Two hundred twenty-six 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 commemorates two separate events: the fall of the Bastille fortress in Paris to revolutionary crowds on July 14, 1789, but also — because 19th-century 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’ “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 1793-94. 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 saw the 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 1793-94. 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.
David A. Bell teaches French history at Princeton. His “Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.