It is evident that these mutual obligations did not originate in the law of nature, but in the law of society; and that the claim of social duty was more stringent than that of mere humanity. These services were not supposed to be due from man to man, but to the vassal or to the lord. Feudal institutions awakened a lively sympathy for the sufferings of certain men, but none at all for the miseries of mankind. They infused generosity rather than mildness into the manners of the time, and although they prompted men to great acts of self-devotion, they engendered no real sympathies; for real sympathies can only exist between those who are alike; and in aristocratic ages men acknowledge none but the members of their own caste to be like themselves.
When the chroniclers of the Middle Ages, who all belonged to the aristocracy by birth or education, relate the tragical end of a noble, their grief flows apace; whereas they tell you at a breath, and without wincing, of massacres and tortures inflicted on the common sort of people. Not that these writers felt habitual hatred or systematic disdain for the people; war between the several classes of the community was not yet declared. They were impelled by an instinct rather than by a passion; as they had formed no clear notion of a poor man's sufferings, they cared but little for his fate. The same feelings animated the lower orders whenever the feudal tie was broken. The same ages which witnessed so many heroic acts of self-devotion on the part of vassals for their lords, were stained with atrocious barbarities, exercised from time to time by the lower classes on the higher. It must not be supposed that this mutual insensibility arose solely from the absence of public order and education; for traces of it are to be found in the following centuries, which became tranquil and enlightened whilst they remained aristocratic. In 1675 the lower classes in Brittany revolted at the imposition of a new tax. These disturbances were put down with unexampled atrocity. Observe the language in which Madame de Sevigne, a witness of these horrors, relates them to her daughter: -
"Aux Rochers, 30 Octobre, 1675.
"Mon Dieu, ma fille, que votre lettre d'Aix est plaisante! Au moins relisez vos lettres avant que de les envoyer; laissez-vous surpendre a leur agrement, et consolez-vous par ce plaisir de la peine que vous avez d'en tant ecrire. Vous avez donc baise toute la Provence? il n'y aurait pas satisfaction a baiser toute la Bretagne, a moins qu'on n'aimat a sentir le vin. . . . Voulez-vous savoir des nouvelles de Rennes? On a fait une taxe de cent mille ecus sur le bourgeois; et si on ne trouve point cette somme dans vingt-quatre heures, elle sera doublee et exigible par les soldats. On a chasse et banni toute une grand rue, et defendu de les recueillir sous peine de la vie; de sorte qu'on voyait tous ces miserables, veillards, femmes accouchees, enfans, errer en pleurs au sortir de cette ville sans savoir ou aller. On roua avant-hier un violon, qui avait commence la danse et la pillerie du papier timbre; il a ete ecartele apres sa mort, et ses quatre quartiers exposes aux quatre coins de la ville. On a pris soixante bourgeois, et on commence demain les punitions. Cette province est un bel exemple pour les autres, et surtout de respecter les gouverneurs et les gouvernantes, et de ne point jeter de pierres dans leur jardin. *a
[Footnote a: To feel the point of this joke the reader should recollect that Madame de Grignan was Gouvernante de Provence.] "Madame de Tarente etait hier dans ces bois par un temps enchante: il n'est question ni de chambre ni de collation; elle entre par la barriere et s'en retourne de meme. . . ."
"Vous me parlez bien plaisamment de nos miseres; nous ne sommes plus si roues; un en huit jours, pour entretenir la justice. Il est vrai que la penderie me parait maintenant un refraichissement. J'ai une tout autre idee de la justice, depuis que je suis en ce pays. Vos galeriens me paraissent une societe d'honnetes gens qui se sont retires du monde pour mener une vie douce."
It would be a mistake to suppose that Madame de Sevigne, who wrote these lines, was a selfish or cruel person; she was passionately attached to her children, and very ready to sympathize in the sorrows of her friends; nay, her letters show that she treated her vassals and servants with kindness and indulgence. But Madame de Sevigne had no clear notion of suffering in anyone who was not a person of quality.
In our time the harshest man writing to the most insensible person of his acquaintance would not venture wantonly to indulge in the cruel jocularity which I have quoted; and even if his own manners allowed him to do so, the manners of society at large would forbid it. Whence does this arise? Have we more sensibility than our forefathers? I know not that we have; but I am sure that our insensibility is extended to a far greater range of objects. When all the ranks of a community are nearly equal, as all men think and feel in nearly the same manner, each of them may judge in a moment of the sensations of all the others; he casts a rapid glance upon himself, and that is enough. There is no wretchedness into which he cannot readily enter, and a secret instinct reveals to him its extent. It signifies not that strangers or foes be the sufferers; imagination puts him in their place; something like a personal feeling is mingled with his pity, and makes himself suffer whilst the body of his fellow-creature is in torture. In democratic ages men rarely sacrifice themselves for one another; but they display general compassion for the members of the human race. They inflict no useless ills; and they are happy to relieve the griefs of others, when they can do so without much hurting themselves; they are not disinterested, but they are humane.