Bastille Days: Feasting and Fasting in a French Prison

July 14 is La Fête Nationale (The National Celebration), or Bastille Day.

Louis XIV, known for his opulent meals at Versailles, didn’t stint when it came to feeding his prisoners in the Bastille.

Depending upon rank, the kings of France spent a certain amount of money each day to feed the people incarcerated in the medieval fortress near the center of Paris. Some prisoners actually enjoyed doing time in the Bastille.

Of course, it was all about the food. Three squares and then some every day, not a bad deal when you think about it, especially if you could bring your furniture from home and a servant or two to wait on you hand and foot.

Generally the king allocated the following amounts for the prisoners, according to their social and economic class:

five livres for the maintenance of a tradesman; ten livres for a banker, a magistrate, or a man of letters; fifteen livres for a judge of the Parlement; thirty-six livres for a marshal of France. The Cardinal de Rohan [who basically brought down Louis XVI] had 120 francs a day spent on him. The Prince de Courlande, during a stay of five months at the Bastille, spent 22,000 francs. 

Cardinal de Rohan

Regular menus included a fairly standard menu:

On other [non-fast] days: breakfast; a plate of soup av-gras; (made with meat); a slice of boulli; (the beef from which the soup is made,) and one entrie: dinner; a plate of roast meat, a ragout, and a salad; this, with one pound of bread, and a bottle of wine per diem formed the almost unvarying diet of the prisoners. It is, however, necessary to state, that, besides the above, there was another meal, called the first breakfast, (premier dejeuner) which generally consisted of a plate of lentils, or some kind of farinaceous vegetable, dressed with butter or oil. Properly speaking, there were but two regular meals a day, viz: the second breakfast, (second dejeuner) and the dinner; the former served at eleven o’clock, and the latter at five in the day; the first breakfast, was sent in at seven in the morning.

Fast days required a stricter diet than usual:

On fast-days, Wednesdays and Fridays:—breakfast; consisting of a plate of meagre soup, one of fish, and two entrees: dinner, a plate of meagre soup, one of eggs and one of vegetables.

A certain prisoner named Renneville, doing time during the reign of Louis XIV, wrote:

The turnkey put one of my serviettes on the table and placed my dinner on it, which consisted of pea soup garnished with lettuce, well simmered and appetizing to look at, with a quarter of fowl to follow; in one dish there was a juicy beef-steak, with plenty of gravy and a sprinkling of parsley, in another a quarter of forcemeat pie well stuffed with sweetbreads, cock’s combs, asparagus, mushrooms, and truffles; and in a third a ragout of sheep’s tongue, the whole excellently cooked; for dessert, a biscuit and two pippins. The turnkey insisted on pouring out my wine. This was good burgundy, and the bread was excellent. I asked him to drink, but he declared it was not permitted. I asked if I should pay for my food, or whether I was indebted to the king for it. He told me that I had only to ask freely for whatever would give me pleasure, that they would try to satisfy me, and that His Majesty paid for it all.

Accounts of imprisonment generally all confirm that the prisoners did not complain about the victuals. Even when his daily food stipend dipped to 10 livres a day, Renneville praised the food:

They much reduced my usual fare. I had, however, a good soup with fried bread crumbs, a passable piece of beef, a ragout of sheep’s tongue, and two custards for dessert. I was treated in pretty much the same manner the whole time I was in this gloomy place; sometimes they gave me, after my soup, a wing or leg of fowl, sometimes they put two little patties on the edge of the dish.

The bread-and-water diet rarely appeared, except in cases of extreme punishment.

The Bastille,  symbol of French royal power, only held seven prisoners when crowds stormed it on July 14, 1789. Demolition began the very next day. By November 1789, little remained of the Bastille. Builders used many of the stones to finish the Pont de la Concorde.

Parts of the Bastille today

Lettuce and Pea Soup
Gourmet magazine / May 2000

This recipe makes great use of the tough outer leaves of romaine, which are often discarded.
Yield: Makes 4 servings

1 large head romaine (1 1/2 pound)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 (10-ounce) package frozen peas (2 1/4 cups)
1 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1/4 cup heavy cream

Separate dark green outer leaves of romaine from pale green inner leaves and coarsely chop enough dark green leaves to measure 6 cups loosely packed. (Reserve heart for another use.)

Cook onion in butter in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add lettuce and cook, stirring, until wilted, about 2 minutes. Add peas, broth, water, salt, and pepper and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes.

Purée soup in 2 batches in a blender with dill and cream (use caution when blending

Quotes taken from Legends of the Bastille, by Frantz Funck-Brentano and George Maidment (1899) and Chronicles of the Bastile, by Louis Alexis Chamerovzow (1845).

© 2011 C. Bertelsen



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