fes­sion­als and work­shop own­ers.

3 The French Revo­lu­tion in­vented the guil­lo­tine.

In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, noth­ing sym­bol­izes the revo­lu­tion more vividly than the guil­lo­tine, which be­came its prin­ci­pal means of public ex­e­cu­tion, ac­count­ing for some 16,000 deaths dur­ing the “Reign of Terror” of 1793-1794. No less an in­tel­lec­tual celebrity than the French philoso­pher Jac­ques Der­rida has at­trib­uted the de­vice to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary leg­is­la­tor and doc­tor Joseph-Ig­nace Guil­lotin, who him­self barely es­caped it af­ter be­ing im­pris­oned dur­ing the Terror in 1794.

The book “French Rev­o­lu­tions for Be­gin­ners” gets some­what closer to the truth, main­tain­ing that while the de­vice first sawthe light of day dur­ing the revo­lu­tion, Guil­lotin did not in­vent it. In fact, he op­posed the death penalty, and ad­vo­cated hu­mane and pain­less ex­e­cu­tion by a de­cap­i­ta­tion ma­chine as a first step on the way to the abo­li­tion of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment al­to­gether.

What’s more, sim­i­lar de­vices had been de­vel­oped cen­turies ear­lier, in­clud­ing the nearly iden­ti­cal “Hal­i­fax Gib­bet” in West York­shire, Eng­land, and the “Scot­tish Maiden,” which can be seen at the Mu­seum of Scot­land in Ed­in­burgh. The guil­lo­tine re­mained in use in France as late as 1977.

4 Max­im­i­lien Robe­spierre was a blood­thirsty dic­ta­tor.

The fig­ure most closely as­so­ci­ated with the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Reign of Terror, Robe­spierre is widely seen, par­tic­u­larly on the Euro­pean and Amer­i­can right, as a proto-to­tal­i­tar­ian who lusted af­ter ab­so­lute power. As Ann Coul­ter put it in her 2011 book, “De­monic”: “Hitler got his play­book from Robe­spierre.” Even Jonathan Is­rael of the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study, a some­what more rep­utable au­thor­ity, spoke re­peat­edly of Robe­spierre’s “dic­ta­tor­ship” in his 2014 history of the revo­lu­tion.

Robe­spierre, a stiff-man­nered lawyer from the north­ern French town of Ar­ras, was just one of 12 mem­bers of the Com­mit­tee of Public Safety, which ex­er­cised quasi-dic­ta­to­rial pow­ers for less than a year in 1793-1794. He was the com­mit­tee’s most in­flu­en­tial mem­ber, and his writ­ings and speeches did more than any­thing else to de­fine the ide­ol­ogy of the Terror. But the in­ces­sant de­mands of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics took a heavy men­tal and phys­i­cal toll, and as the Terror rushed to­ward its cli­max, he spent cru­cial weeks con­fined to his bed — “less . . . the man who ru­ined the Revo­lu­tion than . . . a man the Revo­lu­tion ru­ined,” to quote the his­to­rian Colin Jones. Robe­spierre’s un­sta­ble men­tal con­di­tion, and his in­abil­ity to ex­er­cise dic­ta­to­rial con­trol over events, led di­rectly to his fall and ex­e­cu­tion, along with sev­eral of his key al­lies, at the end of July 1794 (or, ac­cord­ing to the new rev­o­lu­tion­ary cal­en­dar, the month of Ther­mi­dor, Year II).

5 The rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies stormed the Bastille to free the po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers held there.

This myth dates back to the revo­lu­tion it­self and still ap­pears regularly ev­ery July 14. “On this day in 1789, crowds stormed the Bastille prison in Paris, which is where King Louis XVI kept his en­e­mies,” NPR’s Steve Inskeep re­peated just a year ago.

It is true that dur­ing the 17th and 18th cen­turies, the French monar­chy im­pris­oned hun­dreds of sup­pos­edly sedi­tious writ­ers — in­clud­ing, most fa­mously, Voltaire — in the large, sin­is­ter fortress that loomed over eastern Paris. But it largely dis­con­tin­ued the prac­tice years be­fore the revo­lu­tion, and on July 14, 1789, the Bastille held only seven pris­on­ers: four coun­ter­feit­ers, two mad­men and a no­ble­man ac­cused of sex­ual per­ver­sion.

The Parisian crowds marched on it to seize gun­pow­der stored there so they could arm them­selves against a feared at­tack on the city and the new rev­o­lu­tion­ary assem­bly by the royal army. The mem­ory of the Bastille’s ear­lier role, how­ever, gave its fall tremen­dous sym­bolic im­por­tance. Soon af­ter­ward, the assem­bly tri­umphantly or­dered the build­ing’s de­mo­li­tion. In­ci­den­tally, the col­umn that stands on the site to­day does not com­mem­o­rate the fall of the Bastille but rather the “three glo­ri­ous days” of a later French revo­lu­tion, in 1830.


Fire­works light up the Eif­fel Tower dur­ing the an­nual Bastille Day cel­e­bra­tion on July 14, 2014. The hol­i­day com­mem­o­rates the be­gin­ning of the French Revo­lu­tion.

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