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Let them eat cake! Learn the real stories behind the storming of the Bastille, the guillotine, and how Les Misérables ties into it all.

Host Justin Dodd (@juddtoday) breaks down some common myths and misconceptions about the French Revolution.

After seeing the 2012 film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables in theaters, historian Julia Gossard caught a snippet of some other viewers’ conversation. “So, that was the French Revolution?” one woman asked. “And it was unsuccessful?” Whether or not the French Revolution was “unsuccessful” is debatable.

But the first half of the question has a good old-fashioned yes-or-no answer: It's... No, Les Misérables is not “the French Revolution.” And I don’t just mean it doesn’t cover the whole revolution or something—it’s literally set during a different French uprising.

Hi, I’m Justin Dodd, and that one movie-goer is far from the only person to make that mistake. In fact, there are quite a few French Revolution myths floating around, from who invented the guillotine to what that Bastille-storming business was really about. Slap a tricolor cockade on your lapel and let’s get started.

OK, so maybe if you’ve read Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, you already knew this was false. But the musical doesn’t spell out the historical context of its source material all that clearly. There’s some talk of bread, a violent citizen uprising against the French government, and a very strong poor-versus-rich theme throughout.

It seems very French Revolution-y. Here’s what was actually going on. Though the revolution’s start and end dates aren’t exactly set in stone, it’s generally agreed that it kicked off in the late 1780s.

That’s when bad harvests and a major debt crisis caused people to question the country’s traditional socioeconomic structure and the Bourbon monarchy. The upheaval lasted until Napoleon Bonaparte took charge towards the end of 1799. When Jean Valjean gets out of prison at the beginning of Les Misérables, it’s already 1815.

And the story’s major conflict centers on 1832’s June Rebellion, also known as the Paris Uprising of 1832. Victor Hugo was even there to witness part of it. Basically, the monarchy had been restored when Napoleon was ousted some years earlier, and in 1832, Louis-Philippe was on the throne.

He was a reasonably liberal ruler and most members of the bourgeoisie were fans, but he had plenty of opponents. Republicans were upset that there was a monarch on the throne at all, while Bonapartists were upset that the monarch wasn’t, ya know, a Bonaparte. Some argued that Louis-Philippe wasn’t the legitimate monarch.

There was also a host of issues creating upheaval in the country, many disproportionately affecting the lower classes. This included a cholera epidemic which eventually claimed the life of popular republican hero General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. It was at Lamarque’s funeral procession that thousands of Parisians built barricades and staged a rebellion.

One eyewitness wrote, “Paris is at the moment the scene of dreadful carnage. The people have risen everywhere, and are fighting with the troops in almost every street. From all sides I hear firing going on, and, so far as I have seen, the people are getting the better of the troops.

There is every appearance that we are on the evening of a new revolution.” If you’ve watched or read Les Misérables, you probably know that the people did not end up getting the better of the troops. The military quelled the riots within about 24 hours, and roughly 800 rebels either died or were wounded. The French monarchy survived unscathed.

But while the June Rebellion wasn’t technically part of the French Revolution, it definitely embodied some of that same revolutionary spirit. So, no, Les Misérables is not the quintessential “French Revolution” story. But you could say it’s a quintessential French revolution story—lowercase r.

Misconception: Rebels stormed the Bastille to free political prisoners. The storming of the Bastille, on the other hand, arguably is the quintessential French Revolution story—though certain important details tend to get lost in the storm. For one, the Bastille wasn’t the torture fortress you might be picturing.

It was definitely a fortress: eight 100-foot-tall towers with a roughly 80-foot-wide moat. Sadly, no alligators in the moats as far as my research revealed, but still very fortress-like. Charles V had ordered its construction back in 1370, and it had turned into a famed prison.

But the Bastille usually only housed about 40 prisoners at a time, mainly well-off citizens who stayed in relative comfort. Inmates could bring furniture, pets, their whole private library, even servants. Some prisoners had been sent to the Bastille by their own families.

The king of France could commit someone to prison by issuing an executive order called a lettre de cachet. No defense, no trial, just straight to prison. Essentially, the real-life version of Monopoly’s “Go directly to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.” If you were a French family with a wayward relative bringing shame upon the family name, you could have the king deal them a “Go to Jail” card.

That’s how infamous libertine the Marquis de Sade ended up in prison, including a spell at the Bastille. There, he decorated his room with tapestries, shipped in his own wine, and passed the time penning 120 Days of Sodom. The Marquis was actually moved to another institution mere days before Bastille Day.

When the fortress was stormed on July 14, 1789, there were only seven inmates. One was a wayward relative sent by his family, four were serving time for forgery, and two had been committed due to insanity—not the political prisoners you might have imagined. But if the goal wasn’t to free prisoners, why attack a prison?

The real reason, according to most historians, was for ammunition. At the time, it was clear to everyone that France was in serious debt, in part because they had just helped the U. S. win the American Revolution.

Merci for that one, guys. Back in France, it was the already worse-off citizens who were suffering from the fallout of that financial crisis. Inflation, food shortages, and so on.

Two months before the attack on the Bastille, King Louis XVI had convened the Estates-General to figure out a game plan. There were three estates: The First was clergy; the Second was nobility; and the Third comprised everyone else—which mostly consisted of the bourgeoisie and peasants. The Third Estate was raring for serious reform, and its members were worried that the more conservative elements of France would try to tamp them down.

