Being a Prisoner in the Bastille in the 18th Century

To be a prisoner in the Bastille in the 18th century was different from being a prisoner under King Louis XIV in the 1600s. In the 1300s, the Bastille was a fortress with only two towers built to defend Paris’ eastern approach from the English during the Hundred Years War. More towers were added in the 1370s until there were a total of eight with the looming towers being between five to seven stories high and the tallest one no more than seventy-three feet tall.

The Bastille. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the mid-1600s, about the time that boulevards and a wide deep moat were built around the Bastille, Louis XIV decided to turn it into a prison. In fact, from 1659 onward it functioned primarily as a state penitentiary where Louis imprisoned upper-class members of French society who opposed him or angered him. He achieved their imprisonments by issuing a lettre de cachet that allowed him to detain any person according to his random will without any judicial process.

Lettre de cachet that orders Jean-François Marmontel’s detention at the Bastille. It is signed by Louis XV and minister Louis Phélypeaux in 1759. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Under Louis XV and Louis XVI, the Bastille was used to detain prisoners from more varied backgrounds. It was also used to support the Parisian police, especially in enforcing government censorship of printed media. When Louis XVI came to power, he began to release prisoners until there were fewer and fewer prisoners at the facility. Unfortunately, over the years, the Bastille acquired a fearsome and detestable reputation partly because of the king’s ability to issue lettre de cachets.

Louis XVI. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Bastille’s reputation was worsened by several autobiographies written by prisoners detained there during the eighteenth century. Many of these were written more for the shock value so as to produce shudders, disgust, and fear and were not always based on reality. In fact, the Bastille was considered a relatively good prison compared to other facilities, such as Bicêtre, which was located in the southern suburbs of France and functioned successively as an orphanage, prison, and lunatic asylum.

When a person received a lettre de cachet they were ordered to present themselves at the Bastille. Of course, no one dared refuse the King’s request, and, in fact, the person usually presented themselves alone without the King’s guards or anyone else accompanying them. When the prison’s governor decided to transfer a prisoner, it was a similar story. The prisoner was told about the transfer and he or she went unaccompanied to the new prison.

One story about how effective people were in following orders when told to present themselves for incarceration occurred in January of 1695. The prisoner was ordered to go to the Bastille for incarceration and when he presented himself, he found it full, so “the governor asked him to go and pass the night in a neighbouring inn, at the sign of the Crown, and to return the next day.”[1] He did just that and arrived as directed at the Bastille the following morning at 11am.

When prisoners arrived at the Bastille there were several books used to record information about them. One book was a register or list that contained prisoners’ names, the date of their arrival, the time of their discharge or death, the tower where they were lodged, and any necessary remarks or observations. A second book listed the prisoner’s name, date of arrival, and an inventory of effects found on them. A third book, called the discharge book, contained receipts for their effects, which were restored when prisoners were set at liberty.

A prisoner in the Bastille was also generally questioned and examined within twenty-four hours of their arrival, although sometimes someone might not be examined for up to two or three weeks. Examinations were conducted by the Châtelet commissioner who used specially supplied notes to question incoming inmates. After his examination, he sent an official report along with his opinion to the lieutenant of the police, who had a judicial position in that he decided whether the person’s arrest should be sustained. If a person was determined to be innocent, then a new lettre de cachet set the person free.

Despite the Bastille being described as good, conditions in the prison varied widely. The subterranean dungeons or cachots were damp and vermin-infested while the cells immediately below the roof, called the calottes, were affected by the weather: freezing during the snow, damp and humid during the rain, and suffocating and hot during the sunny summer months. Thus, unless the prison was crowded, prisoners were generally held in the middle floors in an octagonal room that was about sixteen feet in diameter.

Rooms had varying degrees of accommodations. Most rooms had one window at varying heights. For example, in some rooms, the window came down to the floor, other cells had steps that led to it and in some the windows were about chest level, but all the windows had a secure iron grate. All rooms except the dungeons also had a stove or fireplace whose vents were likewise secured by “strong iron grates.” In addition, walls and ceilings were plastered and whitewashed and some floors had tiles or stones. Moreover:

“The furniture of the rooms in general consisted of a small bed with green serge curtains, a table, an armed chair, a bason and ewer, a large earthen pot to hold water, a brass candlestick, a chamber -pot, a nightstool, a tin goblet, a broom, and a tinder-box and matches.”[2]

