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The History Behind Bastille Day

Lookups for 'Bastille Day' spiked as France celebrated its national holiday

Bastille Dayplay is the national holiday of France, which falls on July 14, the anniversary of the 1789 storming of the Bastille—a medieval prison in Paris. The Bastille was constructed in the 14th century as a fortress for the defense of the city during the Hundred Years’ War, but later became a state prison for political prisoners, citizens awaiting trial, and prisoners held on direct order of the King of France. By 1789, only seven prisoners were inside the building, which had already been scheduled to be demolished.

On July 14, 1789, a revolutionary mob approached the Bastille to take the guns and ammunition stored there. The ensuing battle signaled the start of the French Revolution, and relics from the demolished Bastille became powerful symbols—or souvenirs—of the revolution.

Bastille was a generic word meaning “fortress” or “prison,” and the word derives from the word meaning “to build” in Old Occitan, a language spoken in medieval southern France. It came to mean “fortified town” and then “fortress.” In English, bastille can mean “prison” or “jail.” The same root gave us the word bastion, meaning “stronghold.” In French, ​Bastille​ is pronounced \bah-steey\, but in English it is nearly always pronounced \ba-STEEL\.

Tourists unclear on the concept can still sometimes be found on the site of the former prison asking for "directions to the Bastille."

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