(note: This passage is from A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court which is widely beloved by young and old alike who mostly mistake it for one of the many Bowdlerized, sanitized, Hollywood treatments it’s been given because- hey, why read the book when you can rent the video and have a night of Netflix and chill with your cutie?
“Isn’t this the one about the guy who wakes up with Arthur and tricks Merlin by predicting an eclipse?”
Yeah, it’s that one. Sigh.
In fact A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court is an enormously interesting, entertaining, and politically oriented book. You should actually read it some time.
I’m not sure I share at this date, 128 years after publication, Twain’s boundless belief in science and innovation (he invested a ton of money in bleeding edge tech, for it’s time, and lost most of it, forcing him out on the road away from his mansion in Hartford and his beloved wife Livy doing his standup act in Lecture Halls, Opera Houses, and Theaters across the United States and overseas), some critics detect a certain level of cynicism about it even in this work.
Clearly however he had no illusions of “progress” in the human condition and considered people in general ill-tempered, boorish, pig ignorant, hypocritical, vain, stupid, easily swindled, and liars. “Connecticut Yankee” was written midway though the cycle of Booms and Panics now commonly casually dismissed as “The Gilded Age” by a poorly educated public unmotivated to learn or understand History, if they even know about it at all. It saw the largest rise of Social Inequality since the Feudal System, unmatched until… well, today.
It is a great book, timelessly relevant. A cutting and unmerciful satire of the excesses of Industrial Capitalism with a humorous tone (no, Satire and Humor are not the same thing).
Look, I’m a classically trained Historian and Writer who happens to do Programming and Computers because there’s no market for my devastating and controversial 1273 page analysis (1527 with footnotes, Introduction, and Appendixes, gonna be an NYT bestselling author like my cousin someday, you betcha) of Ming Dynasty celebrity gossip tentatively titled- “Hongwu, Hongxi, Hongzhi: How Do You Pronounce Them Anyway?” (badly). The last time I saw the English Major he said to me-
“Do you want fries with that?”)
We were off before sunrise, Sandy riding and I limping along behind. In half an hour we came upon a group of ragged poor creatures who had assembled to mend the thing which was regarded as a road. They were as humble as animals to me; and when I proposed to breakfast with them, they were so flattered, so overwhelmed by this extraordinary condescension of mine that at first they were not able to believe that I was in earnest. My lady put up her scornful lip and withdrew to one side; she said in their hearing that she would as soon think of eating with the other cattle—a remark which embarrassed these poor devils merely because it referred to them, and not because it insulted or offended them, for it didn’t. And yet they were not slaves, not chattels.
By a sarcasm of law and phrase they were freemen. Seven-tenths of the free population of the country were of just their class and degree: small “independent” farmers, artisans, etc.; which is to say, they were the nation, the actual Nation; they were about all of it that was useful, or worth saving, or really respect-worthy, and to subtract them would have been to subtract the Nation and leave behind some dregs, some refuse, in the shape of a king, nobility and gentry, idle, unproductive, acquainted mainly with the arts of wasting and destroying, and of no sort of use or value in any rationally constructed world.
And yet, by ingenious contrivance, this gilded minority, instead of being in the tail of the procession where it belonged, was marching head up and banners flying, at the other end of it; had elected itself to be the Nation, and these innumerable clams had permitted it so long that they had come at last to accept it as a truth; and not only that, but to believe it right and as it should be. The priests had told their fathers and themselves that this ironical state of things was ordained of God; and so, not reflecting upon how unlike God it would be to amuse himself with sarcasms, and especially such poor transparent ones as this, they had dropped the matter there and become respectfully quiet.
The talk of these meek people had a strange enough sound in a formerly American ear. They were freemen, but they could not leave the estates of their lord or their bishop without his permission; they could not prepare their own bread, but must have their corn ground and their bread baked at his mill and his bakery, and pay roundly for the same; they could not sell a piece of their own property without paying him a handsome percentage of the proceeds, nor buy a piece of somebody else’s without remembering him in cash for the privilege; they had to harvest his grain for him gratis, and be ready to come at a moment’s notice, leaving their own crop to destruction by the threatened storm.
They had to let him plant fruit trees in their fields, and then keep their indignation to themselves when his heedless fruit-gatherers trampled the grain around the trees; they had to smother their anger when his hunting parties galloped through their fields laying waste the result of their patient toil; they were not allowed to keep doves themselves, and when the swarms from my lord’s dovecote settled on their crops they must not lose their temper and kill a bird, for awful would the penalty be.
When the harvest was at last gathered, then came the procession of robbers to levy their blackmail upon it: first the Church carted off its fat tenth, then the king’s commissioner took his twentieth, then my lord’s people made a mighty inroad upon the remainder; after which, the skinned freeman had liberty to bestow the remnant in his barn, in case it was worth the trouble; there were taxes, and taxes, and taxes, and more taxes, and taxes again, and yet other taxes—upon this free and independent pauper, but none upon his lord the baron or the bishop, none upon the wasteful nobility or the all-devouring Church.
If the baron would sleep unvexed, the freeman must sit up all night after his day’s work and whip the ponds to keep the frogs quiet; if the freeman’s daughter—but no, that last infamy of monarchical government is unprintable; and finally, if the freeman, grown desperate with his tortures, found his life unendurable under such conditions, and sacrificed it and fled to death for mercy and refuge, the gentle Church condemned him to eternal fire, the gentle law buried him at midnight at the cross-roads with a stake through his back, and his master the baron or the bishop confiscated all his property and turned his widow and his orphans out of doors.
And here were these freemen assembled in the early morning to work on their lord the bishop’s road three days each—gratis; every head of a family, and every son of a family, three days each, gratis, and a day or so added for their servants.
Why, it was like reading about France and the French, before the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villany away in one swift tidal-wave of blood, one, a settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell.
There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break?
What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.