1. Fact: The key meeting to plan the French Revolution took place on a tennis court.
This one’s all true. In May 1789, amid widespread discontent and financial crisis, representatives of France’s nobility, clergy and commoners met at the Palace of Versailles. Tired of being outvoted by the two more privileged estates, deputies of the Third Estate—which made up the vast majority of France’s population—declared itself a National Assembly, which would operate outside the monarchy’s supervision. In response to this act of rebellion, King Louis XVI shut down the Estates-General, and closed the hall in which the deputies were meeting. Thinking fast, the newly created assembly met on June 20 on an indoor tennis court at Versailles called the “jeu de paume,” where they pledged not to disband until France adopted a new written constitution.
A week after the famous Tennis Court Oath, the king was forced to give in and allow the first two estates to join the National Assembly. Humiliated by this defeat and spurred on by his advisers, Louis began assembling army troops (including many foreign mercenaries) around Paris and Versailles, and on July 12 he dismissed his popular finance minister, Jacques Necker. Rumors spread of an impending attack on the Third Estate, and on July 14 a crowd of armed Parisians stormed the Bastille, the medieval fortress on the eastern side of Paris that had become a symbol of the monarchy’s absolute power. The French Revolution had begun.
2. Fiction: The French Revolution was an uprising of France’s poorest citizens.
Contrary to the version of the French Revolution made famous in such works as Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” France’s poorest population played a relatively small role in the rebellion. The leaders who emerged in 1789 to defy the king and form the National Assembly were professionals and intellectuals—lawyers, doctors, journalists and writers—and even some members of the nobility, including the Comte de Mirabeau, the Marquis de Condorcet and the Marquis de Lafayette (hero of the American Revolution). The crowds who stormed the Bastille were largely made up of craftspeople and salesmen, and most of the militant “sans-culottes” (their name comes from the long trousers they wore instead of the silk knee breeches favored by the nobility), who claimed to act on behalf of the poorer classes, were merchants, artisans and clerks.
3. Fiction: Crowds stormed the Bastille in order to free political prisoners being held there.
This one’s also a myth. Beginning in the 17th century, the French monarchy put writers and other people they considered troublemakers behind bars at the former medieval fortress turned prison, and the practice continued throughout the 18th century as well. Perhaps the most famous writer imprisoned in the Bastille for sedition was the Voltaire, whose satirical attacks on French politics and religion earned him nearly a year behind bars in 1717.
But by the time of the French Revolution, this wasn’t really happening anymore, and there were only seven prisoners in the Bastille on July 14, 1789: four counterfeiters, two mentally ill men and a count who had been delivered to the prison by his family for engaging in perverse sexual practices. (Incidentally, the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille from 1784 to just days before the crowds stormed the prison, when he was transferred to an insane asylum after shouting through his window “They are massacring the prisoners—you must come and free them!”)
The revolutionary crowds knew there was a cache of arms and gunpowder stored in the Bastille, and they wanted it. After firing on the mob and killing some 100 people, the men guarding the prison were forced to surrender after the rescue team called to secure the fortress joined the revolutionaries and aimed their cannons at the Bastille instead. Its military governor, Bernard-Jordan de Launay, flew the white flag of surrender; as a reward, the revolutionary mob killed him and paraded his head through the streets on a pike. After capturing the weapons and gunpowder, the crowd began dismantling the Bastille that same night.
4. Fiction: The French Revolution gave birth to the guillotine.
This one’s mostly a myth. The famed guillotine became perhaps the foremost symbol of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that followed in 1793-94, during which as many as 16,000 people were executed. But similar devices had been used for executions going back to the Middle Ages, including a nearly identical English device known as the Halifax Gibbet, and the notorious “Scottish Maiden,” used in some 120 executions from the 16th to the 18th century.
What’s more, the man who gave his name to the French device, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, didn’t even invent it—that honor belongs to Dr. Antoine Louis. Guillotin, a French physician and member of the National Assembly, sought to reform the medical profession, and opposed the death penalty personally. As he was resigned to the fact that capital punishment could most likely not be abolished, he sought to make it as painless and quick as possible—unlike sword and axe beheadings, which were easily bungled. Because Guillotin argued in front of the Assembly that Dr. Louis’ device—originally nicknamed the “Louison” or “Louisette”—was a more humane means of execution, he would be forever associated with it. During the Reign of Terror, when use of the guillotine reached its height, Dr. Guillotin narrowly avoided becoming its victim himself, after he was imprisoned in 1794.
5. Fact: French people celebrate Bastille Day.
This is true—sort of. If you see a French person today, just don’t wish them a happy Bastille Day, as that designation is mostly limited to English-speaking countries. While France has celebrated July 14 as its national holiday since the late 19th century, it’s officially known as “La Fête nationale,” and more often referred to simply as “le quatorze juillet” or the 14th of July. The holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille—and the launch of the French Revolution—on July 14, 1789, as well as a more peaceful event that took place the following year. During the “Fête de la Fédération” on July 14, 1790, a series of spontaneous celebrations broke out throughout France as the country embraced its newfound liberty and unity. Today, celebrations held on the national holiday include a large military parade down the Champs-Élysées, attended by France’s president and other political leaders, and smaller parades, fireworks, dances and celebrations in towns throughout the country.