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This letter from the Genevan financier Pelliseri (Pellisery, etc.) is a rare example of a letter describing life inside the Bastille. A number of books do so as well, but here one prisoner has succinctly poured out his griefs in a short space. He wrote it not to de Launay (the hated governor of the castle) but to Monsieur de Losmes (Antoine-Jerosme de Losmes de Salbray), a major at the Bastille. De Losmes seems to have been a compassionate official, though this did him no good when the castle fell - his head ended up on a pike like that of de Launay.

Official records say that Pelliseri entered the Bastille in June 3, 1777, and was transferred to Charenton (a madhouse) on July 24, 1788.

Pelliseri was at least difficult and may have been mentally unstable. Nor did other prisoners always talk in such bitter terms about their experience. So his account should not be considered definitive. But it certainly echoes some of the other more negative accounts and is a rare and valuable document on the Bastille:

No doubt you know, Monsieur, that for seven years, I have been enclosed in the melancholy apartment that I occupy in this castle, ten feet wide in every direction of its octagon, nearly twenty high, placed under the terrace of the batteries, from which I have not gone out for a total of five hours on different occasions. It is horribly cold there in winter despite the poor fire built in that season, always with wood taken from the water; without doubt by a refinement of humanity to render useless the weak merit or the assistance of having a little fire to moderate the routine of the apartment. In good weather, I have breathed the air only through a window pierced in a wall five feet thick and barred with double iron bars, flush with the wall, outside as well as inside the apartment. Nor are you unaware that, from June 3, 1777 until January 14, 1784, I have only had a miserable bed. I was never able to use the cover, so torn is it, devoured by worms, covered with filth and dust, and a sorry straw chair of the most common sort, with a back sinking into the seat, breaking shoulders, kidneys and chest.

To crown the discomfort of so sad a situation, every winter I have been brought only stinking foul water like that the river pours, in its floodings, into the ditches of this castle, where it swells its garbage and its uncleanliness with the filth thrown in the ditches by various households lodged in the arsenal as in the castle.

To top off all these atrocities, during more than three months before your arrival, I have been served nothing but the worst bread in the world, which has caused me great discomfort, accompanied, three quarters of the time, by all the left-overs and desserts from the masters' and the servants' table, and most often these stinking, disgusting scraps that sit and rot in the kitchen's closets.

Regarding bread, all through the spring, the summer, the autumn of last years, until the fifteenth of December, I've been brought nothing but the worst bread in the world, kneaded with all the swept-up flour from the baker's storeroom, in which I've constantly found a thousand lumps large as peas and broad beans, which showed clearly that this bread was specially ordered and that it was made up of bits or scraps which stuck to the wood of the machine where it was kneaded and carefully scraped after going sour. I, who am not hard to please, often I had trouble eating even half of the crust on it, quite hard and crumbling.

I've been itching several times to talk to you of this, but having won nothing in regard to the water, even since your arrival, and my complaints on this subject having led to the most disagreeable scene with Monsieur the Governor, I have kept silent so as to avoid any new altercation. I blame the violent jolts of pain and cramping I had in my limbs in the night of October 19th and which keep me in fear of a paralysis of the right arm and legs on this poor bread. I blame it as well for the sensations I've had several times and for the horrible deposits which formed in my legs, my feet and my hands all this winter, having constantly had six fingers of my two hands clenched up and my two legs from two fingers above the ankle and the five toes of my feet each pierced by fifteen to twenty holes. Monsieur the surgeon to whom I've shown them several times can confirm the truth of this.

(The version of the letter used for this translation ends here.)

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

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