Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet and the Bastille

Prior to patriots storming the Bastille on 14 July 1789, numerous prisoners were incarcerated there. As a prison, the Bastille held people considered dangerous by the King and government. Among those considered dangerous was one man named Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet, a French journalist sentenced in 1780 because of his caustic attack against the Marshal of France.

Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet - Storming of the Bastille.

Storming of the Bastille. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Linguet’s imprisonment at the Bastille lasted for 20 long months. While imprisoned there, he wrote a memoir to demonstrate not only the “cruelties,” “atrocities,” and “depravity” of the Bastille but also to show that he should never have been imprisoned there in the first place. In fact, Linguet believed no one deserved to be imprisoned there.

Linguet’s story of his imprisonment at the Bastille began with his arrival. He noted the first thing that happened was four uniformed jailers searched, groped, and stripped “him of all his own.”[1] Anything a prisoner possessed was confiscated, including money, jewels, papers, knives, and so forth. All the time the search was occurring, Linguet claimed “pleasantries” passed between him and the jailers, who made “remarks on every article.”[2]

Once the search was finished, Linguet was taken to the Tower whose walls were said to range from 12 to 30 or 40 feet thick. Inside the Tower, cells were not always pleasant. That was because they were subject to the ravages of the weather, and, during the winter months, cells were “ice-houses” because they were “lofty enough for frost to penetrate.”[3] In the summer it was the exact opposite. Instead of bitter cold, the thick walls would not dry out and became “moist, suffocating stoves.”

Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet - Eastern View of the Bastille, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Eastern View of the Bastille. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Enduring extreme temperatures was not the only unpleasant memory for Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet. On his first introduction into his cell, he claimed to have been greeted by a “large thick column, of … [butterflies], which instantly overspread the whole chamber.”[4] Horrified he shrank back. The jailers were immune to the situation, and he claimed that they nonchalantly reassured him “before I had lain there two nights, there would not be one left.”[5] Apparently, September at the Bastille was when everything woolen came alive and “transformed into butterflies.”

Linguet’s cell and those of other prisoners were vile in other ways. Some cells, such as his, were situated near a ditch that connected to the Paris sewer. According to Linguet, the ditch exhaled the most noxious odors and infiltrated nearby cells, which made it horrific to breathe. The cells were also dark and there was barely a view as each cell had only a small vent hole in the wall that was covered with three grates. Unfortunately, the one-inch thick grates crossed in such a way, prisoners had nothing more than a two-inch view of the world.

The Bastille Before Its Destruction, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Bastille before its destruction. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As for the furniture, Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet found it disgusting and shabby. Feather beds were not allowed and his bed consisted of “two mattrasses half eaten by … worms.”[6] He also had a “matted elbow chair … tottering table, a water pitcher … two pots of Dutch ware, one of which served to drink out of, and two flag-stones to support the fire.”[7] But even though prisoners could have a fire, the distribution of wood to prisoners was considered “niggardly” and did not help warm ice-box cells during bitter cold winters.

Except for three times a day it was also a lonely and silent existence for prisoners. At 7 and 11 in the morning and at 6 o’clock in the evening the turn-keys visited unlocking two thick doors. Turn-keys were subaltern officers of the Tower tasked with provisioning and servicing the prisoners. Turn-keys were not allowed to talk to the prisoners and were closely watched to ensure they did nothing more than deposit provisions, provide medicine, or leave food for inmates. However, occasionally turn-keys took pity on certain inmates and delivered illicit correspondence or left something extra behind.

When it came to the jailers, Linguet classified them as cold and distant. He maintained they reduced inmates to something less than human and that “from the moment a man is delivered into their hands, he is lost.”[8] Part of Linguet’s dislike for the jailers was because they enforced the rules against communication between prisoners. Moreover, there was not any kind correspondence allowed in from the outside. Linguet reported that he endured constant silence except for “the dismal croaking of the turn-key.”[9] Thus, according to Linguet, father and son, husband and wife, or sister and brother could be inhabitants of the Bastille and have no inkling or suspicion that the other was imprisoned there.

Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Linguet reported that he was often anxious about what was happening to his fellow inmates. He also maintained, “I am convinced that my fellow-captive in the chamber below mine died … though I cannot say whether his death was natural, or inflicted.”[10] It all began with uproar in a staircase. That was followed by tramping up and down of various people and some “struggles and groans.” Silence then ensued and remained for three days. Linguet reported on the fourth day he thought he heard “the carrying up, the setting down, the filling, and the shutting of a coffin.”[11]

Some critics claim that Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet exaggerated his stories and that his Memoirs of the Bastille are “untrustworthy.” It is true that prisoner accommodations were shabby and that prisoners were not allowed to communicate with one another. Typically, prisoners were also held in small octagonal rooms in the mid-levels of the towers and the cells under the roof, known as calottes, were the least pleasant because of the elements. However, modern historians — Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink, Simon Schama, and Monique Cottret — maintain the Bastille was better than many prisons at the time and that the actual treatment of prisoners was better than the public impression.

Linguet’s damning memoirs of the Bastille, as well as critiques by other writers about the Bastille, encouraged Frenchman to look upon it as a symbol of despotism and tyranny. Thus, when the Bastille was stormed, it became an important symbol for freedom among patriots of the French Revolution. Moreover, many stories cropped up about those who were freed, such as the imaginary Comte de Lorges, whom Madame Tussaud claimed she molded his face, Linguet had longed to see an end to the Bastille and at its demise, he remarked:

“[D]ay after day, and even month after month, ‘patriots’ worked at overthrowing the huge structure; and when all was done Paris danced on the site, round a huge ‘tree of liberty’ 60 feet high — one cell being left in a corner of the place as a reminiscence.”[12]


  • [1] Linguet, Simon Nicolas Henri, Memoirs of the Bastille, Volumes 1-4, p. 21.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 22.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 23.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 27.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 26.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 30.
  • [9] Ibid. p. 31.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 34.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 35.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 10.

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