One reason I love to read history is that it almost always makes me question my own perspective. As you know, I have a bias towards romanticizing the past; there’s nothing that can disabuse you of that sort of thing more effectively than reading history. (It’s harder to disabuse people of the bad habit of romanticizing the present and the future, but that’s not my problem.) I’m reading a wonderfully written history called “Seven Ages of Paris,” by Alistair Horne. The title tells you pretty much all you need to know about what’s between the covers: it’s a history of the French capital from its founding till the present. I’m reminded by Horne’s account of the routine savagery of Parisian mobs of why I’m an instinctive conservative: I fear and loathe the mob.
Take this episode after the Paris mob got its hands on the assassin of Henri IV in 1610, after the man, a fanatical Catholic named Ravaillac, had been gruesomely tortured, then was executed by drawing and quartering:
After an hour and a half of this cruelty, Ravaillac died, as the mob tried to prevent him from receiving the last rites and urged the horses to pull harder. When what remained of the regicide finally expired, “the entire populace, no matter what their rank, herled themselves on the body with their swords, knives, sticks or anything else to hand and began beating, hacking and tearing at it. They snatched the limbs from the executioner, savagely copping them up and dragging the pieces through the streets.” Children made a bonfire and flung remnants of Ravaillac’s body on to it. According to a witness, one woman actually ate some of the flesh. The executioner, who was supposed to have the body of the regicide reduced to ashes in order to complete the ritual as demanded by the law, could find nothing to bring his task to completion but the assassin’s shirt. Seldom, even at the height of the Terror, can the Paris mob have acted with greater ferocity, a ferocity born as much of fear as of grief and vengeance.
What the mob feared was the return of religious war to France, which Henri had done so much to quell. Still, it is revolting what people are capable of. And this was not a one-off for the mob in Paris. Lest we think we’re far from this savagery, think of what the mobs in Nazi Germany did. About 100 years ago in this country, people used to go out to watch black men lynched as family leisure. It is conceivable that right here in my town, there are very old people alive today who were part of those mobs. We are much closer to all that than we think.
In church this morning (it’s the Feast of the Dormition, or, for Catholics, the Assumption), I was thinking about these things, and thinking about the role priests, monks, preachers, and faithful Christian laymen of these past eras played in whipping up mobs to murder, and I thought that it’s a wonder God can stand any of us.