Bastille Day and Its Symbols

Bastille Day is the official French national holiday. The national holiday is celebrated annually on the 14th of July to commemorate the storming of the Bastille Fortress in Paris that took place the same day in 1789. The Bastille Fortress at the time served as a prison for citizens that received arbitrary royal indictments that could not be appealed and did not indicate the reason for the imprisonment. Having served as a royal prison for this purpose since the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th century, the fortress had become a symbol of monarchical oppression.

On the 14th of July, 1789, large mobs began laying siege to the Hotel des Invalides (the military hospital in Paris) in order to obtain arms. Shortly after, the crowd moved on to the Bastille to liberate prisoners and seize the fortress's ammunition and gunpowder supply in order to arm the populace. Up until that date, the French citizenry had increasingly become afraid of an attack on them by royal troops to suppress their outrage towards a series of abuses relating to taxes, starvation, and lack of representation. After an initial loss of 200 attacking citizens, the mob was joined by mutinous Gardes Françaises or “French Guards”, a municipal police force in charge of protecting public buildings. The fortress soon after surrendered.

Contrary to the vast numbers believed to be held in the Bastille, only seven people were freed after the siege. Events following the siege of the Bastille fortress lead to abolition of feudalism and the proclamation of the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on August 26th, 1789. The following year, the new republican government enacted the Fête de la Fédération (a precursor to the current holiday) as their new national holiday to commemorate the event.

Much like the Bastille itself, symbols throughout France were incorporated into the festivities. Supporters of the new republican government began wearing a Bonnet Rouge, or red cap with tricolor cockades and the rooster became a national mascot.

The Bonnet Rouge was a symbol taken from the headgear of ancient roman slaves who would have been presented with a similar cap as an emblematic gift when granted their freedom. Representing not only personal liberty, the cap also stood for the freedom of citizens and the right to vote. The Bonnet Rouge on a spear was proposed as a component of the national seal on 22 September 1792 and in 1793 the cap became the symbolic “hairstyle” of Parisians, becoming a rallying point and a way to mock the elaborate wigs of the aristocrats who represented the Noble Estate, and the red caps of the bishops who represented the Ecclesiastical Estate.

The tricolor and its associated cockade, or badge, were introduced just a day before the storming of the Bastille as a distinctive badge to be given to the citizen militia. The newly introduced badge took the form of a two-colored cockades, or circles of folded ribbon, in the ancient colors of Paris, blue and red. It would appear that the Marquis de Lafayette, former French commander during the American Revolution, added a white band representing loyalty to the sovereign on the 17th of July when Louis XVI met with the newly formed National Guard. In 1792, the Assembly adopted the tricolor cockade as the official symbol of the revolution, with the three colors said to represent the three estates of French society: the clergy (blue), the nobility (white) and the third estate (red). The use of the three colors spread, and a law in 1794 made them the colors of the French national flag.

The Gallic rooster as a symbol of the French people was not an official one, but its roots went back to the Middle Ages. Originally a play on words in Latin, the Latin word Gallus meaning inhabitant of Gaul (the ancestral lands of the French) was very similar to the word gallus meaning rooster in Latin. During the French Revolution, the Gallic rooster saw a revival in use due to its association with pre-christian France. French history until then had been associated with the first French Christian king Clovis in 496. The new republican government therefore began using the rooster as a way to disassociate with the monarchy and re-associate their new regime with classical civilization such as the Gallo-Romans, consequently the Romans themselves. As an interesting point of fact, cathedrals and churches in France began placing rooster weather vanes atop their steeples as a means to reconnect the French with the Christian faith, since many had rejected it due to its close ties to the monarchy. This symbolic peace offering can still be seen on churches in France today.


Harrison Hunt
Harrison Hunt


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