Desire, Dread, and the Grateful Dead: The Bastille, its Cadavers, and the Revolutionary Gothic Imaginary

By Nicole Bauer

In the summer of 1790, a year after the storming of the Bastille, the French press reported that so many cadavers were being found in the ruins of the fortress that the accumulation of remains was beginning to get in the way of demolition work. Workers were being bribed by curious onlookers, eager for a glimpse of the long-hidden victims of the despotism of the royal regime. It became such a problem that officials intervened and forbade the practice of paying workers to see skeletons. Eventually, the workers pooled their profits, donated them to a charity organization, and the corpses were collected and given a funeral. 

The event turned into a grand and solemn ceremony, including a formal march comprised of officials from the committee in charge of the demolition, several clergymen, over eight hundred demolition workers, and a detachment of the National Guard. Speeches were given to commemorate the dead—deemed victims of tyranny—who had been killed in secret but were now finally honored in public. 

The horror and fascination that produced this strange and macabre ceremony had deep roots. By the time of the French Revolution, the Bastille had become a hated symbol. By eighteenth-century standards, though, it was a relatively comfortable prison where inmates were not badly treated. Yet literature on the prison flourished in the decades leading up to the Revolution. What placed the Bastille in a class apart from the other prisons of the city was the secrecy that surrounded it. Prisoners who were arrested for crimes such as theft and even murder, and processed through the ordinary channels of justice were sent to the police headquarters, the Chatêlet, or sometimes the madhouse, Bicêtre. Prisoners arrested because of lettres de cachet, secret orders for imprisonment that the king could use at any time, on the other hand, were often the black sheep in a family looking to safeguard its honor, or those under suspicion whom the police wanted to interrogate at length, and they were sent to the Bastille. Towards the end of the reign of Louis XIV, the chief of police gained permission to have permanent access to the Bastille and to place a commissioner there for interrogations; it soon became the location of the closely guarded police archives. The Bastille was independent of the cours de justice where magistrates handed down public sentences, and with lettres de cachet imprisonment was indefinite, and arrests were kept quiet.[1] The fortress was therefore a place deliberately shrouded in mystery. Both inmates and turnkeys were sworn to secrecy since the police believed that enforced silence helped them keep control over an investigation, helped preserve the honor of families who hoped to suppress the merest breath of scandal, and served as an instrument of intimidation. 

Because of this secrecy and because of the Bastille’s use as a deterrent for vociferous dissidents, many of those who had been imprisoned there published memoirs of the abuses they suffered. These memoirs usually exaggerated the horrors of the Bastille to conform to their target audience’s negative views of the French regime. One example are the famous memoirs of Constantin de Renneville, written early in the eighteenth century, that more or less established the so-called “Black Legend” of the Bastille with graphic descriptions of torture.[2] By century’s end, the trickle of Bastille literature had become a flood, and famous figures like the Comte de Mirabeau, the lawyer Simon Linguet, and the fraudster and escape artist, the Chevalier de Latude, not to mention Voltaire, had all written poems, manifestos or memoirs decrying government abuses in prisons, especially the Bastille. Inspired by Enlightenment principles, they believed that the government’s institutionalized secrecy left it prone to corruption and to committing abuses.

Some historians of the Bastille have studied the prison as a symbol of the struggle against despotism and oppression. These and other scholars like Héloïse Bocher and Monique Cottret focus less on discovering the reality of circumstances for prisoners and the validity of revolutionaries’ claims about its horrors, and more on its lasting legacy and how it came to be appropriated and shaped as the symbol par excellence of tyranny to be overthrown.[3] Others like Vincent Denis take interest in the psychological effects of imprisonment as well as the changing relationship between the state and the individual, particularly how the state’s increasing use of control and surveillance helped shape modern identity.[4]

But there was such an outpouring of tracts, pamphlets, and stories on the Bastille (the legend of the man in the iron mask was a particular favorite) that their popularity cannot be explained merely as a patriotic, enlightened revulsion to government abuses committed in secret. Stories of abuse and injustice certainly help foster revolutions, but these Bastille stories also had a remarkable similarity to Gothic literature, a genre that was thriving at the same time. Though transparency had come to be heralded as a safeguard against future abuses and even as a mark of honesty and probity, and secrecy demonized more and more, the Gothic elements of literature on the Bastille reveal an attraction to something that came to be repressed and rejected in the new culture of transparency: secrets, things veiled or hidden, mysteries and the unknown.

The prison served as a symbol of despotism to reinforce the revolution’s political goals, of course. But in the collective imagination the Bastille was also a site of forbidden secrets, mysteries, and even wonder like the fictional castles and ruins of Gothic literature. The reason it lived on in literature and memory well after the turbulent years at the end of the eighteenth century was not only due to its importance as an icon of revolution, but also its ability, like the Gothic, to feed a hunger for mysteries, and perhaps a desire or attraction to secrecy that had come to be repressed. 

