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The Ancien Regime Charles Kingsley

Lecture I -- Caste

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A very gentle perfect knight,

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Very unfaithful was chivalry to its ideal--as all men are to all ideals. But bear in mind, that if the horse was the symbol of the ruling caste, it was not at first its only strength. Unless that caste had had at first spiritual, as well as physical force on its side, it would have been soon destroyed--nay, it would have destroyed itself--by internecine civil war. And we must believe that those Franks, Goths, Lombards, and Burgunds, who in the early Middle Age leaped on the backs (to use Mr. Carlyle's expression) of the Roman nations, were actually, in all senses of the word, better men than those whom they conquered. We must believe it from reason; for if not, how could they, numerically few, have held for a year, much more for centuries, against millions, their dangerous elevation? We must believe it, unless we take Tacitus's "Germania," which I absolutely refuse to do, for a romance. We must believe that they were better than the Romanised nations whom they conquered, because the writers of those nations, Augustine, Salvian, and Sidonius Apollinaris, for example, say that they were such, and give proof thereof. Not good men according to our higher standard-- far from it; though Sidonius's picture of Theodoric, the East Goth, in his palace of Narbonne, is the picture of an eminently good and wise ruler. But not good, I say, as a rule--the Franks, alas! often very bad men: but still better, wiser, abler, than those whom they ruled. We must believe too, that they were better, in every sense of the word, than those tribes on their eastern frontier, whom they conquered in after centuries, unless we discredit (which we have no reason to do) the accounts which the Roman and Greek writers give of the horrible savagery of those tribes.

So it was in later centuries. One cannot read fairly the history of the Middle Ages without seeing that the robber knight of Germany or of France, who figures so much in modern novels, must have been the exception, and not the rule: that an aristocracy which lived by the saddle would have as little chance of perpetuating itself, as a priesthood composed of hypocrites and profligates; that the mediaeval Nobility has been as much slandered as the mediaeval Church; and the exceptions taken--as more salient and exciting--for the average: that side by side with ruffians like Gaston de Foix hundreds of honest gentlemen were trying to do their duty to the best of their light, and were raising, and not depressing, the masses below them--one very important item in that duty being, the doing the whole fighting of the country at their own expense, instead of leaving it to a standing army of mercenaries, at the beck and call of a despot; and that, as M. de Tocqueville says: "In feudal times, the Nobility were regarded pretty much as the government is regarded in our own; the burdens they imposed were endured in consequence of the security they afforded. The nobles had many irksome privileges; they possessed many onerous rights: but they maintained public order, they administered justice, they caused the law to be executed, they came to the relief of the weak, they conducted the business of the community. In proportion as they ceased to do these things, the burden of their privileges appeared more oppressive, and their existence became an anomaly in proportion as they ceased to do these things." And the Ancien Regime may be defined as the period in which they ceased to do these things--in which they began to play the idlers, and expected to take their old wages without doing their old work.

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The Ancien Regime
Charles Kingsley

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