Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/February 1886/The Musket as a Social Force
By JOHN McELROY.
WHAT has always greatly puzzled the historical student has been to account for the debasement of the mass of mankind that took place during the long night of the dark ages.
In the lustrous afternoon which preceded that going down of the sun of civilization for a half-score of centuries the people of Europe seemed to be enjoying a fair measure of liberty and self-respect. In decaying Rome they were poor, for the wealth had agglutinated into the hands of the few. In barbaric Germany they were poor, because the wealth had not been created. But they were all free, and highest and lowest stood on a common plane of manhood. In spite of apparent caste distances, the substance of equality was yet a permanent and controlling quality. Everywhere the high and the low were but an arm's length apart, and the arm that measured that distance was a sturdy, manly one, usually quite ready to give and return blows. South of the Alps the proudest noble was within reach of the torch and dagger of the humblest plebeian. North of the great mountains no chief was so powerful as to be beyond the spear-thrust of the meanest of his followers. No man need be wholly abject, for he was always within striking distance of his oppressor. The turbulent Roman proletary resisted encroachment on his rights with riot and insurrection. The brawny Teuton knew no master but his elected chief, whom he deposed with scant ceremony the moment the leader's hand or nerve weakened.
A thousand years later, when day dawned once more, an amazing chasm was found to have opened up between the high and the low. The few were as gods in their power over the lives and property of the many. The low were as abject in their degradation as the beasts that perish.
In each community there had come to be one who lorded it like a wolf in a village of prairie-dogs. He dwelt on a hill-top, in a castle of massive masonry, clad himself in fine raiment, and gormandized, battened, and rioted. Where he was, there was "gude chere in knightlie hall," there were "wassail" and "revel" and "rouse" and all the other fine-named forms of the dull gluttony of feudal days.
In order that this one man might stale his palate with dainties, thousands of other men—"serfs," "churls," "villeins," "hinds," "peasants," etc.—were deprived of all but the smallest amount of coarse food that would enable them to live, labor, and reproduce their kind! In order that he might clothe himself in piled velvet, and his lady "walk in silk attire," they and their wives were confined to a single coarse garment. In order that he might sleep on down in marble halls, they were restricted to a couch of rushes in a fireless and windowless hovel.
Now, how did this man on the hill-top "so get the start of the majestic world" that all the kernels and sweetmeats in the lives of thousands were his, while only the rinds, the husks, and the shells, were thrown to them?
The answer is easy: It came about through the adaptation of the horse to warfare, and the development of defensive armor. Improvements in armor made the aggressive, domineering man invulnerable to spear and dagger in the hands of those whom he would oppress. Ensconced in tempered steel, and moved by a horse's mighty motive power, he was irresistible to those who could only oppose to him their own unprotected thews and sinews.
It is significant to notice how constantly the idea of the horse is associated with the elevation of the few and the degradation of the many under feudalism. In all the tongues of Europe it is the "Man on Horseback" who is the lord and despoiler of the people. The Germans called him "Der Ritter" (the rider), and cognate words designated him in all the divisions of the Teutonic speech. In French the horse is un cheval, and the tyrant of fields and people a chevalier. The Portuguese called him a cavalleiro, the Spaniards a caballero, and the Italians a cavalliere—all direct derivatives of the Greek and Latin kaballus, a horse. In England, where, for reasons that shall be given presently, the people were not crushed down to anything like the extent of their class on the Continent, the name given the Man on Horseback shows that he never acquired any such arrogant supremacy. There he was merely a knight (Anglo-Saxon cniht, a youth, an attendant, a military follower).
In the far-off days, ere the centuries had entered their teens, the gentleman who was burning with enthusiasm to earn his bread by the sweat of some one else's brows proceeded differently from what he would now. Contrasted with the neat finish of an "operation" in stocks or produce, or the Louisiana Lottery, his methods seem crude and clumsy. Nevertheless, like the methods of most of the processes of primitive people, they were quite effective.
He provided himself with a stout horse and a suit of armor combining all the latest improvements. He then set himself up as the lord and "protector" of as large a collection of land-tillers as he could cajole or force into accepting his "protection." Sydney Smith wittily described a lawyer as "a gentleman who rescues your estate from your enemy and keeps it himself." It was on this principle that these "protectors" acted. They took the entire product of the husbandman's labor as a reward for their friendship and courage in protecting him from spoliation by some one else!
