And the day of glory has arrived

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On July 14, 1789, a crowd of nine hundred Parisians besieged and then took the prison of the Bastille, seeking gunpowder with which to load the muskets and cannons that had just snatched the royal troops of Louis XVI. That assault became, in the eyes of the people and chroniclers more devoted to the cause, in the key moment of the French Revolution and the founding myth of a new time, but the thing should not have been for so much.

Neither the Bastille was an impregnable fortress, nor all its cells were infamous holes (in fact, it was almost considered a luxury prison with respect to others), nor did its guards planted a great battle (a group of cripples led the defense), nor were their prisoners examples of good behavior (only seven were released: two demented , four forgers and a delinquent aristocrat).

The Bastille is one of those episodes of the French Revolution on which the British historian Simon Schama (London, 1945) sheds light on his monumental work 'Citizens', published for the first time in 1989, in the second centenary of the revolution, and that thirty years later, the Debate publishing house returns to launch in Spain.

Member of the Order of the British Empire, professor of Art History at Columbia University and director of documentaries for the BBC and PBS, Simon Schama is the author of works such as 'The Eyes of Rembrandt', 'The Power of Art' and the essential 'History of the Jews'.

And his 'Citizens' is, in reality, many books within one. In the first place, it is the attempt to put an end to lies that during the last two centuries they have been assumed uncritically by a good part of the historiography and by the bulk of the readers. Namely: the French Revolution was not a sudden explosion of anger (it had been brewing for decades), nor was it a bourgeois uprising (in fact, the bourgeoisie were the main victims of revolutionary violence), the objective of the peasants was not the political or economic freedom (on the contrary, they demanded greater economic protectionism), Louis XVI was not a despotic and inept king (he tried to reform a State that between wars and bankruptcies became irreformable), the 'sans-culottes' were not the poor among the poor and the stage of Terror was not a necessary evil to ensure the arrival of paradise on Earth. Quite the opposite: it was just that, terror.

Mentality change

Beyond the conjunctural causes of the moment (bad harvests, hunger, terrible decisions of the monarchy on its foreign policy), the deep origin of the French Revolution, Schama exposes, must be sought in the change of mentality of the French society during the second half of the eighteenth century.

Hand in hand with philosophers like Rousseau, the population lived a process of "cultural formation" that included the acceptance of sensitivity as a quality (crying in public ceased to be frowned upon and became almost an obligation of "honest men" ) and that transformed institutions like the theater into spaces without barriers where the nobles and even the kings (Marie Antoinette frequented the tables) mixed with the common people.

'Citizens' can also be read as la desperate chronicle of the French monarchy to survive. Educated to reign in an absolute way, Louis XVI seems always to be one step behind what his subjects demand of him. When they claim a constitutional monarchy, he resists. When he is willing to accept it, the streets already ask for his head. When it tries to flee, it is stopped 'in extremis'. La guillotine, which cut off the king's head, his wife, Marie Antoinette, and hundreds of people during the Terror stage, including Robespierre, one of the men who most used the invention of Dr. Guillotin, is a great metaphor, according to Schama, to explain that the French Revolution was, above all, violence. "It was the collective energy source of the Revolution. It was what gave revolutionary character to the Revolution, "he says. Since 1789, and not only during the Terror, clarifies the historian, "there was an assumption that there was a direct relationship between blood and freedom, between blood and bread." The day of glory, had arrived, yes, but charged with extreme violence.

The lessons of 'La Marseillaise'

The politicians Lafayette, Mirabeau or Malesherbes, the writer Latude, the painter Jacques-Louis David or the murderer of Marat, Charlotte Corday, star in exciting stories within the story. And one of the most moving moments of the work is the narration of the birth of 'La Marseillaise'. "Nothing has ever been written – and nothing will be – that expresses better than 'La Marseillaise' the camaraderie of citizens in arms," ​​writes Schama. Thus, 'The day of glory has arrived!', As the hymn sings.

Although it seems that two centuries and three decades later there is little left to learn from the French Revolution, the lessons that can be drawn from it in the 21st century are still almost endless. For example, in 1789 it was already known that the most radicals also wanted to be the most sentimental, that street harassment (the escraches, it would be said today) ended up turning against those who promote them, that the moderates were hesitant to include the exaltados (the Jacobins , then) in its executives and that one thing was parliamentary oratory and another, to govern reality. Then the slogan 'Freedom, equality, fraternity' was born, which France would make official in 1848.

(tagsToTranslate) glory (t) arrived

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