The storming of the Bastille as recorded in medals
The storming of the Bastille in Paris on 14 July 1789 was the high point of several months of conflict between the French monarchy and the Etats Généraux, an assembly formed to find a solution to the fiscal deficit of the French government.
Louis XVI had called together, for the first time in almost two centuries, the three bodies of French society (nobility, church and third estate) to debate how to raise taxes to cover the fiscal gap and growing government debt.
The conflict which rapidly developed between the Assembly and the Crown convinced the King, under the influence of the reactionary faction of the Court, to concentrate in and around Paris a large number of troops, largely composed of foreign mercenaries (German and Swiss) to suppress the requests for more freedom and powers to the National Assembly. The dismissal of the reforming finance minister Necker by Louis XVI on July 11 convinced the Parisian that a coup d'état was taking place and that heavy repression of patriots was imminent. A charge of the Royal German cavalry against supporters of Necker in the gardens of the Tuileries further enraged the population. Improvised pikes were forged by blacksmiths and the people rushed to arm themselves by raiding the military institution of the Hotel des Invalides to take several thousand rifles. The rank and file of French troops refused to obey orders by the officers' corps to repress the disorders. The next stage in arming the citizens was to look for gunpowder, some of which had been stored at the Bastille.
The attack, after several hours of fruitless negotiations with the governor of the Bastille, led to the fall of this old fashioned fortress, with enormous political consequences. The King, his cabinet and entourage realized they could neither control the population nor command the loyalty of French troops. Louis XVI recalled Necker, withdrew the troops from Paris and conceded to the authority of the National Assembly, and to the appointment of its leader Bailly as first mayor of Paris and of the Marquis de la Fayette as head of the National Guard.
The immense consequences of the day, understood by contemporaries as the first step in the conquest of freedom, were not immediately visible in monetary terms: it took several months before the introduction of the assignats, more than two years for a first reform of the coinage and six years before the Convention nationale created the Franc Germinal. The immediate echo of the day was, however, visible in a flourish of medals, whose initiative escaped regal monopoly as fast as the Parisian troops had stopped obeying orders.
The quality of those medals fluctuated wildly, from the refined masterpieces of well-established professionals, to the poor realizations of anonymous engravers.
We have illustrated this article with the very popular medal by Bertrand Andrieu, which shows the peak of the fighting, when the citizens of Paris were shooting with rifles and cannons against the fortress, aided by deserters from several army units. The gate had been forced and the population was entering a first courtyard. The garrison of invalids and of Swiss guards shot back from the top killing close to a hundred people. The medal celebrated the courage of the citizens at arms in the conquest of their freedom.
Another medal in lead (anonymous) showed the arrival of the reinforcement of French Guards, bringing more cannons and military expertise to the besiegers, for the "glory of the free French nation". This crude and cheap medal in lead was distributed immediately after the fact and not several months later, as with the more artistic piece by Andrieu, which however enjoyed a long lasting popularity and was reissued frequently.
A detail of a third medal shows the surrender of the Governor of the Bastille, Delaunay, who was massacred in the streets a few minutes later, his head paraded through the streets of Paris on top of a pike. Like his colleagues the engraver chose to represent the triumph of the people, but not its excesses.
A later medal by Andrieu showed a festive and pacified crowd welcoming the return of Louis XVI and his family in Paris in October, while his carriage crossed the Place Louis XV. The square was later renamed Place de la Revolution and both Louis and Marie Antoinette were guillotined there in 1793, and new medals recorded the ordeal. After further renaming the square is now known as Place de la Concorde.
A special mention must be given to a construction entrepreneur, Pierre Francois Palloy, who on the evening of 14 July 1789 took the private initiative to bring several hundred workers from his construction sites and started on his own account the demolition of the hated symbol of tyranny. Only a few days later he sought the endorsement of the City Council for the demolition of the Bastille and obtained it, gaining a central role in the creation of the myth and the celebration of the achievement. The "patriote Palloy", as he started calling himself, made the demolition of the Bastille the largest building site in Paris, with close to a thousand workers a day for two years. In the process Palloy ruined his business but created a wide array of symbols, celebrations and objects as an inspiration in the struggle for liberty through what would be styled today as souvenirs (normally donated and not for sale).
Several stones of the castle were sculpted into small-scale models of the Bastille and were sent to all the departments, at Palloy's expenses. Medals were coined out of the various types of metal recycled from the Bastille. Forty-seven dies were counted by the collector Gille Michaud. The total production was limited because they were sent by Palloy as gifts to authorities and others who had deserved them through their patriotic and civic achievements.
Here we present a medal by Palloy (Branche was the engraver) carrying a seated personification of the city of Paris, holding a flag with a rooster surrounded by fleur de lys and surmounted by a cap of liberty, with a shield bearing the crest of the city of Paris. On the right is represented the Bastille being demolished, on the left some tents. Below the iconography is completed with the broken chains of despotism, military trophies, fasces as symbols of unity, and the words "For the glory of the French Nation - era of liberty". The new symbols of the revolution are here consolidated and united with the classical military symbols of the old aristocracy, coinciding with a period of appeasement of the revolution, before the new crises of 1791-94.
The last medal presented here might have been used to grant access to the demolition site or to promote it. It is in gilded bronze, in concave relief, with two lateral holes and the traces of a missing element for suspension. It shows the burning fortress, with the ditches partially filled with material from the early demolition efforts, and troops marching around it, surrounded by the date of the storming and the caption "démolition de la Bastille".
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
firstname.lastname@example.org | Tel. +44 (0)1223 331197
© 2021 Centre for History and Economics