What is a Bastille?

Place de la Bastille

On Bastille Day, the world parties in the name of France. But do you know what makes Bastille Day so important not just for France but the history of all democracies? The occasion is typically honored with military parades and copious consumption of libations. This mix of weapons and wooziness arguably sums up the legacy of July 14, 1789.

A bastille is French for “fortress,” “castle,” or “bastion.” The Bastille Saint-Antoine is a fortress-prison in Paris that was stormed on this day 221 years ago. It was a symbol of the power of the French monarchy. Essentially, France was on the brink of revolution. A quasi-legislature called the Estates-General met to try to deal with the crisis. They failed, primarily due to the resistance of the nobility who held the most sway. The Third Estate, which represented the middle class, or bourgeoisie, rebelled and formed the National Assembly, which also started its own militia, the National Guard.

You’re familiar with how this sort of event unfolds. Keep in mind that this was the first popular revolt of its kind. Within days, the monarchy was driven out, and the nation was in the throes of the French Revolution. Paris was rioting, and a crowd gathered around the Bastille, demanding the surrender of the guards and a release of all prisoners. A bloody standoff ended with the capitulation of the royal forces. The Revolution wasn’t exactly smooth sailing (as Monsieur Guillotin would soon learn), but the storming of the Bastille is a dramatic symbol for the overthrow of tyranny in the name of the people.

Two notes on Bastille Day: the French tricolor emblem (blue, white and red), stems from the colors of the National Guard. And in France, custom has it that the president issues pardons to mostly minor criminals on Bastille Day.


  1. KSingh -  July 22, 2016 - 5:06 pm

    Bastille came into my vocabulary when I was16 reading A Tale of Two Cites in 1959.I m not sure but the Bastille incident happened in the book.My sympathies were with the aristocracy coz a king meant to me a figure of power , responsibilty n fair play.i felt it was wrong to rebel with violent bloodshed.That was my view as a a school boy in SouthEast Asia.The word ‘King’ still has a fascination for me.Colonial habit,maybe.

  2. Joseph Hayhurst -  July 21, 2016 - 8:03 am

    How do I get the dictionary.com on my iPhone that offers to speak the word of the day in example sentences? Thanks.

  3. Joseph Hayhurst -  July 21, 2016 - 8:01 am

    Why do you continue to send me so-called “sales” for Dictionary.com, when the price remains the same $3.99 as always? That’s annoying! If you are promoting a “sale” it should feature a LOWER price!

  4. johnpaul -  July 20, 2016 - 10:46 am

    whats upp(:

    • johnpaul -  July 20, 2016 - 10:51 am

      im locked up can some one talk to me this the only way i could talk to someone im in taft,tx by courpus

      • cozy -  July 25, 2016 - 2:24 pm

        hey buddy I love you

      • Elizabeth Brown -  August 3, 2016 - 10:51 pm

        Hello johnpaul. I hope you see this soon. I wanted to study the origin of Bastille Day since my son was born on this day. I didn’t even know about it until the terrible news I saw on TV about the terrorist who killed all the people in France this year on their Bastille Day. God bless you. EB

    • TREY GORDAN FISHMAN MCCONNELL -  September 16, 2016 - 11:16 am


  5. Varunraj mallappa patil -  July 16, 2016 - 7:45 am

    The bastille day is one of the most important day of the human history all must learn lot from it.

  6. JJ -  July 14, 2016 - 7:04 am

    Is there any holiday which isn’t celebrated with ‘copious consumption of libations’?

    • ted -  July 15, 2016 - 10:50 pm

      It is so damn horrible that now it’s going to be a day of mourning

    • Patti Britt -  July 16, 2016 - 8:36 pm

      There are indeed many holidays that aren’t celebrated without alcoholic libations….they are just not as much fun.

  7. Adrian -  November 7, 2014 - 5:42 am

    The Bastille Day is one of the most important days of the human history. All must learn a lot from it.

  8. Dana Kranz -  April 30, 2014 - 10:14 am

    Wonderful history. I hope they can preserve the heritage and the people will maintain its history.

  9. Happypuppydog -  July 15, 2013 - 11:46 am

    The Truth is that these wantabe free assholes would and did murder the King and Queen not for freedom or that they had a bad life . It was very simple, they were used to take down the One Holy Apostolic Roman Catholic Church, period! France used to be the Daughter of the Church in that she had the most miracles coming from France and her priests. But, shit lets just murder any person that has found me out as a douche bag and brought me to justice and we will call it a day, an Bastille Day, were there were only 7 prisoners in jail at the time.
    Foolish creation wake up! Not all are HIS (GOD”S) children!!!

    • Don Calabrese -  July 2, 2014 - 7:00 am

      What you say may be true…just as what has been said in the past about Bastille Day. But we both know the victors get to write the epitaph. Usually the truth is somewhere in the middle.But when you spout archaic belief in miracles you lose credibility.

