Would a king from the Middle Ages willingly swap lives with an average American?

February 13, 2010 | By | 7 Replies More

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 kingpercentile 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 king-in-mini-cooperstunning 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
The Beatles
Smart phones
Coffee and Chocolate
Dental care that will allow him to save his teeth.
Book stores
Reading Glasses
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue
Microwave ovens
Modern hiking and camping gear
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Modern woodworking tools
Banana splits

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].


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, History, Meaning of Life, Science

About the Author ()

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.

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  1. It's always a good time to appreciate good things | Dangerous Intersection | February 24, 2010
  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    This subject is regularly on my mind, as a fan of the history of technology and of time travel stories.

    But several of the items on your list of modern "joys" are either acquired cultural tastes (jazz, Beatles, coffee, Python, pizza) or of no possible interest to a King (woodworking tools are the stuff of tradesmen, peasants).

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: I see that you didn't list the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue as an acquired cultural taste. I used that magazine as a stand-in for the rampant air-brushed sexuality of modern times, that I suspect would almost overwhelm a king's broad-based cultural education if he were transported here. Though it might be interesting to see whether a Wii could pull him away from sexually charged distractions.

    I'm curious, though, about what you think on a gut level. Would a typical king chuck it all and sign up for middle-class American life-style?

    Note that I tried to avoid gadgets, toys and experiences that were out of the reach of average Americans. We wouldn't be trying to tempt the king with his own private yacht or a house in the Hamptons, much less offering to drench him in modern power by giving him a high post in state or national government.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Today's quote from The Quotations Page:

    "Television is more interesting than people. If it were not, we would have people standing in the corners of our rooms."

    Alan Corenk


  4. Erika Price says:

    Wealth and poverty are measured on relative terms, of course. In the 80's and 90's, an 'impoverished' person would not have had a personal computer, but they probably had a tv, while a similarly poor person a few decades before that would have been lucky to own a radio. Now, a poor person can possess a radio, two TVs, and a cellphone and be terribly deprived, as they'd still lack the now-ubiquitous resources that computers and internet access provide.

    Compared to a poor person (or even a middle class person) living in 1960, is a poor person today 'better off'? They have vastly expanded telecommunications options, probably better infrastructure, probably make more money in real terms and benefit from many medical and personal-use technologies. But they still are poor- if they don't have a computer, or a car, they are vastly deprived compared to other people in the marketplace.

    So if a top-tier king was fully aware of relative deprivation, he'd probably prefer to be the Big Fish in a technologically Small Pond. There are unseen psychic benefits to being at the 'top', I think.

    Then again, as soon as this hypothetical King found out about Xtube, Redtube and Youporn, he'd probably have to stay in our times. Some technologies, once ubiquitous, become almost a basic 'need'.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    A peasant from as recently as a couple of hundred years ago would certainly feel that modern times First-World lower class would be living like a king.

    However, as Erika points out, being a medieval King is more than creature comfort. What use is an electric razor without the barber to wield it? Of what possible value is entertainment that doesn't quake at the thought of displeasing one? Microwave ovens? How will it know when to serve Us, or how to hire the comeliest maid to deliver the portion?

    Dental care and glasses are good. But a medieval King was not generally some effete scholar, a lowly herald who did his own reading.

  6. Berry says:

    I have always wanted to go to the middle ages and be king, but as for our king coming to america, No he would go back to his time, he would get someone to get what he needed then go back and change history as we know it, It would be like telling the president that he had to run the country from arizona without anything. see once you have that power you caqnnot let go of it people who win the lottery go crazy, it would be vise-versa to take someone who had everything, did what he want when he wanted to do it. simply no, yes he would stay a while learn then take it and dominate in his time. as for the darwin theory, remeber they had templars back in them days. and if you brought up evolution, he would probably kill you where you stood, they were very, very very religious in those days and, for the porn yes it was funny but he would also order those people to be killed. you didnt even speak the LORDS name unless you prayed otherwise you would be executed for blasphemy. he might not even take anything he might even learn of how we where formed as a country and set up events for america not even to exsist. he would think we where demons of the devil. so to be honest, he would think we where demons, go back to his time tell his trusted about it and he would find a way for people to not even go to the new world. even if he lives say early 1300.

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