The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 4

The Menads.

If Voltaire once, in splenetic humour, asked his countrymen: “But you, Gualches, what have you invented?” they can now answer: The Art of Insurrection. It was an art needed in these last singular times: an art, for which the French nature, so full of vehemence, so free from depth, was perhaps of all others the fittest.

Accordingly, to what a height, one may well say of perfection, has this branch of human industry been carried by France, within the last half-century! Insurrection, which, Lafayette thought, might be ‘the most sacred of duties,’ ranks now, for the French people, among the duties which they can perform. Other mobs are dull masses; which roll onwards with a dull fierce tenacity, a dull fierce heat, but emit no light-flashes of genius as they go. The French mob, again, is among the liveliest phenomena of our world. So rapid, audacious; so clear-sighted, inventive, prompt to seize the moment; instinct with life to its finger-ends! That talent, were there no other, of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes, as we said, the French People from all Peoples, ancient and modern.

Let the Reader confess too that, taking one thing with another, perhaps few terrestrial Appearances are better worth considering than mobs. Your mob is a genuine outburst of Nature; issuing from, or communicating with, the deepest deep of Nature. When so much goes grinning and grimacing as a lifeless Formality, and under the stiff buckram no heart can be felt beating, here once more, if nowhere else, is a Sincerity and Reality. Shudder at it; or even shriek over it, if thou must; nevertheless consider it. Such a Complex of human Forces and Individualities hurled forth, in their transcendental mood, to act and react, on circumstances and on one another; to work out what it is in them to work. The thing they will do is known to no man; least of all to themselves. It is the inflammablest immeasurable Fire-work, generating, consuming itself. With what phases, to what extent, with what results it will burn off, Philosophy and Perspicacity conjecture in vain.

‘Man,’ as has been written, ‘is for ever interesting to man; nay properly there is nothing else interesting.’ In which light also, may we not discern why most Battles have become so wearisome? Battles, in these ages, are transacted by mechanism; with the slightest possible developement of human individuality or spontaneity: men now even die, and kill one another, in an artificial manner. Battles ever since Homer’s time, when they were Fighting Mobs, have mostly ceased to be worth looking at, worth reading of, or remembering. How many wearisome bloody Battles does History strive to represent; or even, in a husky way, to sing:— and she would omit or carelessly slur-over this one Insurrection of Women?

A thought, or dim raw-material of a thought, was fermenting all night, universally in the female head, and might explode. In squalid garret, on Monday morning, Maternity awakes, to hear children weeping for bread. Maternity must forth to the streets, to the herb-markets and Bakers’ — queues; meets there with hunger-stricken Maternity, sympathetic, exasperative. O we unhappy women! But, instead of Bakers’-queues, why not to Aristocrats’ palaces, the root of the matter? Allons! Let us assemble. To the Hotel-de-Ville; to Versailles; to the Lanterne!

In one of the Guardhouses of the Quartier Saint–Eustache, ‘a young woman’ seizes a drum, — for how shall National Guards give fire on women, on a young woman? The young woman seizes the drum; sets forth, beating it, ‘uttering cries relative to the dearth of grains.’ Descend, O mothers; descend, ye Judiths, to food and revenge! — All women gather and go; crowds storm all stairs, force out all women: the female Insurrectionary Force, according to Camille, resembles the English Naval one; there is a universal ‘Press of women.’ Robust Dames of the Halle, slim Mantua-makers, assiduous, risen with the dawn; ancient Virginity tripping to matins; the Housemaid, with early broom; all must go. Rouse ye, O women; the laggard men will not act; they say, we ourselves may act!

And so, like snowbreak from the mountains, for every staircase is a melted brook, it storms; tumultuous, wild-shrilling, towards the Hotel-de-Ville. Tumultuous, with or without drum-music: for the Faubourg Saint–Antoine also has tucked up its gown; and, with besom-staves, fire-irons, and even rusty pistols (void of ammunition), is flowing on. Sound of it flies, with a velocity of sound, to the outmost Barriers. By seven o’clock, on this raw October morning, fifth of the month, the Townhall will see wonders. Nay, as chance would have it, a male party are already there; clustering tumultuously round some National Patrol, and a Baker who has been seized with short weights. They are there; and have even lowered the rope of the Lanterne. So that the official persons have to smuggle forth the short-weighing Baker by back doors, and even send ‘to all the Districts’ for more force.

Grand it was, says Camille, to see so many Judiths, from eight to ten thousand of them in all, rushing out to search into the root of the matter! Not unfrightful it must have been; ludicro-terrific, and most unmanageable. At such hour the overwatched Three Hundred are not yet stirring: none but some Clerks, a company of National Guards; and M. de Gouvion, the Major-general. Gouvion has fought in America for the cause of civil Liberty; a man of no inconsiderable heart, but deficient in head. He is, for the moment, in his back apartment; assuaging Usher Maillard, the Bastille-serjeant, who has come, as too many do, with ‘representations.’ The assuagement is still incomplete when our Judiths arrive.

The National Guards form on the outer stairs, with levelled bayonets; the ten thousand Judiths press up, resistless; with obtestations, with outspread hands, — merely to speak to the Mayor. The rear forces them; nay, from male hands in the rear, stones already fly: the National Guards must do one of two things; sweep the Place de Greve with cannon, or else open to right and left. They open; the living deluge rushes in. Through all rooms and cabinets, upwards to the topmost belfry: ravenous; seeking arms, seeking Mayors, seeking justice; — while, again, the better-cressed (dressed?) speak kindly to the Clerks; point out the misery of these poor women; also their ailments, some even of an interesting sort. (Deux Amis, iii. 141–166.)

Poor M. de Gouvion is shiftless in this extremity; — a man shiftless, perturbed; who will one day commit suicide. How happy for him that Usher Maillard, the shifty, was there, at the moment, though making representations! Fly back, thou shifty Maillard; seek the Bastille Company; and O return fast with it; above all, with thy own shifty head! For, behold, the Judiths can find no Mayor or Municipal; scarcely, in the topmost belfry, can they find poor Abbe Lefevre the Powder-distributor. Him, for want of a better, they suspend there; in the pale morning light; over the top of all Paris, which swims in one’s failing eyes:— a horrible end? Nay, the rope broke, as French ropes often did; or else an Amazon cut it. Abbe Lefevre falls, some twenty feet, rattling among the leads; and lives long years after, though always with ‘a tremblement in the limbs.’ (Dusaulx, Prise de la Bastille (note, p. 281.).)

And now doors fly under hatchets; the Judiths have broken the Armoury; have seized guns and cannons, three money-bags, paper-heaps; torches flare: in few minutes, our brave Hotel-de-Ville which dates from the Fourth Henry, will, with all that it holds, be in flames!

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30