The period was the Golden Age of Might. It was the day of the absolute monarchy of Brawn, and the strong right arm was the court of first resort and tribunal of final appeal. Centuries of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilization had developed the science of jurisprudence into laws and customs which were fairly equitable in securing ownership of person and property. But moral chaos came again when the Gothic cataclysm rolled over Europe. There was no longer any recognition of a man's right to anything to which he could not hold on by main strength.
The gentleman whose factory-plant, office-furniture, and stock in trade consisted of a stone castle, a broad-haunched horse, a business suit of spring-steel, and a twenty-foot lance, held thirteen trumps in the game as it was then played. To propitiate him—to gain even the privilege of living in unutterable wretchedness and squalor—freemen surrendered their lauds to him, gave up all their labor's products, and even yielded to him such of their women as his momentary caprice might demand.
The Men on Horseback divided all the arable lands of Europe among them. Naturally they had hot disagreements as to who should have the monopoly of plundering a given valley or plain, and carried on the dispute with much clamor and fighting. In spite of the ornate descriptions of romancers and ballad-singers, this latter was not of a very sanguinary nature. So completely was armor finally made to answer its intended purpose that there are records of "battles" between imposing arrays of armored horsemen, which lasted all day, but in which not a single life was lost. The worst likely to happen to any combatant was that he be unhorsed, pinned to the ground by the weight of his armor, taken captive, and forced to pay ransom. "The knights of old" were warriors "for revenue only."
The only likelihood of any considerable slaughter was when the wretched serfs—goaded to madness by their wrongs—revolted against their despoilers, and strove against them with pikes, scythes, bills, and similar ineffective weapons. Then the wolf-hounds of murder were let loose. Cavaliers at war with one another would make a truce, to join in slaying "rebellious hinds." The last great battle of this kind was in the "War of the Jacquerie," in 1348, where nine thousand poor serfs were massacred in the French town of Meaux, and in the three weeks that the hunt lasted more than twenty thousand were slain. So fond were the chevaliers of this sport of hind-killing that it was not an uncommon thing for them—before or after one of the great armor-battering matches which they called battles—to turn upon and slaughter the poor wretches whom they had mustered to attend them to the field. King Philip of France opened the battle of Crécy, in 1314, by charging his Genoese cross-bowmen with his chevaliers, and slaughtering them right and left!
The only men who resisted successfully these mounted ravagers and maintained for themselves some of the rudimentary rights of humanity were the merchants and artisans in the walled cities of Italy and Flanders; the Swiss, in their mountain fastnesses; and the insular English, whose dreadful long-bows would send arrows a cloth-yard in length through the best Milanese plate-armor. In consequence of the excellence of the English archery the Man on Horseback throve there 80 poorly that the worst condition of the English people in the middle ages was always better than the best condition of those on the Contient. Nor could the Man on Horseback's charge avail against the Italian and Flemish burghers, behind their solid walls.
In 1386 a horde of Austrian cavaliers, who were striving to reduce the Swiss mountaineers to serfdom, penetrated some distance into the Canton of Unterwalden. The ground was so rugged that they had to dismount, and proceed on foot. They were compelled to cut off the long toes of their shoes in order to be able to walk. They were suddenly confronted at Sempach by a small band of determined peasants. Arnold Struth von Winkelried performed his immortal act of self-sacrifice, by breaking with his naked breast the firm front of lances, and his companions rushed in and slew the clumsy dismounted horsemen. This and similar victories secured the freedom of the dwellers among the Alps, and bred there a race of men who were to become the flails to help beat feudalism to fragments.
With these exceptions the print of the war-horse's hoof was on every fertile acre in Europe. The long lance of his rider was the sickle which reaped the fruit of every man's labor. Greedier and greedier every year grew the hungry horde of steel-clad riders. Less and less of the comforts of life they left the abject peasantry. Nearer and nearer the condition of the laboring cattle sank those who delved and planted, and reaped and garnered.
The horsed harpies knew themselves well. They delighted in the character of birds and beasts of prey, and were proud to make lions, tigers, bears, eagles, and hawks, the cognizances by which they were known.
