The Curse of the Marquis de Sade
Relic of Freedom
July 14, 1789
The summer sky above Paris hung heavy with clouds as a plume of smoke rose east of the city center. The scent of gunpowder wafted through the muggy afternoon air, while the crackle of musket fire and battle yells echoed through the cobblestoned streets.
Four years had passed since Sade had written 120 Days of Sodom. Beyond the walls of the Bastille, the world carried on in one of the largest cities in Europe, a crowded metropolis of 810 streets and twenty-three thousand houses that more than a half million people called home. By many measures, by the late 1780s Paris had come a long way toward achieving Louis XIV’s declaration a century before that the French capital should rival the glories of ancient Rome. The old walls that ringed the city had come down, replaced by victory arches and graceful boulevards. The bridges over the Seine had been cleared of the medieval houses that had clogged their thoroughfares and left them on the verge of collapse. Colossal new public squares like the Place Vendôme and the Place de la Concorde provided the capital with new civic spaces, while a long stretch of open fields and kitchen gardens on the city’s western fringe had been transformed into a grand boulevard called the Champs-Élysées. In posh suburban neighborhoods like the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and the Faubourg Saint-Germain, palatial mansions had gone up to house the swelling number of wealthy bourgeois, boasting recently minted fortunes and new noble titles awarded or sold to them by the crown.
But in the cramped center of the city, conditions remained intolerable. The maze of dark, narrow streets festered with filth and crime, barely penetrated by the réverbères, or metal oil lamps, installed throughout the capital. On either side of muddy lanes, in shabby row houses of wood, limestone, and plaster that reached four, five, and six stories high, the families of Paris’s servants, laborers, and artisans crammed into three-room apartments, many of which lacked a dedicated kitchen, much less a toilet or bath.
Recently city dwellers had seen the price of bread, the main staple of their meager diets, consume an ever-larger portion of their shrinking incomes as years of costly wars, poor harvests, and the timid leadership of the current monarch, King Louis XVI, led to financial crises. Desperate measures by the crown, such as a new wall around Paris to enforce tolls on goods entering the city and a trade agreement that allowed British goods to flood the market, plunged the nation further into debt. Many lost their jobs, and nearly two hundred thousand Parisians came to depend on religious assistance or government handouts. As the drought-ravaged fields around the city deteriorated, troops patrolled the markets to deter riots over bread. And as radical new philosophical movements championed egalitarianism and an upstart middle class jockeyed for political power, the people watched the nobility continue to revel in opulence.
The final provocation had arrived that summer. An attempt by the king to raise revenues and quell dissent by summoning a convention of the Estates General, an assembly of representatives from the country’s various social classes, had collapsed amid political infighting over who should have the most say in the nation’s affairs. Struggling to afford food and fearful of an aristocratic conspiracy to undermine the middle and lower classes, commoners had taken to the streets. Factories and wealthy monasteries were ransacked, and most of the new customhouses at the city’s toll gates were burned to the ground. Around the city, army regiments moved into battle positions.
With rumors spreading of a crackdown, Parisians girded for battle. Theaters and cafés shuttered their doors, and the call went out to erect barricades, gather provisions, and, most important, marshal arms. Early that rainy morning, a mob of citizens raided the army barracks at the Invalides military hospital, coming away with thousands of rifles and several cannons, but very little ammunition. Hundreds of barrels of gunpowder, they learned, were being stored elsewhere: in the Bastille.
The gray stone hulk’s eight medieval towers dominated the city skyline and loomed large in the public’s imagination. This was where numerous state convicts had rotted away, including the legendary Man in the Iron Mask, a mysterious criminal forced to hide his face and who would eventually die in his cell before anyone could uncover his identity. Tales of prisoners emerging from the citadel fueled a cottage publishing industry, generating page-turners detailing filthy cells, dangerously inadequate rations, and corpse-filled subterranean dungeons. And now, according to reports, somewhere deep in its bowels lurked the infamous criminal the Marquis de Sade.
