Okay, if you’ve been reading my blog for more than a few seconds then you know that I have a soft spot in my heart for medieval peasants. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if I lived in the Middle Ages I would rather have been a peasant than a noble. I think this pretty much continues to be true up until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when I would have preferred to be a noble. But that’s beside the point. Rural peasant life in the Middle and Early Modern Ages was probably pretty awesome.
And I can hear half the people reading this flipping out and sharpening their argument knives. Of course life as a medieval peasant or even a 19th century aristocrat was dismal compared to life nowadays! How could you even think that there is anything better than right now? People of History were poor, dirty, and starving, right? Everybody knows that!
Okay, I’ll admit that life in the modern world has a lot of advantages that life “back in the day” absolutely didn’t. But were the problems that people faced in days gone by really any worse than the problems we face right now?
Let’s take a look at this….
Food, Clothing, and Shelter
Food, Clothing, and Shelter are the three basic needs of human beings. We need to eat, we need to not walk around naked and cold, and we need a roof over our heads. Most of the population of the medieval world, the early modern world, and the modern world have these things. The big differences come in quality, quantity, and convenience.
As I discussed in my post a while back about The Medieval Peasant Diet, what people ate in the Middle Ages was less varied and depended on the region and the seasons, but there was food. There was less food if the land yielded less and more if it yielded more. But there was food. People had far, far fewer changes of clothes back in the day and getting a new piece of clothing was a serious big deal. But they had clothes. Houses were smaller and they didn’t have modern appliances. Sometimes large families had to share a small space and sometimes a nuclear family was only a few people with more than enough room to spare. But they had houses.
In the modern world we have many, many more options. We eat food, whether its in season or not, imported from all over the globe. In many cases someone else prepares it for us, whether at a restaurant or at a factory before it’s packaged and frozen. So the modern world has variety and convenience going for it. However, a lot of debate has been stirred about the true nutritional value of the food we eat. And what about all those preservatives we’re eating with the food, not to mention hormones and antibiotics in our meat and dairy? And I don’t know if they ever solved the problem of genetically modified foods, but there was that too. Plus I do believe that obesity is a bigger problem than ever before (no pun intended) not to mention heart disease, diabetes, and the like.
Clothes are readily available and just about everyone in the Western world probably has more of them than they know what to do with. Most of us don’t have to wear the same thing every day with one good dress for Sunday and one pair of shoes to last several years. Although that’s exactly what my Grandma did growing up in the 1930s in rural Ohio. We’re not as far separated from those days as we think. So we have variety and ease of accessibility going in our favor in the modern world. But I can’t tell you how many items of clothing I’ve bought at the mall only to have them fall apart after a couple of washes because they are poorly made. And I spent a lot of money buying those things. Not to mention the questionable conditions a lot of our clothing is made in overseas. Sometimes it seems like we’re okay with the exploitation of the poor and even children in the name of fashion.
Houses are everywhere. Massive developments full of houses that are packed with modern conveniences dot the landscape. Our houses and what we have in them are perhaps the biggest difference between then and now. We have a lot of space and a lot of time-saving devices packed inside of that space. But then there’s that whole sub-prime mortgage crisis thing that started this recession. And how many people actually own their house? I mean outright own it without paying a mortgage?
In my eyes, housing is a good example of how things haven’t changed as much as we think they have. I rent an apartment. Most of the people I know make mortgage payments to a bank. None of us really owns our own home. Medieval peasants didn’t own their own homes either. Their lord did. They made payments to the lord of service and money to live where they did. They paid rent. We pay rent. Land is actually owned by a very, very few people, or corporations, and those people own a lot of it. At least medieval peasants or 19th century factory workers were under no illusions.
How about the less tangible things of life? In the modern world right now money is a problem for most people. Unemployment rates are soaring. Poverty rates are soaring. Occupy movements are grabbing a lot of attention worldwide. And what are those protests about? I haven’t been able to really figure that one out, but I have heard the slogan that 1% of the population controls 99% of the money. Yep. ‘Twas always thus and always thus will be.
In the pre-Industrial world 95% of the population lived a rural life. They lived in small communities on manors owned by a lord, absent or present, and most of what they did was related to the land. A few people were in trade and an even fewer people lived in the cities. Because life was lived so close to the bone you knew what you had to do to put food on the table. You had to grow it and you had to prepare it. Most people took up the profession of their father. The question of “what do you want to be when you grow up” was a no-brainer. Few people were educated, but then again, few people needed to be educated. It was a life without many choices and without much variation.
Psychology and psychoanalysis are modern inventions. We need professionals to help us figure out who we are, what our place in society is, and how to cope with life. We have so many choices of what we want to do or be or where we want to live or how we want to live. We have SO many choices! But so many of the choices we have involve a huge outlay of money. Study after study shows that a college or post-graduate degree puts you in a higher income bracket, yet getting those degrees is more expensive than ever. I know that I racked up over $45,000 in student loan debt to get a degree I’m not overtly using. Yes, I’m smart and I have the paper to prove it, but as I frequently tell people, how smart was it to go $45,000 into debt for a degree I won’t use for what it is?
In the pre-Industrial world and rural societies of the early modern age there was a sense of community, of closeness. Neighbors knew each other and everyone had to work together for the sustenance of the whole. How many people in the modern world know all of their neighbors? How many people struggle with a sense of identity? How many people go online looking for love instead of asking friends or family members to recommend someone for them? On the other side, how many people can pick up and move if they’re miserable where they are. Back then you were stuck with the hand you were dealt.
The point I’m trying to make here is that it is so easy for us to look back on history and lament about the things we couldn’t live without. How many of you have thought at one point or another that you wouldn’t want to live back in time because they didn’t have toilet paper. Really? Wiping your backside is that important? I wonder if your average medieval peasant were given a glimpse into the future if they would shudder at the thought of living here, saying that they couldn’t stand to live in a place with so much noise or without job security or where everything moves so fast and there’s no time to rest. Yes, medical advances have done amazing things for life expectancy and infant mortality is a fraction of the problem it used to be, but have they truly improved day-to-day health? Not to mention quality of life and satisfaction with it. Are people today actually happier than they were a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years ago?
In the end it all comes down to the individual life you are handed. I’m sure it would be better to be a middle-class American than a 14th century scullery maid. But I kind of think it might be better to be a 12th century farmer’s daughter than a 21st century single mom with a crack-addiction. Honestly, there is so much variation in individual lives that it’s next to impossible to say which lifestyle would have been better or worse.
As for me, I think I would have liked to be a peasant in 12th or 13th century England living in Winchester, Hampshire. I think that would have been a good life. What about you? What life from History do you think you would have liked to have lived?