Exhibition: The Bastille or the hell of the living (Paris)

Exhibition: The Bastille or the hell of the living (Paris)

From November 9, 2010 to February 11, 2011 will be held at the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal (Paris 4th), an exhibition dedicated to the most famous of prisons and entitled "The Bastille or the hell of the living". This traces the history of the establishment, from the reign of Louis XIV (1643) to the French revolution (1789 ) through numerous testimonies of history. Police files, archival documents, prints, prisoners' clothes and handcuffs, books and personal correspondence provide a better understanding of the conditions of captivity under the Ancien Régime. The most famous cases are presented there such as the man in the iron mask, the regicide Damiens or the poisons case.

History of the Bastille and the prison environment

The construction of the prison was started 1365 under the initiative of Charles V and strategically near Vincennes and the King's residence at the Hotel Saint-pol. Gradually, the establishment expands buildings and gardens to consist of eight towers 24 meters high. The whole united by curtains forms a rectangle. You can admire from the entrance of the exhibition, a model of the Bastille made in 1790, from a stone of the building. It is important to point out that originally, the Bastille was not a punishment but a place of waiting, a preventive measure before judgment. It is with the absolute monarchy, regime set up under Louis XIV, that it will play the role of prison.

You should know that under the Ancien Régime, there are four categories of places of detention :

  • State prisons for those who have undermined state security. They are 40 in number including La Bastille, Mont-Saint-Michel, the fortress of Pignerol and Vincennes.
  • The prisons which depend on the General Hospital for the poor and beggars
  • Common rights prisons: like the Grand Châtelet, which contains execution rooms
  • Houses of force or correction

From 1748 and 1767, the convicts were added respectively, replacing the galleys and the begging depots. An inmate can be transferred from one prison to another, although in theory each institution has a distinct function.

The exhibition which is currently held at the Arsenal Library benefits from the archives built up by the Prison since 1660. Unfortunately some of the documents were looted and thrown into the ditches during the French Revolution. In 1797, an administrator of the Arsenal Library recovered the archives previously kept by the City Library to begin an inventory, but it was in 1892 that the catalog of these funds was completed and published by Frantz Funck-Brentano.

The Bastille and the most famous businesses

The Bastille held prisoners whose stories still resonate today. The exhibition unveils the testimonies of the greatest cases such as the man in the iron mask, the regicide Damiens, the prisoner Latude famous for his escapes and the affair of the necklace of Queen Marie Antoinette.

A document presented in the exhibition proves the existence of the man in the iron mask. The prison register mentions the latter's death. Note that in reality he was wearing a black velvet mask. As a reminder, the man in the iron mask was imprisoned from 1698 to 1703 in the Bastille and has a total of 34 years in prison. He is a prisoner whose identity should not be revealed. Many hypotheses around it still feed the myth such as the possible twin brother of Louis XIV, Fouquet the king's intendant, Molière or even a simple valet named Eustache Danger.

We can observe the shirt of the regicide Damiens, but also the knives that belonged to his family. Robert François Damiens was imprisoned for having tried to kill Louis XV in 1757 with a knife. His ordeal, which lasted more than two hours because of the incompetence of the executioners, made Damiens the last person to be quartered under the Ancien Régime.

A reproduction of the queen's necklace and the eleven portraits of the protagonists immerse us in the history of this famous affair. This broke out in broad daylight in 1785. Cardinal Louis de Rohan, eager to obtain the favors of the Queen, sought to obtain a necklace worth 1,600,000 pounds (7 million euros) that this last could not afford. Unfortunately, he bought it on credit from crooks who posed as close friends of the Queen and resold the diamonds in England. The jeweler explained to Marie-Antoinette that she was supposed to have bought the necklace through Rohan when she did not know. The latter believed in a plot and Louis XVI had the naive Cardinal embellished on August 16, 1785. The scandal splashed the Queen and the monarchy.

The judiciary and censorship

Several offenses could result in imprisonment in the Bastille: attack on religion, state security and good morals. The King tolerated only "official religion" which in 1685 led to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the embarrassment of many Jansenists and free thinkers. Article 11 of the criminal ordinance of 1670 sets out the crimes of lese majesté " ... sacrilege with break-in, rebellion against warrants from us or our officers, the police for carrying arms, illicit assemblies, seditions, popular emotions, public force, the manufacture, alteration or display of counterfeit money, correction of our officers, embezzlement by them committed in their offices, crimes of heresy, public disturbance in divine service, kidnapping and kidnapping of people by force and violence, and other cases explained by our ordinances and regulations ».

The censorship system is present and is dual: there is prior censorship and a posteriori censorship after publication. Many book trades have been built up. Among the most popular bookstore trades, one could count the peddlers, then the booksellers and the printers. Nevertheless, some authors have never been imprisoned for their works as is the case with Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade who was charged with rape and poisoning. Between 1661 and 1789, one in six prisoners was imprisoned for “literary acts”.

The letter of seal, did not agree with justice since a man could be sent to prison without trial on simple written request from the King. In the 17th century, they were handwritten and produced in "series" before they could be printed. It was not until June 26, 1789 that the abolition of the letters of seal was announced.

Being imprisoned in the Bastille

Reading and writing are the main occupations of the shipbuilders, especially because of the presence of a library. They were not allowed to talk to each other or to communicate with the outside world. As a result, some prisoners were discreetly sent ink. One example of the works on display is a work that once contained ink concealed in a binding made of metal plates.

The treatment of prisoners is unequal, because prisoners are treated according to their quality and means. Until 1789, most of the sentences were outrageous. It is possible to observe the portrait of the Marquis of Argenson considered one of the toughest lieutenants in the Bastille.

Midway through the exhibition, the exhibition unveils a reconstruction of a prison cell including an original door and handles. You can also see handcuffs and torture instruments. When a prisoner regains freedom, he is held in silence and must write and then sign a pledge of silence in the register of declarations. Prisoners were prohibited from disclosing what they saw inside.

practical information

The Bastille or the hell of the living
From November 9 to February 11, 2011
Arsenal Library-1 rue de Sully, 75 004 Paris
Free visits: Tuesday to Sunday from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. - Free admission
Guided tours : from November 18 every Thursday at 3 p.m. - Registration required on 01 53 79 49 49 - (€ 3)

For more information, visit the BnF website.


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