Some prisoners were permitted to send for their things and improve their conditions in prison. The upper classes particularly took advantage and decorated their cells to make themselves comfortable. The lists of things they brought into the prison included everything from furniture and clothing to fragrances. In the nineteenth-century Legends of the Bastille, author Frantz Funck-Brentano wrote at length about those who sent for their things:

“[Marguerite de Launay, baroness] de Staal relates that she had hers hung with tapestry; the Marquis de Sade covered the bare walls with long and brilliant hangings: other prisoners ornamented their rooms with family portraits; they procured chests of drawers, desks, round tables, dressing-cases, armchairs, cushion in Utrecht velvet; the inventories of articles belonging to the prisoners show they managed to secure everything they thought necessary. The Abbé Brigault, who was imprisoned at the same time as [Baroness] de Staal … brought into the Bastille five armchairs, two pieces of tapestry, eleven serge hangings, eight chairs, a bureau, a small table, three pictures, &c. The list of effects taken out of the Bastille by the Comte de Belle-Isle … includes a library consisting of 333 volumes and ten atlases, a complete service of fine linen and plate for the table, a bed furnished with gold-bordered red damask, four pieces of tapestry on antique subjects, two mirrors, a screen of gold-bordered red damask matching the bed, two folding screens, two armchairs with cushions, and armchair in leather, three chairs in tapestry, an overmantel of gilt copper, tables, drawers, stands, candlestick of plated copper, &c.[3]

prisoner in the Bastille - Marquis de Sade

Marquis de Sade. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Food was another item that varied according to a person’s social status. For instance, “when a prisoner was rich he could live at the Bastille in princely style; when he was poor, he lived there very wretchedly.”[4] The wretched were served the worst of rations, usually some sort of gruel, thin soup, or perhaps if they were lucky bread, cheese, and wine. However, the King did endow the Bastille with a certain number of fixed pensions for the less fortunate or destitute prisoners:

“The recipients of these pensions continued to enjoy them for long years, if they did not wish the whole of the money to be expended on their support, the balance was handed over to them. So … certain individuals [acquired] … little fortunes together by the mere fact of their having been prisoners in the Bastille. … It even happened that prisoners, when their liberation was announced to them, asked to remain a little longer in order to swell their savings, a favour which was sometimes granted them.”[5]

In stark contrast to the wretched prisoners were those who had money and could eat what they wanted. The lived in a princely style, with one of these well-to-do captives being a man named Dumouriez. An accounting of one of his daily meals is provided:

“[He] was accustomed to have his dinner brought him by his servant every day at three o’clock, who was an excellent cook. The food was excellent … Dumouriez had for dinner five plats, and three for his supper, without counting the dessert.”[6]

Another prisoner in the Bastille was the historian and writer Jean-François Marmontel. He published one of his menus for a day stating what he was served:

“An excellent soup, a succulent slice of beef, a wing of a chicken, artichokes in oil, spinach, some stewed pears, fresh grapes, a bottle of old Burgundy, and excellent cup of coffee.[7]

prisoner in the Bastille - Jean-François Marmontel

Jean-François Marmontel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Prisoners in the Bastille had several activities that helped to staunch boredom. One activity was visiting the Bastille’s library that was available for general use by the prisoners. It contained about five hundred volumes and was further supplemented sometimes by the personal books of prisoners. However, very few books in the prison library were complete because if a prisoner in the Bastille wrote something considered “improper” or wrote between the lines, whole pages might be torn out.

Mass at the chapel was another prison activity for a prisoner in the Bastille. It was said every morning and there were three masses on Sundays and holidays. Prisoners had six niches that allowed them to hear services without seeing or being seen. Those who wanted to attend were conducted separately to and from the chapel, and, on days when many prisoners wanted to attend, a rotation system was introduced that allowed guards to efficiently conduct prisoners to and from the chapel.

Other various activities were also allowed. These included ink, pens, and paper, which were at everyone’s disposal unless the prisoner misbehaved or wrote insulting documents. Laurent Angliviel de la Beaumelle, the French Protestant writer born in 1726, was permitted to breed birds, cats, and dogs. Other prisoners played musical instruments, and embroidery was also allowed. Those who behaved well might also be permitted to visit each other at will or to play “backgammon, cards, or chess in their rooms; at skittles, bowls, or tonneau in the courtyard.”[8]

prisoner in the Bastille - Laurent Angliviel de la Beaumelle

Laurent Angliviel de la Beaumelle. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite all the freedoms granted prisoners, there were still rules and guidelines. In 1761, guards posted a list of regulations that they hung on the wall of the guard-room. Some of the items on that list included:

