One of the more common - and surprising - comments in memoirs of the Bastille is on the excellence of the meals. General Dumouriez puts it succinctly: "One was very well fed at the Bastille, there were always five dishes for dinner, three for supper, without the dessert; which served all together, looked magnificent." The abbé Morellet describes more modest, but satisfying meals: "Each day I got a bottle of decent wine, an excellent one-pound loaf of bread; for dinner, a soup, some beef, an entrée and a dessert; in the evening, some roast and a salad."

Not every account was so positive. The Bastille Unveiled, a rare but comprehensive work on the castle, describes this as the standard fare:

...a pound of bread and a bottle of bad wine a day; for dinner (at eleven o'clock in the morning), broth and two meat dishes; for supper (six o'clock in the evening), a slice of roast, some stew, and some salad, but all disgusting. Fast-day meals with rancid butter or sickening oil. - The diet of bread and water was only applied to common criminals.

This may well have been how the most ordinary inmates were fed - such (often illiterate) people didn't leave their own accounts. But those who were privileged enough to be able to write (and later be read) seem to have been better off. The writer Marmontel's account is typical of many that praise the food:

Two hours later, the locks of the two doors which locked me in wake me with their noise from a deep sleep, and two jailors, carrying a dinner which I think mine, and serve it in silence. One sets before the fire three small plates covered with dishes of common earthenware; the other unfolds, on the one table of two that is vacant, coarse but white linen. I see him put on this table a clean enough setting, spoon and fork of tin, a good household bread, a bottle of wine. Their service done, the jailors leave…

Then Bury [his servant]... serves me soup: it was a Friday. This soup, for a fast day, was a purée of white broad beans, made with the freshest butter, and a dish of these same beans was the first Bury served me. I found all this very good. The dish of cod which he brought me for the second serving was even better, the little accent of garlic seasoned it with a delicacy of taste and odor which would have flattered the taste of the most gourmet Gascon; the wine wasn't excellent, but good enough; no dessert; one had to go without something. Besides, I found that one dined very well in the Bastille.

As I rose from the table, and Bury prepared to sit down (because there was still enough for his dinner in what remained), here came my two jailors with new dishes in hand. At the sight of this setting with good linen, on handsome earthenware, spoon and fork of silver, we realized our mistake, but we showed no sign of it, and once our jailors….were gone, Bury said: "Monsieur, you just ate my dinner; you won't mind if in my turn I eat yours." "Fair enough," I said and the walls of my room were, I think, astonished to hear laughter.

This dinner was of flesh: here are the details: an excellent soup, a succulent slice of beef, a boiled leg of capon, dripping with fat and falling off the bone; a small plate of fried artichokes in a marinade, one of spinach, a very nice cresonne pear, fresh grapes, a bottle of old Burgundy wine, and the best Moka coffee: this was Bury's dinner, except for the fruit and coffee which he gladly left for me.

…You have just seen how I was normally fed at the Bastille.

copyright 2005 Jim Chevallier.
Please do not reproduce, extract or post elsewhere without prior permission.

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