      • Michael Hale -  July 14, 2016 - 11:28 am

        HAPPYPUPPYDOG did not claim the miracles were true, but just used the historical belief that they were to explain the dynamics of the day. You don’t have to get everyone to believe everything as you do for him to have a valid point.

      • Eagle -  July 14, 2016 - 3:30 pm

        Actually, your non-belief in miracles is archaic. Don’t be so arrogant to think that because you haven’t seen any, they can’t exist. Stories abound of miracles breaking out in Arab countries and throughout Africa and China. In the centuries leading up to the Revolution, I can certainly believe puppydog’s assertions that miracles where more prevalent than after the revolution.

        • Rock -  July 27, 2016 - 4:33 am

          Well said Eagle.

  10. Conley35Mae -  December 6, 2011 - 3:53 am

    People all over the world get the credit loans from various banks, because that’s simple.

  11. Jersh -  July 15, 2010 - 4:29 pm

    It is interesting, the turn this thread took that is. It seems that on a micro level you can be a lot more creative with your ideas about how to run a society. As soon as we increase the number of people to millions or billions, all living in one place, taking into account that one’s actions have an affect on another, we have to realize that a perfect system is impossible. It is too complex for there to be a perfect answer where everyone gets what everyone wants. Yes, there are “winners” and “losers” with a democratic system, but that is the way it is. Absolute freedom for me does not equal absolute freedom for everyone else, we need to have a compromise. That compromise is what I believe democracy to be about.

  12. V -  July 15, 2010 - 9:26 am

    Does not pardoning anybody carrying the same offensive weight as not producing your birth certificate to accept a job position? Just wondering…

  13. Bill -  July 15, 2010 - 9:10 am

    So, Democracy, the rule by the majority is bad because it usurps the rights of the minority? Ok, so let’s rule by the vote of the minority.
    Whoever loses the vote wins, even if it’s 1000 to 1? Absurd, of course.
    So what’s left? No rules at all? No one in society has to obey anything? Mr. Clark has strange ideas, let alone that it’s not going to happen.

  14. Peter O'Connor -  July 15, 2010 - 9:10 am

    Bastille Day supports the ideal of the push for democracy as we now enjoy (!!) in the Western world.
    The Bastille itself was no longer a functioning prison when it was ‘stormed’. It held in face an Irish nobleman -kept there for his own safety as he was prone to overdoing the libations bit – without the need for any particular celebrations. – The Bastille was seen however as an easy target for the Nat. Guard to start on as well as being hugely symbolic.
    It’s also my Life-partner’s another reason to ‘raise a glass’ here at Glenribbeen Eco Lodge.
    All democratic republicans should indeed celebrate Bastille Day with or with the libations – I’d say with to honour the Irish ‘libator’ of the Bastille itself.

  15. hksche2000 -  July 15, 2010 - 8:50 am

    Steve Ruis is on the mark!
    No doubt, the french revolutionaries learnt a lot from their american predecessors. B. Franklin and especially Th. Jefferson spent much of their time in Paris and influenced french thinking as much as french ideas influenced them. But Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” is an american original, and it is America more than any other country that has been the beacon of freedom for the rest of the world. We the people have to guard this most precious but fragile endowment against constant attacks from without but also from within.

  16. JayBo -  July 15, 2010 - 8:20 am

    If I’m not mistaken, during the French revolution, there was a ranking member of the rebel leadership,a woman, remembered as particularly vicious, she also was nicknamed Madame Guillotine.

  17. Steve Ruis -  July 15, 2010 - 6:22 am

    “Keep in mind that this was the first popular revolt of its kind.” Huhn? Ever heard of the American Revolution (ca. 1776)?

  18. Johnny B -  July 15, 2010 - 6:18 am

    Can you possibly be suggesting that other forms of government are more free? Maybe you’d be honest enough to offer a suggestion or two.

    I kinda like our Republic.

  19. J Collins Meek PhD -  July 15, 2010 - 3:30 am

    I am grateful for this reminder article about the meaning of Bastille Day. The reader comments were particularly helpful as I am not a history buff and did not remember much of the detail. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. The reminder that democracy (rule by force of majority) can be just as violent and anti-equalitarian as oligarchy. – Doc Meek, July 15, 2010, at South Jordan, Utah, USA,

  20. Ba Vac -  July 14, 2010 - 11:47 pm

    Oh la` la! City-Zen ;-))

  21. bubba bob -  July 14, 2010 - 11:00 pm

    @ Quin Clarke re: Democracy is over rated. Curious commenary. Yet you offe

    @ Quinn Clarke: re: Democracy is over rated. -Curious comment, but only that.(Curious,that is) You offer no suggestions, only negative nonsense. I suggest that you have nothing TO suggest. Whatever it is you’ve been smoking, I suggest you stop.

