Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The True History of Jacques Bonhomme
By Augustin Thierry (1795–1856)
From Authentic Documents

From the ‘Historical Essays’

JACQUES was still very young, when strangers from the south invaded the land of his ancestors; it was a fine domain bathed by two great lakes, and capable of producing corn, wine, and oil in abundance. Jacques had a lively but unsteady mind; growing up on his usurped soil he forgot his ancestors, and the usurpers pleased him. He learned their language, espoused their quarrels, and bound himself to their fortune. This fortune of invasion and conquest was for some time successful; but one day fortune became adverse, and the tide of war brought invasion on the land of the usurpers. Jacques’s domain, on which floated their standards, was one of the first threatened. Bodies of men who had emigrated from the north besieged it on all sides. Jacques was too unaccustomed to independence to dream of freeing his habitation: the sole alternatives his mind suggested to him were, either to deliver himself up to new masters or to adhere to the old ones. Wavering between these two resolutions, he confided his doubts to a grave personage of his family,—the priest of a religion which Jacques had recently embraced, and which he practiced with great fervor.  1
  “My father,” said he, “what shall I do? My present state wearies me. Our conquerors, who call us their allies, treat us really like slaves. They exhaust us to fill their treasury, which in their language they call the basket: this basket is a bottomless abyss. I am weary of submitting to their yoke: but the yoke of their enemies frightens me; those north men are, it is said, very rapacious, and their battle-axes are very sharp. For mercy’s sake, tell me whose side I shall take.”—“My son,” replied the holy man, “you must be on the side of God: God in the present day is on the side of the idolatrous north against the heretical south. The men of the north will be your masters: I can predict this; for I myself, with my own hands, have just opened your gates to them.” Jacques was stunned by these words; he had not recovered from his bewilderment when a great noise of arms and horses, together with strange acclamations, told him that all was over. He saw men of great height, and speaking from the throat, hurry into his dwelling, divide the furniture into lots, and measure the land in order to divide it. Jacques was sad; but feeling that there was no remedy, he endeavored to become reconciled to his fate. He looked patiently at the thieves; and when their chief passed, he saluted him by the cry of Vivat rex! which the chief did not understand. The strangers distributed the booty, settled on their portions of land, reviewed their forces, exercised themselves in arms, assembled in councils, and decreed laws of police and war for themselves, without thinking more of Jacques than if he had never existed. He stood at a distance, awaiting an official notice of his destiny, and practicing with a great deal of trouble to pronounce the barbaric names of men in high stations among his new masters. Several of these euphoniously disfigured names may be restored in the following manner: Merowig, Chlodowig, Hilderik, Hildebert, Sighebert, Karl, etc.  2
  Jacques at last received his sentence: it was a formal act, drawn up by the friend and compatriot who had made himself the introducer of the conquerors; and who, as the price of such service, had received from their bounty the finest portion of the cultivated land and the Greek title of Episcopus—which the conquerors transformed into that of Biscop and granted without understanding it. Jacques, who until then had been called Romanus, the Roman, from the name of his first masters, saw himself qualified in this new diploma with the title of litus seu villanus noster; and ordered, under pain of the rod and cord, to cultivate the land himself for the benefit of the strangers. The word litus was new to his ears; he asked an explanation, and he was told that this word, derived from the Germanic verb let or lât, permit or leave, really signified that they had the kindness to let him live. This favor appeared to him rather a slight one; and he took a fancy to solicit others from the assembly of the possessors of his domain, which was held on fixed days in the open air, in a vast field. The chiefs stood in the midst, and the multitude surrounded them; decisions were made in common, and each man gave his opinion, from the highest to the lowest—a maximo usque ad minimum. Jacques went to that august council; but at his approach a murmur of contempt was raised, and the guards forbade him to advance, threatening him with the wood of their lances. One of the strangers, more polite than the others, and who knew how to speak good Latin, told him the cause of this treatment: “The assembly of the masters of this land,” said he, “dominorum territorii, is interdicted to men of your class,—to those whom we call ‘liti vel litones, et istius modi viles inopesque personæ.’”  3
  Jacques went sadly to work: he had to feed, clothe, warm, and lodge his masters; he worked for many years, during which time his condition barely changed, but during which, on the other hand, he saw the vocabulary by which his miserable condition was designated increase prodigiously. In several inventories that were drawn up at the same time, he saw himself ignominiously confounded with the trees and flocks of the domain, under the common name of clothing of the land, terræ vestitus; he was called live money, pecunia vive, body serf, addictus glebæ, bondman in the idiom of the conquerors. In times of clemency and mercy, only six days’ labor out of seven was demanded of him. Jacques was sober; he lived on little, and endeavored to save: but more than once his slender savings were taken from him in virtue of that incontestable axiom, “Quæ servi sunt, ea sunt domini,”—what the serf possesses is the master’s property.  4