The sole mitigation of this reign of misery for the many was that, in spite of their armor, these rapacious harriers occasionally devoured one another. The strongest slew the less strong; the lions killed off some of the hyenas and jackals; the eagles tore to pieces the kites and hawks. The strongest and craftiest lord of some single hill-top killed off a number of his associates in the robbery business, or seized their lands after they had drunk and gorged themselves into the grave, and became lord of all the hill-tops commanding the entire plain or valley —became a prince, duke, count, or margrave. The same process welded several of these principalities, counties, dukedoms, or marquisates into a kingdom. The advantage to the people of this was, that they had fewer masters to feed and clothe, and the exactions upon them had somewhat more system. Spain and France became the leading nations of Europe because this process of aggregation went on more rapidly there than in Germany, Italy, Austria, and elsewhere.
Progressive people everywhere saw clearly what an improvement a king was upon the Man on Horseback, and became his advocates and supporters.
If, however, there had been no brighter hope for mankind than was contained in the evolution from a swarm of petty tyrants to a monarch, the outlook would have been dark indeed. .A millennium of that kind of progress would scarcely have brought mankind up to the plane occupied by the Russian serf to-day. Fortunately, another force was born into the world. Whether "black Barthel," the German monk, discovered gunpowder, or whether Friar Bacon preceded him, is of little consequence. The fourteenth century was yet quite young when somebody found out that a mixture of sulphur, niter, and charcoal would deliver a very heavy blow, and, as it was a day when heavy blows commanded the highest price of anything in the market, the attention of all progressive men was quickly turned to it. If we except the rhythmic beat of the vibrating battering-ram, the sturdiest blow then known was that which the momentum of a galloping horse delivered at the point of a lance. But even with the first rude tubes of wood and leather, or hooped iron boxes, the new force struck a blow that dismounted the doughtiest cavalier, and breached the thickest walls.
It began its work for mankind as the slave of kingcraft. Only kings could afford the costly "mortars," "vases," "culverins," "perriers," "falcons," etc.—only monarchs could employ the skilled artisans who manipulated these
". . . mortal engines whose rude throats
It had to serve an apprenticeship to autocracy before it became democracy's mighty minister. It prepared the way for its future mission, even then, for kings used it to dismount cavaliers, and beat down their castle-walls. The despotism of the Man on Horseback began to crack around the edges, and in the rifts and fissures of the iron tyranny fell the mustard-seed that was to grow up into the world-shadowing tree of liberty. Its development was dishearteningly slow, however. It was a day when all intellectual processes were as slow as the pace of the overladen battle-horses, and invention crawled languidly, instead of running and leaping, as to-day.
So it was fully a century and a half after Ferdinand IV used the first cannon to aid in capturing Gibraltar, before we find a Man on Foot using the first crude attempt at a musket. A favorite type of cannon were then called "bombards," and he styled this diminutive copy a "bombardelle." Nothing could have been ruder and more primitive in design and construction. It was merely a tube—probably about as large as a section of two-inch gas-pipe, but not so well made—with one end closed, and near that a small hole for a vent. It was securely fastened to a stout stick, the end of which rested on the ground to receive the recoil. The Man on Foot, clad in light armor, held the bombardelle up, while a comrade touched a live coal to the vent. Powder was as yet very weak, and it was necessary to use a ball weighing about a pound, in order to do any execution, even at the range of a few score paces. Nothing illustrates so well the amazing slowness of the evolutions of the heavily armored men and horses as that this clumsy weapon, which probably never had an effective range of one hundred yards, and could not have been fired oftener than once in five minutes, could have rendered any service whatever. With no facilities for aiming, it was by the merest accident that it struck the cavalier, unhorsed him, and put him at the mercy of his enemies on the ground, but even this chance was much gained.
The power was now getting into the hands in which it belonged. Invincible infantry means democracy sooner or later, just as inevitably as the invincible Man on Horseback meant aristocracy, and artillery autocracy. The foot-soldier, even though he be the myrmidon of a king or the henchman of a lord, is, unconsciously perhaps, the enemy of noble and sovereign. He comes from the people and returns to the people. Whatever he may do at behest of liege or lord is an object lesson to his fellow-commoners as to what they may do in opposition. Every step taken by his masters to make him more formidable is
"Bloody instruction, which, being taught, returns
The first cavalier that was rolled in the dust by a bombard elle-ball reopened the era of the people which had closed when Rome's matchless infantry disappeared from the fighting world. Thenceforward the final overthrow of feudal and kingly despotism and the triumph of the people became merely a question of improvements in the bombardelle. In vain the Man on Horseback strengthened his armor and thickened his castle-walls. The stronger his armor, the more he was weighted down; the slower he moved, the longer he was within striking distance of the man with the "hand-gonne," Nor could the thickening of his walls keep pace with the improvement in cannon-making, the substitution of iron balls for stones, and the strengthening of gunpowder.
