Feature Archive: The Archives de la Bastille at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal

Each month, a researcher shares their experiences of using a particular archive. The overall aim of this section is to create a database of the different archives available to those working on French and Francophone studies that will be of help particularly to students just starting out in research.

Haley Bowen is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Her dissertation research explores the diverse communities of laywomen who lived in French convents during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Here she talks about using the Archives de la Bastille


An Introduction to the Bastille Archives:

Murder, abduction, theft, adultery, intrigue – a day’s work in the Archives de la Bastille delivers extraordinary human drama worthy of one of the world’s most infamous prisons. For researchers with short attention spans or sordid imaginations, delving into prison dossiers – in one of the most comfortable and welcoming libraries in Paris – is a particularly rewarding way to explore ancien régime France.

Gathered in part from the ruins of the Bastille prison after its destruction on July 14, 1789, the documents in the Archives de la Bastille provide a critical (if incomplete) record of prison and police activity in Paris between 1660 and 1789. Anchoring the collection are thousands of individual prisoner dossiers for the unfortunate inhabitants of the Salpetrière prison, the Bastille, and many other Parisian jailhouses, each replete with police orders, case correspondence, and handwritten petitions from the accused and their family members. The archive also hosts the main body of administrative material for the Parisian police force, including notes and reports, lists of prisoners, internal correspondence and registers, and interrogation records. Petty crime abounds, of course, but there is also plenty of material on the most dynamic political flash points of the ancien régime, from the Jansenist controversy and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes to the scandalous affaire des Poisons, all of which the police took a keen interest in as matters of public order.

This fascinating spread of material provides plenty of fodder for projects on police surveillance, political scandals, crime, family quarrels, and much more. In my own experiences at the archive, compiling case studies of women who had been imprisoned in religious institutions, I found that the letters and petitions in the collection provided exceptionally detailed insight into how disenfranchised populations navigated their encounters with police power. Apart from the richness of the collections, however, one of the main benefits of working in the Archives de la Bastille is the approachability of the staff on site. The Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, where this archive is located, is one of the more intimate libraries in the BnF system, with no more than forty seats in the main reading room. Staff members have the bandwidth to learn your name, ask about your research interests, and respond promptly to questions about the collection.

In a time when global disruptions interfere with even the best-laid research plans, however, a sizeable portion of this collection is happily available online. In recent years the archive’s staff have scanned numerous prisoner dossiers and other materials from the late eighteenth century which are now accessible on Gallica. To see the library’s holdings, I recommend browsing the collection descriptions in the BnF’s Archives et Manuscrits catalogue; the Archives de la Bastille constitute manuscripts 10001-12727.

©Bibliothèque nationale de France

Practical Tips for In-Person Visits:

The Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal is located in central Paris on metro line 7 (stop: Sully-Morland), a stone’s throw from the Île Saint-Louis and the Pont de Sully. Since the library is dedicated to researchers, the building is only open to those who hold either a BnF research pass, which can be obtained from the BnF François-Mitterand or Richelieu sites, or an Arsenal Library research pass, available on location. The principal reading room is located on the second floor and requires mounting a double flight of stairs; if you have accessibility concerns, you may wish to get in touch with library staff in advance to secure other accommodations.

Once on the second floor, introduce yourself to the staff at the front desk to obtain a locker key; if you have ordered manuscripts in advance, you should also notify the staff member that you have documents waiting, so that he or she can retrieve them for you. After storing your belongings and entering the reading room, approach the président(e) de salle and provide them with your research card to receive a seat assignment. If you are consulting manuscripts, you will be seated at the reserve table and a staff member will bring the first manuscript to you directly; otherwise, you will be seated with other researchers consulting secondary source material on site. Free and fast WiFi is available in the main reading room.

The library has a small area in which to eat a packed lunch or down a cheap vending-machine coffee (0.40€), but hungry researchers can also venture out for more expensive tourist fare – or Bertillon ice cream – on the Ile Saint-Louis. Cheap food options in the immediate area are surprisingly limited, apart from a few grocery stores offering take-away sandwiches and salads, but there are a number of more respectable restaurants backing onto the 11th nearby, including Le Temps des Cerises (French) and Chilam Gastrobar (Mexican).

Diving Deeper:

Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault’s edited document collection, Disorderly Families: Infamous Letters from the Bastille Archives (2016) provides a colorful English-language introduction to the scope of documents on offer in the Bastille archives. More advanced researchers will wish to consult Frantz Funck-Brentano’s Les Lettres de Cachet à Paris: Étude suivie d’une liste des prisonniers de la Bastille (1903) for an older but highly valuable catalogue of prisoner dossiers.

Thank you very much for this, Haley!


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