  • Anyone entering the premises could not wear his sword, except for the King, the Dauphin, the princes of the blood, secretaries of state, maréchals of France, captains of the body guard, the dukes and peers, and the guards.
  • Sergeants and corporals were to make themselves acquainted with every person in the prison and all those who came and went daily from the Bastille.
  • The sentinel was also to keep in view any prisoners permitted to walk about and to be attentive and observe if they dropped anything (papers, letters, notes) and also prevent prisoners from writing on the walls.
  • Only the officers of the staff and turnkeys could speak to prisoners or answer them.
  • As soon as the sun went down and evening set in, sentinels were to challenge anyone who presented themselves and let no one pass until he was assured the person was permitted to do so.

There were also a few other restrictions and precautions taken related to prisoners possessing certain objects. For instance, prisoners were generally shaved by a barber, who also clipped their nails. Prisoners could possess knives to dine with or tongs for a fire if the guards considered the prisoner to be calm and resigned. However, even if guards made such a judgement, it did not always mean the prisoner behaved. One instance of a misbehaving prisoner in the Bastille was a man named Drohart who was mentioned in a letter dated 19 November 1767:

“The prisoner Drohart … flew back to his room. The turnkey followed him. He stood at the door to defend the entry; the turnkey tried to force it, not perceiving that he had a knife in his hand, till he received a wound in his belly, of which it is thought he will probably die before the morning, and he has accordingly received the sacraments. The prisoner immediately gave himself a wound … and expired about ten minutes after.”[9]

One prisoner in the Bastille in 1780 was Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet, a French journalist. He was there for 20 months and was not rich. His experience was also not so pleasant as the Baroness de Staal, Dumouriez, or Marmontel. Linguet wrote a popular anti-Bastille book after he was released that detailed his sufferings. In his book he noted that the whole ordeal was humiliating and that when he was deprived of pen and paper, he was galled and felt oppressed. Unable to speak or share his feeling because of the thickness of the five-foot walls, his mental anguish proved to be so great that he ably recaptured it when he wrote his book, Memoirs of the Bastille.

prisoner in the Bastille - Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet

Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

De personalization of prisoners was another complaint that Linguet mentioned in his memoirs, and, it was accomplished in a rather effective way. Once a person was imprisoned at the Bastille, there was never a reason for guards to use the person’s name.

“Each tower had its particular name and … each chamber was numbered, by which means there was no occasion ever to pronounce the name of a prisoner; … [each] was called by the number of the chamber and the name of the tower where he was confined; as No. 1. de la Bertaudiere, and so on.”[10]

Interestingly, despite Linguet writing a book, neither he nor any other prisoner in the Bastille were allowed to write a book about their imprisonment. That was because prisoners signed a declaration upon their departure declaring “that he would never reveal anything he had heard or seen in the Bastille.”[11] However, as mentioned, that did not seem to deter anyone from writing about their time there, and, thus, because of Linguet’s writings, and others like him, the Bastille came to represent the worst of monarchical oppression, which, Simon Schama, a current and well-regarded French historian notes:

“[T]he reality of the Bastille became more of an anachronism, its demonology became more and more important in defining opposition to state power. If the monarchy was to be depicted … as arbitrary, obsessed with secrecy and vested with capricious powers over the life and death of its citizens, the Bastille was the perfect symbol of those vices. … And in some sense it was reinvented by a succession of writing of prisoners who had indeed suffered within its walls but whose account of the institution transcended anything they could have experienced. So vivid and haunting were their accounts that they succeeded in creating a stark opposition around which critics of the regime could rally.”[12]

The critics of the Bastille did rally. Their cries added to the building discontent felt by the Third Estate during the Estates-General and the hungry masses who were starving and suffering until finally their unhappiness culminated in the storming of the Bastille. It occurred on 14 July 1789 and ushered in what became known as the French Revolution.


  • [1] F. Funck-Brentano and G. Maidment, Legends of the Bastille (Downey, 1899), p. 90–91.
  • [2] Q. Craufurd, The History of the Bastille: With a Concise Account of the Late Revolution in France (T. Cadell, 1790), p. 11–12.
  • [3] F. Funck-Brentano, and G. Maidment, p. 95–96.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 85.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 87.
  • [6] H. Du Pré Labouchere, Truth v. 22 (1887), p. 765.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] F. Funck-Brentano, and G. Maidment, 5–6
  • [9] Q. Craufurd, p. 43–44.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 13.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 37.
  • [12] S. Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1989), p. 392.

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