In those days the Germans called cannon "boxes" (Büchse), from the manner in which they were built up. They devised a fork or hook (Haken) to support the bombardelle and afford better aim, and called the improved arm a "hook-box" (Haken-büchse), whence the various forms of "harkebus" and "arquobuse" in the different languages. Presently the tube, growing still lighter as the improvement ill the manufacture of powder enabled the weight of the ball to be continually reduced, was laid in a stock similar to that of the famous Genoese cross-bow, and a priming-pan was placed at the vent. A little later a still more valuable improvement was made by attaching to the rear end of the barrel a piece of iron shaped like the letter S, and celled a "serpent." The upper end of this carried the tip of a lighted rope-match into the priming-pan when the lower end was moved by the finger. When a trigger and springs were subsequently added, the Man on Foot had the historic "matchlock," with which ho fought for two and a half centuries.
Thenceforward the march of improvement was steady and at an accelerating pace. The "hand-gonne" gained continual access of power over the Man on Horseback, and as continually its use became more familiar to the people at large. By singular concatenations, which some people are fond of terming "providential dispensations," the men advocating the best ideas got hold of the best improved guns and had the most of them.
In 1477 the Swiss, who had grown so self-confident that they did not hesitate to descend from their mountains to attack the Men on Horseback on the plains, came down from the passes of the Vosges Mountains carrying from six thousand to ten thousand of these firelocks, and at Granson, Morat, and Nancy, literally destroyed off the face of the earth the arrogant Charles the Bold and his rapacious Burgundian chivalry. Guns which combined the improvements of another half-century enabled the Spanish footmen to smite the French chevaliers hip and thigh at Pavia in 1525, where Francis I "lost everything but honor," and the Spanish infantry became the first in Europe, a position it held for nearly a century, until, as the instrument of ecclesiastical tyranny in the Netherlands, it was defeated by the superior guns and tactics of the Dutch infantry under Maurice of Nassau.
A few decades later the use of paper cartridges by the Swedish musketeers gave them an advantage which greatly aided Gustavus Adolphus to widen the horizon of Liberty by his successful warfare against the hordes of civil and religious despotism. Nearly simultaneously firelocks in the hands of Cromwell's superb foot-soldiery were preaching irresistible arguments on the Rights of Man to Charles I's cavaliers.
The mediæval Man on Horseback may now be said to have permanently disappeared from the field of battle. Granson, Morat, and Pavia had showed him of how little avail it was for him to cover every inch of his own body and that of his horse with the best steel, and he began stripping it off, to gain celerity of movement under the dreadful fire. By the end of the seventeenth century it was all gone but the helmet and breastplate, and these were not worn by him, but by his mercenaries. As the musket now enabled battles to be determined by the superior manhood of superior numbers, and there was always a great deal of downright killing, he lost his keen interest in war as a business, and loved best to fight by proxy. The plaint of the fop to Harry Hotspur was an anachronism of about two hundred years for Henry IV's reign, but it expressed pretty accurately the feelings of the aristocracy in Shakespeare's time:
"And that it was a great pity, so it was,
The Man on Horseback still continued to don his suit of "complete steel" from time to time for nearly a century after it was last worn in line of battle, but it was only to impress the popular imagination and enhance his personal appearance when he took part in the pageantry of government. The long warfare between him and the king had ended in his entire subjugation, and he was now an obsequious attendant upon "his royal master," with whom he had entered into an offensive and defensive alliance against the common people.
Steady improvement of the weapon through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by the men who were wielding it to gain for themselves the commonest rights of ownership in their own souls and bodies and the fruits of their toil, had made the musket so handy that the cumbrous fork-rest could be dispensed with, and had given it the flint-lock, the bayonet, and the front-sight, which latter greatly increased the accuracy of aim.