While Versailles, with its sparkling fountains and mirror-lined halls, epitomized the opulence of the monarchy, the Bastille had come to represent the iron rule that underpinned it all. So early that afternoon, when hundreds of cabinet makers, locksmiths, joiners, cobblers, hairdressers, tailors, wine merchants, and wig makers took up pikes, knives, and muskets and cried out, “To the Bastille!” they weren’t simply looking to requisition gunpowder. They were mounting a direct attack on the tyranny of their king.
In the Bastille, the prison warden waited nervously, as he had for several days. He was well suited for his position, having been born in the fortress during his father’s tenure as warden. But as a government functionary through and through, he knew little of the ways of battle. It didn’t help that many of the hundred or so guards and soldiers under his command were elderly or infirm veterans. Over the past few nights, he had taken to peering from the ramparts, mistaking the trees below for agents plotting the citadel’s demise.
Now the warden’s worst fears were coming true. As the morning rain let up, soldiers standing guard atop the Bastille’s towers watched a mob stream past the neighborhood’s workshops and factories, their caps decorated with chestnut leaves as a symbol of their cause. Upon reaching the bounds of the citadel, an agile carriage maker clambered over a wall and cut the chains to the fortress’s outermost drawbridge. As the gate crashed down, the revolutionaries charged into the courtyard, where they faced their remaining obstacles: a twenty-five-foot-deep dry moat and, beyond that, another raised drawbridge blocking entry into the Bastille.
The battle began in earnest. The revolutionaries traded musket fire with soldiers on the battlements above, ducking for cover behind nearby walls and the prison’s kitchen buildings. For further protection, the assailants wheeled up several straw-filled carts from a nearby brewery and set them alight, the billowing smoke obscuring their movements. Soon the revolutionaries were reinforced by a contingent of royal soldiers who had defected to their side, along with several cannons. The artillery opened fire on the castle, but the eight-pound balls glanced off the fifteen-foot-thick stone walls. Shifting strategies, the revolutionaries turned their cannons on the wooden drawbridge. Inside, troops moved their own siege guns into position just beyond the entrance. Now both forces had heavy artillery trained on their foes, with just the wooden slats of the drawbridge between them.
Before either side could open fire, a drummer on the tower beat out the call for a cease-fire. Through a hole in the drawbridge came a note from the prison warden. He asked the revolutionaries to allow him and his men to evacuate with their lives. If the attackers refused, he would use the twenty thousand pounds of gunpowder in his possession to blow up the fortress and everything in the vicinity.
The revolutionaries refused to yield. Cries of “No capitulation” and “Lower the bridge” continued. Just as the crowd prepared to resume fire, the soldiers inside relented. With a clanking of chains, the drawbridge came down. The revolutionaries surged into the stronghold, disarming the troops. They found that only one of the castle’s defenders had been killed in the fighting, while ninety-eight attackers lay dead outside.
The warden and his men were marched out of the fortress and toward city hall, where the provisional government would decide their fate. The fury of the revolutionaries and the jeering populace lining the streets could not be held in check, and along the way, several of the captives were killed. Then, at the foot of city hall, the crowd lost control. They attacked the warden and one of his officers, stabbing them with swords and bayonets, then unloading their pistols into the bodies. The mob erupted as two bloody pikes rose into the evening sky, crowned with the severed heads of the victims.
Later that night at Versailles, a long carriage journey away from the city, an adviser told Louis XVI that the Bastille had fallen. “Is it a revolt?” asked the king. “No, sire,” he was told. “It is a revolution.”
Back at the prison, the revolutionaries seized gunpowder stores and ransacked the archives. They threw open the cells but found only seven prisoners, none of whom appeared to be particularly maltreated. Their number included four convicted forgers, a man suspected of a royal assassination plot decades earlier, an unremarkable aristocrat locked away for incest, and an insane Irishman who sometimes believed he was Julius Caesar and at other times God. Sade was not among them.