  Whilst Jacques worked and suffered, his masters quarreled amongst themselves, either from vanity or interest. More than once they deposed their chiefs; more than once their chiefs oppressed them; more than once opposite factions waged a civil war. Jacques always bore the weight of these disputes: no party spared him; he always had to bear the anger of the conquered and the pride of the conquerors. It happened that the chief of the conquering community pretended to have the sole real claims on the land, the labor, the body and the soul of poor Jacques. Jacques, credulous and trusting to an excess because his woes were innumerable, allowed himself to be persuaded to give his consent to these pretensions, and accept the title of “subjugated by the chief,” subjectus regis; in the modern jargon, “subject of the king.” In virtue of this title, Jacques only paid the king fixed taxes, tallias rationabiles, which was far from meaning reasonable taxes. But although nominally become the property of the chief, he was not therefore free from the exactions of the subalterns. Jacques paid first on one side, then on the other; fatigue was wearing him out. He entreated repose: the laughing reply was, “Bonhomme cries out, but bonhomme must pay.” Jacques bore with misfortune: he was unable to tolerate outrage. He forgot his weakness, he forgot his nakedness, and hurried out against his oppressors, armed to their teeth or intrenched in fortresses. Their chiefs and subalterns, friends and enemies, all united to crush him. He was pierced with the strokes of lances, hacked with the cuts of swords, bruised under the feet of horses: no more breath was left in him but what he required not to die on the spot, for he was wanted.  5
  Jacques—who since this war bore the surname of Jacques bonhomme—recovered of his wounds, and paid as heretofore. He paid the subsidies, the assistances, the gabelle, the rights of sale, of tolls and customs, the poll tax, the twentieths, etc., etc. At this exorbitant price, the king protected him a little against the rapacity of the other nobles: this more fixed and peaceful condition pleased him; he became attached to the new yoke which procured it for him; he even persuaded himself that this yoke was natural and necessary to him, that he required fatigue in order not to burst with health, and that his purse resembled trees, which grow when they are pruned. Care was taken not to burst out laughing at these sallies of his imagination; they were encouraged, on the contrary: and it was when he gave full vent to them that the names of loyal and well-advised man, “recte legalis et sapiens,” were given him.  6
  If it is for my good that I pay, said Jacques to himself one day, it follows therefore that the first duty of those I pay is to act for my good; and that they are, properly speaking, only the stewards of my affairs. If they are the stewards of my affairs, it follows that I have a right to regulate their accounts and give them my advice. This succession of inductions appeared to him very luminous: he never doubted but that it did the greatest credit to his sagacity; he made it the subject of a large book, which he printed in beautiful type. This book was seized, mutilated, and burnt; instead of the praises which the author expected, the galleys were proposed to him. His presses were seized; a lazzaretto was instituted, wherein his thoughts were to perform quarantine before passing into print. Jacques printed no more, but he did not think less. The struggle of his thought against authority was long secret and silent; his mind long meditated this great idea, that by a natural right he was free and master at home, before he made any tentative to realize it. At last one day, when a great want of money compelled the powers whom Jacques supplied, to call him to council to obtain from him a subsidy which it did not dare to exact, Jacques arose, assumed a proud tone, and clearly stated his absolute and imprescriptible right of property and liberty.  7
  Authority capitulated, then retracted; war ensued, and Jacques was the conqueror, because several friends of his former masters deserted to embrace his cause. He was cruel in his victory, because long misery had soured him. He knew not how to conduct himself when free, because he still had the habits of slavery. Those whom he took for stewards enslaved him anew whilst proclaiming his absolute sovereignty. “Alas!” said Jacques, “I have suffered two conquests; I have been called serf, villain, subject: but I never was insulted by being told that it was in virtue of my rights that I was a slave and despoiled.” One of his officers, a great warrior, heard him murmur and complain. “I see what you want,” said he, “and I will take upon myself to give it to you. I will mix up the traditions of the two conquests that you so justly regret: I will restore to you the Frankish warriors, in the persons of my soldiers; they shall be, like them, barons and nobles. I will reproduce the great Cæsar, your first master; I will call myself imperator: you shall have a place in my legions; I promise you promotion in them.” Jacques opened his lips to reply, when suddenly the trumpets sounded, the drums beat, the eagles were unfurled. Jacques had formerly fought under the eagles; his early youth had been passed in following them mechanically: as soon as he saw them again, he thought no longer—he marched….  8
  It is time that the jest should end. We beg pardon for having introduced it into so grave a subject: we beg pardon for having made use of an insulting name formerly applied to our fathers, in order to retrace more rapidly the sad succession of our misfortunes and our faults. It seems as if on the day on which, for the first time, servitude, the daughter of armed invasion, put its foot on the country which now bears the name of France, it was written above that servitude should never leave it; that, banished under one form, it was to reappear under another, and changing its aspect without changing its nature, stand upright at its former post in spite of time and mankind. After the domination of the conquering Romans, came the domination of the conquering Franks; then absolute monarchy, then the absolute authority of republican laws, then the absolute power of the French empire, then five years of exceptional laws under the constitutional charter. Twenty centuries have elapsed since the footsteps of conquest were imprinted on our soil; its traces have not disappeared: generations have trampled on without destroying them; the blood of men has washed without effacing them. Was it then for such a destiny that nature formed that beautiful country which so much verdure adorns, such harvests enrich, and which is under the influence of so mild a climate?  9

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