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The Ancien Regime Charles Kingsley

Lecture II -- Centralisation

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It is an ugly name, that of "The Masses," for the great majority of human beings in a nation. He who uses it speaks of them not as human beings, but as things; and as things not bound together in one living body, but lying in a fortuitous heap. A swarm of ants is not a mass. It has a polity and a unity. Not the ants but the fir-needles and sticks, of which the ants have piled their nest, are a mass.

The term, I believe, was invented during the Ancien Regime. Whether it was or not, it expresses very accurately the life of the many in those days. No one would speak, if he wished to speak exactly, of the masses of the United States; for there every man is, or is presumed to be, a personage; with his own independence, his own activities, his own rights and duties. No one, I believe, would have talked of the masses in the old feudal times; for then each individual was someone's man, bound to his master by ties of mutual service, just or unjust, honourable or base, but still giving him a personality of duties and rights, and dividing him from his class.

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Dividing, I say. The poor of the Middle Age had little sense of a common humanity. Those who owned allegiance to the lord in the next valley were not their brothers; and at their own lord's bidding, they buckled on sword and slew the next lord's men, with joyful heart and good conscience. Only now and then misery compressed them into masses; and they ran together, as sheep run together to face a dog. Some wholesale wrong made them aware that they were brothers, at least in the power of starving; and they joined in the cry which was heard, I believe, in Mecklenburg as late as 1790: "Den Edelman wille wi dodschlagen." Then, in Wat Tyler's insurrections, in Munster Anabaptisms, in Jacqueries, they proved themselves to be masses, if nothing better, striking for awhile, by the mere weight of numbers, blows terrible, though aimless--soon to be dispersed and slain in their turn by a disciplined and compact aristocracy. Yet not always dispersed, if they could find a leader; as the Polish nobles discovered to their cost in the middle of the seventeenth century. Then Bogdan the Cossack, a wild warrior, not without his sins, but having deserved well of James Sobieski and the Poles, found that the neighbouring noble's steward had taken a fancy to his windmill and his farm upon the Dnieper. He was thrown into prison on a frivolous charge, and escaped to the Tatars, leaving his wife dishonoured, his house burnt, his infant lost in the flames, his eldest son scourged for protesting against the wrong. And he returned, at the head of an army of Tatars, Socinians, Greeks, or what not, to set free the serfs, and exterminate Jesuits, Jews, and nobles, throughout Podolia, Volhynia, Red Russia; to desecrate the altars of God, and slay his servants; to destroy the nobles by lingering tortures; to strip noble ladies and maidens, and hunt them to death with the whips of his Cossacks; and after defeating the nobles in battle after battle, to inaugurate an era of misery and anarchy from which Poland never recovered.

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The Ancien Regime
Charles Kingsley

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