Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like to be a great and powerful king from the Middle Ages. I’m talking about kingly kings—those who would be deemed successful by other kings. If you were one of those top 25 percentile kings, just think of all the people waiting on you, and imagine all of your privileges, including your own court jester to entertain you, and lots of soldiers that you can use to expand or defend your territory. You would get to live in a beautiful big castle, and people from all around would seek your attention and bestow complements and gifts upon you and your family. Some of those visitors would come from far away and they would tell you stories from distant lands. If you got sick, the wisest doctor in the area would come to your service to give you the best health care available in the Middle Ages. Could there possibly be a better way to live than being a successful king?
I then wonder how being a king would compare to living the life of an average American in modern times. Consider that the median household income for an American family in the year 2007 was about $50,000, and that this can buy you a lot of things. The average American has access to foods from all around the world by visiting the local grocery store. American families typically own automobiles that can go much faster and much farther than the horse of any king. The average American can use a television or computer to hear news from anywhere in the world. Using the Internet, the average American has a “library” thousands of times bigger than the library of any king. Americans don’t have to imagine what it would be like to walk on the moon. They have photos and movies of people walking on the moon. They don’t have to wonder what Mars looks like, because they have stunning photos. They don’t have to wonder what stars actually are, or how big the universe is — they have scientific answers to these questions and answers to many other questions that Kings wouldn’t even know how to ask. The average American family has the option to stare at a large colorful television screen in their own home in order to be entertained by images and sounds that could not even be imagined by a king. When Americans get sick, they can go to hospitals that offer them stunningly effective cures for many maladies. The houses of average Americans are always kept warm in the winter and cool in the summer. A couple times each year, many Americans get to step into large silver machines that fly them to faraway places, traveling hundreds of miles per hour, where they capture incredible images with digital cameras. And then they share them with their Facebook kingdoms of hundreds of “friends.” You get the idea.
Now let’s assume that you could transport a Middle Ages king to modern times, and let him live the lifestyle of an average American for a few weeks. Here’s my opinion of what would happen:
He would immediately be mesmerized by automobiles. You might have a hard time getting him to stop playing with the car radio in order to enjoy the ride down the highway. He would salivate at the thought that he could ask the drive car. You might even let him drive a car around a bit on a parking lot to whet his appetite. Imagine, then, that you took him to the airport so he can fly through the clouds in an airplane.
You could teach him about the miracles done in modern hospitals– maybe even give him a dose of modern medicine to relieve the pain he is suffering from gout or arthritis or whatever. He would learn that thanks to modern medicine and nutrition, his lifespan would increase dramatically by moving to modern times. You could take him to a modern concert hall to hear a modern symphony orchestra, but you could also show him what it’s like to use an iPod. You could take him on a hike through a national park, such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, or you could let him walk through downtown Chicago to marvel at the architecture. You could show him some modern oversized human-built wonders such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Gateway Arch. You would certainly take him to some good restaurants, so that he could sample a wide variety of cuisine from distant parts of the world.
You could let him look at the moon through a modern telescope. You could blow his mind by telling him about Charles Darwin’s incredible discovery that he humans are related to all other life forms on earth. You want to make sure that he had a chance to tour some modern museums of art, history and science. You might allow him to take a modern rifle to go target shooting or hunting. You could take him to a modern university where he could see that diverse people from all over the world willingly share their ideas; this would twist his head around. It would be fun to let him see a sports competition where modern female athletes ran much faster than any man has ever run in his own experience. And why not also take him to a professional football or basketball game to let him see one of these modern spectacles while drinking a glass of beer and eating some nachos. On a cool spring evening, let him take a walk in a big city park where he can see people spending their leisure time in hundreds of delightful ways, and make sure he has a chance to visit a large modern zoo. Let him spend a few evenings with some well-rounded people who can share with him the vast expanses of their lifetimes of learning.
And don’t forget to let him experience the joys of the following:
Soap and deodorant
Coffee and Chocolate
Dental care that will allow him to save his teeth.
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue
Modern hiking and camping gear
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Modern woodworking tools
To be fair, we should show the king the dark side of modern living. We should also show him the over-crowding of many of our cities, our depleted natural resources, our political corruption, the high crime rates in many places, our massive prison industry, our unending wars and our other social injustices.
My question is a simple one. Would a powerful king from the Middle Ages, after seeing many of the pro’s and con’s of modern life, willingly swap his extraordinary Middle Ages life for the typical life of a modern American? I raised this question with some acquaintances today, and they thought that most Middle Ages kings would not want to give up their socially powerful positions and their social relationships in order to live the lifestyle of an average American tucked away in a modest-sized house. I then realized that my question should have been more precise. I re-framed it so that the question was whether a king would be willing to give up his Middle Ages privileged life if he could bring his immediate family with him to live in modern times. Perhaps the question should take into account whether that transplanted king would be required to work a job once he got to modern America. Should we assume that his job in modern times would be to work as a university professor teaching what it would be like to be a king in the Middle Ages?
It is my strong feeling that virtually every king from the Middle Ages would happily make the swap to modern times, to live the life of average Americans, as long as they could bring their immediate families with them. But maybe I’m just projecting. And I suspect that not many average income Americans would want to go back in time, even if they could assume the life of a successful Middle Ages king.
To the extent that I am correct that most kings would be willing to make the jump to modern times, what might this show? It wouldn’t merely be a story about wealth, since a King would be more wealthy, relative to others in his community, back in the Middle Ages. To the extent that a king would choose modern times, then, he would be choosing convenience over the ability to display an advantage in relative wealth. And maybe I’m wrong that kings would prefer modern times, because political power is an intoxicant; Middle Ages kings have lots of it, whereas middle-class kings have almost none of it. And maybe some kings sincerely believed themselves to be on a mission that would greatly transcend the temptations of modern gadgetry and conveniences. So I admit that I don’t really know that answer. I do bet that you’ve sometimes thought of this hypothetical too, and I’d be interested in your opinion. What do you think?
[Disclaimer: I am not a person who was once a king from the Middle Ages who has been transported to modern times after getting a glimpse of the many conveniences of modern times, and being given this choice].
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.
Sites That Link to this Post
- It's always a good time to appreciate good things | Dangerous Intersection | February 24, 2010