A History Lesson On Bastille Day
The recent repetitive restoring of the Bastille was duly noted here in Maine. We held our usual observance with appropriate patriotic remarks and our traditional evening feast of knockwurst, hot German potato salad, pumpernickel, and sauerkraut topped off with a Black Forest chocolate cake.
Bastille Day is a favorite here, because it is the best example of how history, or perhaps historians, have abused the facts to create emotional excuses for the populace to rally to political, and other, purposes of the moment.
For one thing, there was no need whatever to storm the Bastille. It was obsolete, and its history was tarnished. The days of Richelieu were long gone. So when the mob stormed the fort and the Revolutionary government of Paris razed it, it was to carry out an emotional pitch that King Louis XVI had already arranged for in a peaceful manner.
He had set aside funds to demolish the Bastille by a contractor and to restyle the area in an urban renewal project well ahead of its environmental time.
The contractor, cheated of his job, was able to salvage chips of the Bastille masonry, and at a few sous apiece he gained a great fortune offering them at the flea markets of the time. He gave a free Bastille stone to the city hall of every town in France, to advertise this opportunity. When the United States Frigate Constitution was rebuilt at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in 1925, the same was done with chips of the ``original'' wood, and I have such a chip from the keel.
History affirms that not only the wood from Old Ironsides, but also some 800,000 board feet of new lumber, fresh from Maine sawmills, aided this project, which made a great number of shipwrights rich.
So the Bastille was stormed, and then the fairy tales came into style. Instead of liberating great throngs of political prisoners from the terror dungeons of the Bastille, the crowd actually led forth just seven men, two of whom were convicted counterfeiters who had been lawfully sentenced after appropriate court action, and who disappeared at once into the crowd and kept on going.
Others had been lodged there by their families for ``good care'' and would have them simply moved to a hotel. The one with the long-haired Santy Claus whiskers was cheered by the populace and gave Charles Dickens something to write home about. He was not a man of high intellect and was in the Bastille accordingly.
So, the French Revolution began. Every year on the 14th of July, we honor the moment with our faintly French connections. In that connection, I'd like to mention that in the Province of Quebec, there is a town on the highway from Woburn to Lennoxville by the name of La Patrie. It is a small community, and its only school is on the principal street, so in passing the traffic goes by the front door.
One afternoon as we were on our way to visit friends in Sherbrooke, we came along just as the two teachers were shepherding the scholars from the building into the school buses. Each child had the customary Quebec schoolbag of the Province, and in orderly manner obeyed the teachers step by step. The children were singing:
Allons enfants de La Patrie.
Perhaps I should add that today there is no particular reason for youngsters in Quebec to be aware of Mother France, and that La Marseillaise was written maybe 400 years after the earliest colons came to settle New France.
Bastille Day, accordingly, has no special significance along the St. Lawrence River, or here in Maine where a good third of our people are descended from French-speaking Canadians.
While considering our French connection, we ought to dwell a moment on the romances of les filles du roy, which is a yarn fully as good as that of Evangeline, and I rate it better.
The first settlers of Canada were young men recruited to take up land explored by Champlain and others in France's dream of an empire.
This was well ahead of our Pilgrims and southern colonels. These chaps, to become the ``Coureurs de bois'' of Canadian fame, were celibate and remained so for several years.
Then the king, who was interested in extended France, began recruiting young ladies to send to America. These, about to become the mothers of Canada, were called the girls of the king, les filles du roi.
Their arrival by vessel after vessel was eagerly anticipated, and arrangements were made for special nuptial masses to accommodate the situation. Each young lady received a dot of 50 from the king, and each shipload of brides was decently chaperoned by elderly companions.
It was a most practical solution. There are adequate records of how things worked out.
The priests must not marry young men under 16 or young ladies under 14. We are told most marriages took place soon after the ships arrived.
On the Isle of Orleans the parish priest saw a ship coming up the St. Lawrence, and surmising what she bore, he rang the church bell so the gentlemen were on the pier when the gangplank was positioned.
As les filles du roi disembarked, they were taken in hand and two-by-two the couples marched to the church, where a single nuptial mass took care of 150 weddings. Bastille Day? Vive la France!