  22. Jack -  July 14, 2010 - 9:11 pm

    I am a combat veteran of World War II, and I celebrated the first Bastille Day after the war on July 14, 1945 with the Parisians, dancing in the streets, imbibing and a lot of etcetara.

  23. HK -  July 14, 2010 - 8:55 pm

    The significance of the French revolution in the world’s history, is the fact that it is the world’s first ACTUAL revolution, as compared to earlier uprisings in history that were revolts by the poorer classes to re-establish the “good” old rule (still by a ruling class) of some years past. In the F.R however the poor classes radically did away with the upper-classes and took over ruling the nation by themselves, establishing a fully new form of government and re-writing virtually all laws. Even many accepted social customs were changed e.g. addressing eachother with “citoyen/citoyenne”(citizen) in stead of “monsieur/madame” (Mr/Mrs/Miss). This is what we today see as an actual revolution. When looking at revolutions that took place after the F.R. one will notice that all of these follow the pattern of the F.R. (out with the old and in with the new)and it is clear how large the influence of the F.R. has been on the world’s history.

  24. Quinn Clark -  July 14, 2010 - 7:47 pm

    Democracy is overrated. Ignore your knee-jerk reaction and think about it: Democracy is nothing more than Majoritarianism, which is all well and good if you’re a compliant automaton, always in the majority. But the more that is put to a majority vote, the more people with an opposing desire are denied the right to do as they please, a right that they should have as human beings so long as they don’t aggress against others. True democracy stands in opposition to freedom. Every democracy on Earth today sacrifices some for the desire of others. The history of democracy is one of continual usurpation of freedom as majority groups exercise force over powerless minorities.

  25. LKJ -  July 14, 2010 - 6:25 pm

    “Paris was rioting?” I’d avoid passive voice were I writing for a dictionary site.

  26. Susan -  July 14, 2010 - 5:45 pm

    I don’t think of Bastille Day as being celebrated only with drinking. I happened to be in Paris on Bastille Day one summer many years ago. Walking in the neighborhood of my hotel with my mother in the afternon, we were invited into a courtyard where people were celebrating. There were couples dancing around, grandmothers dancing with children, some food and drink, and a jovial spirit extended even to visiting Americans. I still have the small tin pin of the hat of a fireman (pompier) that was given to me. This event surely showed the other side of the stereotypically cool Parisians, or maybe it was an enclave of provincials who had managed to keep their hearts liberated.

  27. Geebee -  July 14, 2010 - 5:23 pm

    Releasing prisoners is a populist move that was practiced long before the French Revolution.

    The gospels tell us that the Roman governor had a custom like that. When Jesus was delivered up to be crucified, ‘a notable prisoner, by name Barabbas’ was released instead.

    (See Acts 3 v 13-15)

    The practise does despite to justice. I don’t blame any president for failing to honour the tradition.

  28. Abhi -  July 14, 2010 - 3:43 pm

    quoting from the RUSH song ‘Bastille Day’

    ..and they marched on to bastille day
    la guillotine will claim her bloody prize
    free the dungeons of the innocent
    the king must kneel, to let his kingdom rise

    Hail RUSH!

  29. BASTILLE | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  July 14, 2010 - 3:16 pm

    [...] one time we were in Paris, we drove around the monument where once was the voracious Bastille. — It look kinda sorta like a service shack with a golden statue on the top as we drove around [...]

  30. BS BLMS -  July 14, 2010 - 2:58 pm

    hi i like cheese

  31. Ranurgis -  July 14, 2010 - 2:44 pm

    Monsieur Guillotin probably refers to Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814), a French doctor who invented or at least promoted this new way of lopping off someone’s head. Before this, it was done by people and less humanely since not every aim was exact. La (fem) guillotine was named in his honor. Therefore, le peuple (non-nobility) of France jocularly called it Madame Guillotine, as in A Tale of Two Cities.

    P.S. I’m not sure how much M. Guillotin approved of the use “his” instrument’s use for killing the nobility. It was almost certainly first used for criminals. However, he did survive the Revolution.

    P.P.S.In French all nouns have genders: masculine or feminine.

  32. luke -  July 14, 2010 - 1:53 pm

    lawrencebugboy you’re right, it was. but it was a monsieur guillotin who invented the device that was later dubbed madame.

  33. SB_HB -  July 14, 2010 - 1:37 pm

    Hollow Bastille for French people in l’Sleeping Beauty!

  34. lawrencebugboy -  July 14, 2010 - 12:29 pm

    I thought that the major execution block was called Madame Guillotine, not Monsieur. A good book to read about Bastille day or the French Revolution is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.


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