Those worries escalated in July, when Louis XVI fired Jacques Necker, a finance minister who had enjoyed the Third Estate’s support. That, combined with the fact that troops had moved into positions surrounding Paris, made Third Estate members think the king was plotting against them. So on July 14, about 2000 people raided Paris’s Hôtel des Invalides for weapons and then marched to the Bastille to seize its ammunition.

Guards tried to resist, but the Bastille’s governor, Bernard-René de Launay, finally gave in. It didn’t turn out great for Launay—he was beaten badly, and when he kicked someone in the crotch, the mob cut his head off and paraded it around town. So, like I said, not great.

It didn’t take long for the storming of the Bastille to take on an almost mythic significance. Revolutionaries considered the fortress a symbol of monarchical overreach and oppression, and they slowly tore it down over the coming months. As for all those torture rumors, revolutionaries propagated those, too.

As Simon Schama wrote in his 1989 book Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, “Ancient pieces of armor were declared to be fiendish ‘iron corsets’ applied to constrict the victim and a toothed machine that was part of a printing press was said to be a wheel of torture. … Countless prints … supplied suitably horrible imagery, featuring standing skeletons, instruments of torture and men in iron masks.” Yes, the Bastille was a prison, and some inmates were treated better than others. But reports of actual torture were, to use the technical phrase, a bunch of baloney. It’s generally assumed that the guillotine was named after some guy named “Guillotine.” This is true: His full name was Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, and he was a French physician.

But versions of the guillotine had been used around the world for centuries before it became known as “the guillotine.” Scotland had the Maiden from the mid 1500s to the early 1700s; Germany had the planke in the Middle Ages; and Italy had the mannaia during the Renaissance. England’s Halifax Jibbet was older than all three. Heck, France itself is believed to have used a guillotine-like machine before the 18th century.

Not only did Joseph-Ignace Guillotin not invent guillotines, he didn’t even design the ones used during the French Revolution. All he really did was suggest that France standardize executions. Like most other parts of life during the Ancien Régime, your execution method depended on your socioeconomic status.

High-class folks usually got beheaded, while most other criminals were hanged. Beheadings were viewed as the more ‘honorable’ method of execution, and were quicker and less painful—that is, if your executioner did a good job. But a lot can go wrong when it comes to lopping off a head with an axe or sword.

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was against the death penalty altogether, but apparently he realized that France was nowhere near being ready to give it up. So, in 1789, he proposed that France use an official decapitation contraption to make all executions as humane as humanly possible. “With my machine,” he explained, “I strike off your head in the twinkling of an eye and you won’t feel a thing.” Cute. As for what that machine would look like, he didn’t offer up any diagrams.

And the National Assembly wasn’t exactly clamoring for details—Guillotin wasn’t a very well-respected physician. One contemporary described him as “a nobody who made himself a busybody.” By the fall of 1791, however, decapitation was made official and the number of death sentences was rapidly climbing, and Guillotin’s call for an equitable, efficient means of execution suddenly seemed like a worthy idea. An engineer named Antoine Louis designed the machine, and another guy named Tobias Schmidt constructed it.

Much to the horror of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, nobody forgot about his early involvement, and everyone started calling the machine “the guillotine.” After he died in 1814, his family members petitioned the government to formally pick a different name for it. When they didn’t, the Guillotins picked a different last name for themselves. As legend would have it, Marie Antoinette was informed that French peasants had no bread—their main food source—and she responded with “Let them eat cake.” In other words: “I am so out of touch up here in my big castle with my big wigs and big feasts that I don’t understand the problem.

No bread, peasants? Eat something else!” Just for pedantry’s sake, the sentence in French is “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” which literally means “Let them eat brioche.” Brioche is a rich, buttery bread that’s way more extravagant than what poor peasants would’ve been eating—it’s not exactly cake, but it doesn’t really change the supposed sentiment. But the correct French phrasing does shed a little light on how it got popularized.

The earliest known record of “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” comes from philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, penned in the 1760s. In Book Six, he wrote, translated from

French: “At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, ‘Then let them eat brioche!’” Marie Antoinette didn’t even move to France and marry the future king until 1770, so it’s safe to assume that she’s not the “great princess” Rousseau mentioned. It could’ve been Maria Theresa of Spain, who married Louis XIV a century earlier. She supposedly suggested that instead of bread, starving subjects should just eat croûte de pâté, which is essentially pie crust. Two of Louis XVI’s aunts, Madames Sophie and Victoire, have also been credited with “Let them eat brioche.” This type of comment isn’t confined to France, either.

A 16th-century German story, for example, has a wealthy woman asking why impoverished people don’t eat a sweet bread called krosem. In short, really rich people have a long history of being unmoved by the plight of the poor. But how unfeeling and/or oblivious was Marie Antoinette?

Maybe less than you think, according to biographer Antonia Fraser. Around the time of the Flour War in 1775, when bread shortages caused a wave of riots, the queen wrote home to her mother: “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.” Marie Antoinette was known to avoid riding through the fields because she knew it would damage the peasants’ crops, and she once asked her husband for 12,000 francs in order to free poor people who were in debtors’ jail for failing to pay for their children’s wet-nurses, and even more to help the poor of Versailles. Would those small acts of sympathy save her from Madame Guillotine?

Absolutely not. She was convicted of treason and beheaded on October 16, 1793. Thanks for watching Misconceptions, make sure to subscribe to Mental Floss so you can learn everything you’ve gotten wrong about everything.

New videos on our channel every week. Comment your favorite Les Mis song down below, and I’ll see ya next time.