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Good reasons. (I think.)

When people ask me whether I would have liked to live in the Middle Ages, I usually answer the same: I have four very good reasons to not want to live back then – coffee, tea, chocolate and contact lenses. Those four are quite known not to exist in premodern times, so they (as reasons) are obvious to visitors, and most of the Living History folks get a laugh out of those Fabulous Four.

Have you ever been to a historical fair, market or something where there was no tea or coffee to be had? In my experience, that doesn’t exist – or will only when hell freezes over. For every hardcore (and non-caffeine-addicted-in-modern-life) person that will forego tea and coffee while doing LH, you will probably find a hundred that do very much enjoy that cuppa in the morning and maybe also the afternoon, and a few of those might not function at all without their hot beverage starter.

Usually, that’s it – I make my joke about The Four Reasons, people laugh or smile, and we move on. But sometimes, there is more behind the question. Sometimes people are trying to figure out whether the Middle Ages (or another given time in history) would have been a better place to live, or maybe a worse one, than our time here and now. And then, this question of “would you like to live back then” gets another answer.

If there actually were a time machine that could go backwards and you would stuff me into it and throw me back into the Middle Ages, it would be very interesting for me – but also very different from what I’m used to, and very difficult as well. I do not drink alcohol, and (low-alcohol) beer was a standard drink if not the standard drink back then. Though I do like my coffee and chocolate, I can do without – but I’m severely short-sighted, and once my lenses are worn out, I would be stuck with an eyesight that might enable me to do fine embroidery or paint miniatures or do something similarly tiny and detailed, but would be a noticeable handicap in day-to-day business. I don’t have very resistant tooth material, and I might end up with cariouse or missing teeth quite fast. I would at least have some basic understanding of how to build and control a hearth fire, how to work with textiles, and how to get along on a medieval technology level, but I’d have to learn the language before communicating properly with people, and I’m pretty sure that my way of thinking is thoroughly modern.

It would probably be comparable to somebody from our modern world thrown into a so-called “primitive society” in the rainforest or a djungle somewhere, with a totally different cultural structure, other conventions, another language and a widely different way of thinking and technological level. In short, if you’d pop me back with that time machine, I’d be happy if you would also fetch me back after a few days or weeks.

But that’s my modern person we are talking about, rooted firmly in the twentieth century. Like I just did, I can speculate on how I, personally, would feel if thrown back in time.
But the people born into their time naturally did not have these problems because they never knew our modern life and society – which means that life felt for medieval folks just like ours feels to us, normal with maybe an occasional dash of the not-so-normal. If there is no coffee in the world, nobody can miss it. If there is no other way to heat up a pot than to make a fire, that’s just the way. And if short-sighted people just have to cope, they will. Daily life is the unspectacular thing, in any time, in any society; it has its ups and downs, but it’s business as usual overall. And because we are so far away from living in the Middle Ages, we might look back on an aspect of life then and shudder because we, from our experience and expectations of living here and now, think it unbearable – but so will people frown and shudder in the future when they look back on our life. And if we want to know how daily life felt in any part in history, it’s probably just like our daily life feels – with different structures, technologies and conventions, but that is just on the outside.

On the inside, it’s all normal. Daily life. Comfort and boredom, linking us to everybody else that ever lived… isn’t that a nice thought?

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