For an excellent example of the commingling of desire and dread in the Gothic, consider one of the genre’s most famous works, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)The meat of the novel is its vaguely terrifying descriptions of the castle where the heroine, Emily, is forced to live. The castle is full of the typically Gothic dark staircases, empty, echoing halls, and long dimly-lit corridors filled with mysteriously veiled portraits, hidden niches, enclaves, and many, many closed doors behind which wait horrors that the heroine (though prone to fainting) is too curious to ignore. One of the hallmarks of the Gothic is that the story presents one mystery or several, and often dark secrets as well, that the reader has to patiently work to unfold throughout the course of the narrative.[5] In Udolpho, Radcliffe creates an atmosphere of terror, mystery, and looming danger. Emily comes into a dim room where she finds:

no furniture, except, indeed, an iron chair, fastened in the center of the chamber, immediately over which, depending on a chain from the ceiling, hung an iron ring. Having gazed upon these, for some time, with wonder and horror, … An acute pain seized her head, she was scarcely able to hold the lamp, and, looking round for support, was seating herself, unconsciously, in the iron chair itself; but suddenly perceiving where she was, she started from it in horror.[6]

The horror or terror is never so much that the protagonist shrinks from uncovering what lies hidden, or from solving the mysteries of a given castle or family. Dread is always accompanied by desire, and horror with wonder, in Emily’s searches throughout the castle. Radcliffe’s Emily was unable to resist coming closer to scrutinize that chair and the mysterious iron ring above it, even going so far as to sit in it herself.

Similarly, those who had most likely read of the Bastille’s terrors came in droves during its demolition to have a closer look. Although it was forbidden for ordinary citizens to enter the work site, people often bribed workers for artifacts they had supposedly found, and for tours of the ruins. Many tried and in fact did spend the night there in order to experience the terror, so they hoped, felt by prisoners of bygone days. Héloïse Bocher described this practice as a kind of “emotional tourism” where those who had crept into the Bastille demolition site at night were lured there by the terror and fascination that always surrounded ruins in the eighteenth century.[7] Furthermore, authors of pamphlets and books on the Bastille seemed to delight in mentioning what they referred to as death- or torture-machines. In an introduction to one such pamphlet, the author mentioned the unlawful deaths of prisoners who were victims of the “infernal machines forged in the boutique of Satan which were used to promptly and secretly do away with the unfortunate citizen who dared to hinder the pleasures of a libertine minister or a dissipated grand.[8] Emmanuel Brosselard, President of the District of Minimes, published a poem in 1790 to commemorate the first anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, referring to the fortress as a palace of vengeance, a dark abyss, and a monster that smiled at the torments of its victims.[9] Some also published what they found, or claimed to have found, in the bowels of the Bastille. Révolutions de Parisa popular newspaper begun in 1789, published descriptions of mysterious ledgers and lists of prisoners that were found in the fortress, containing all sorts of information that would hopefully shed light on the “dark details of history.”[10] Another edition of the newspaper published the inscriptions that supposedly had been carved into the walls of the Bastille’s dungeons.[11] One journalist made sure to add that, along with the inscriptions, horrifying “death machines” had been found, as yet “unknown to man.”[12] Just as the love of liberty could never exhaust itself, neither could, so it seemed, the need for stories of cadavers and dungeons.  

Secrecy came to be demonized, but it also brought on a new fascination. Beneath the putative horror of grisly tales and long-hidden secrets lay the hunger for them. 

Nicole Bauer is Assistant Professor of European History at the University of Tulsa. She specializes in the cultural history of early modern France and the French Revolution. Her new book is Tracing the Shadow of Secrecy and Government Transparency in Eighteenth-Century France.

You can find her on twitter: @NBauerHistory

This essay is adapted from Tracing the Shadow of Secrecy and Government Transparency in Eighteenth-Century France (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).


[1] Vincent Denis, “La Police de Paris et la Bastille au XVIIIème siècle” La Bastille, ou L’enfer des vivants: à travers les archives de la Bastille, ed. Elise Dutray-Lecoin and Danielle Muzerelle (Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2010), 37.

[2] See Constantin de Renneville, Souvenirs d’un prisonnier de la Bastille, ed. Albert Savine (Paris: R. Castells Éditions, 1998).

[3] See Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink and Rolf Reichardt, The Bastille: a history of a symbol of despotism and freedom, trans. Norbert Schürer (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1997); Monique Cottret, La Bastille à prendre: histoire et mythe de la forteresse royale (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1986), and Héloïse Bocher, Démolir la Bastille: l’édification d’un lieu de mémoire (Paris: Vendémiaire, 2012).

[4] Vincent Denis, Une histoire de l’identité: France, 1715-1815 (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2008).

[5] Markman Ellis, The History of the Gothic (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2000), 50.

[6] Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Vol. III (Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1999), 20-2.

[7] Héloïse Bocher, Démolir la Bastille: l’édification d’un lieu de mémoire (Paris: Vendémiaire, 2012), 121.

[8] Recueil fidèle de plusieurs manuscrits trouvés à la Bastille (Paris: Girardon, 1789), 10.

[9] Emmanuel Brosselard, “Stances pour l’anniversaire de la prise de la Bastille,” Recueil de pièces intéressantes sur la Bastille (Paris: J.B. Hérault, 1790), vii.

[10] Révolutions de Paris (18-25 July 1789), 11.

[11] Révolutions de Paris (2-8 August 1789), 31.

[12] Révolutions de Paris (12-17 July 1789), 15.

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