By another of those remarkable providential dispensations, grim old Leopold of Dessau devised the iron ramrod, just at the time v.-hen it was most needed to enable the little Prussian army to withstand the overwhelming masses of barbaric Russia, stupid old Austria, and intriguing France. As Frederick II's men were able to fire five times to their enemies' twice, the reactionary waves beat in vain against the new bulwark raised up to protect the progressivism which had made its home in Northwestern Europe.
Across the Western seas a still greater development was taking place. In the grasp of the men who had sought refuge from tyranny in the wilds of America the musket was not the mysterious and awkwardly handled engine it was in the hands of most Europeans. To the colonist it was the most familiar of his every-day tools. The daily food of the family was provided with it; the fiercest wild beasts were slain by it, and the fiercer wild Indians were conquered by it and driven from the lands which they claimed as their birthright. Being its owner's main dependence in his struggle for life, he naturally strove to raise its powers to the highest mechanical limits of the day. By rifling the inside of the barrel, and placing a sight on the rear end, he made his aim mathematically certain. With such a weapon he could encounter every mortal foe with entire confidence. Rattlesnake nor panther, wild Indian nor foreign mercenary, had any terrors for him. If his foe had brain or heart, his unerring bullet was sure to find it.
With his rifle in hand the common man reclothed himself with all the rights that had been torn from him by a thousand years of the despotism of the Man on Horseback. He brooked so little of tyranny that he would not endure so much of it as was involved in the attempt to tax him without his full consent. The assertion in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence differed from most similar fulminations in that it was not ahead but only abreast of the popular acceptance of the principles which it affirmed. Men were not only endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but on this side of the ocean they exercised them to the fullest extent.
Still more: they taught the Frenchmen who had come here to assist them in their final struggle for freedom, by precept, and those who had stayed at home by example, that the musket was the means by which those rights were obtained and maintained. They demonstrated in practice the axioms to a perception of which all Europe had been slowly rising: that before the musket's muzzle all men are equal; that lordly lineage, boundless wealth, nor privileged caste can hedge a man with a divinity impervious to bullets; but that any set of men, who love liberty well enough to peril life for it, must be met on equal terms, with equal hazard of life, by those who would deprive them of it; that the reign of the few was ending, and that of the many beginning, for, with all men equally able to kill their opposers, only those governments and systems of governments can maintain themselves which can rally to their support more than can be arrayed in opposition.
In all the world's history no teaching ever had such immediate and tremendous results. Within a quarter of a century after the close of the American Revolution the new Evangel of Freedom had flamed from the Seine to the Moskwa, at the muzzles of millions of muskets, borne by men who had suddenly risen from the abasement of serfdom to the full stature of manhood. In France, the chosen home of chivalry, the degenerate sons of the Men on Horseback had been drowned in a sea of their own vicious blood. In all the fairest parts of Continental Europe the land had been wrested from the heirs of the banditti-lords, and restored to the ownership of those who tilled it. The whole civilized world had begun that rapid march toward popular government
". . . whose compulsive course
but will "keep due on," until emperors, kings, and potentates will be as obsolete as the "tabards," "beevors," "brassards," and other trumpery of the mediæval Man on Horseback.
All life is battling—all society a conflict of forces. Little worth having is ever got without being wrung from the teeth of opposition. Particularly is this true of the ordinary possession of manhood. Every privilege and immunity which we enjoy to-day, without more thought than we enjoy the sunshine and the summer air, has been extorted—most frequently through bloodshed—from those who would fain withhold it. The student of history reading the Bill of Rights sees in every clause the result of some successful war fought to wring a concession of that particular principle from the dominant class. The musket has steadily led the way and supported every extension of the boundaries of freedom. Without so irresistible a weapon within reach of every man's hand, the world would still be prostrate under the hoofs of an equestrian aristocracy, whose despotism would only be tempered by the tyranny of kingcraft.
Artillery is monarchic, cavalry aristocratic, and infantry democratic. Armor and the horse brought about the rule of the few over the many; cannon helped make one man ruler over all; while the musket is the agent of the popular will and the pioneer of universal suffrage. "All free government," says an eminent philosopher, "depends upon the power of the majority to whip the minority." The fundamental principle of democracy is that the wishes of one thousand men shall prevail over those of nine hundred men, and the musket gives the thousand men the physical power to enforce their will upon the nine hundred men.