Good to be the King?

By Shamus Posted Friday Aug 18, 2006

Filed under: Random 28 comments

The phrase “It’s good to be the king” has always struck me as odd, because the idea of being a king is not appealing to me at all. I know the phrase is supposed to mean, “getting your way all the time is good”, but honestly I would never want to be a king, particularly during their heyday when kings really did get their way at all times.

Let’s compare two people and figure out who lives a better, longer, more comfortable and productive life: A poor modern American or a King in the middle ages. By “poor” I don’t mean someone who’s destitute, I’m just talking about someone stuck in a low-middle class life at a dead-end job or jobs. I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out, but I still find the comparison fun:

Joe Hardluck       His Majesty, King Fancypants

Housing Small, but well-heated in winter. Screens and fans allow airflow in summer without letting clouds of bugs in. Electric lights allow illumination anytime without heat or fire hazards. A bit noisy and run-down, though. Spacious. Freezing in the winter. (Unless his majesty is near the fire) Insects and pests / vermin are a constant nuisance and hazard. Drafty.

Sanitation The toilet caries away the waste and odors. Toilet paper is handy too. Soap and hot running water make it easy to avoid any number of nasty, dangerous infections. His majesty must take a dump in a (wonderful and ornate) bronze pot and cleanup with something rough and uncomfortable. His servant will come in and take the pot away when he’s done. Wipe hands on pants and hope for the best.

Personal Care Cheap, disposable razors that can shave a beard clean off without risking a scratch. Toothbrushes and floss make teeth last decades longer. Plus: deodorant, acne medicine, Q-tips, band-aids, hairspray & gel, shave cream, foot powder, mouthwash, hand lotion, sunscreen… None of those personal care items are available. (At least, none that really work.) Plus, the Queen doesn’t have tampons and can’t shave her legs or armpits. Her makeup is very simple, limited, and made from substances you don’t want to know about.

Food The grocery store offers a massive kaleidescope of food that encompasses some of the most popular foods from around the world. Joe can’t afford steak, and must do most of his shopping in the generic / store brand aisle. Even at that he can have tacos on Monday, pizza on Tuesday, hamburgers Wednesday, etc. Food is clean and safe. Basic breads, simple meats and fresh veggies only in season. A limited selection of spices. It is a constant battle for the cooks to minimize contamination from insects and vermin.

Clothing While his clothes are out of style, Joe can still wear lightweight and warm fabrics in winter. Lightweight and breathable fabrics in summer. Clothing is comfortable and varied. Joe can wear a different pair of jeans and outdated t-shirt every day of the week. Wool. Silk. Items adjust to fit using drawstrings instead of elastic. No pockets. His majesty’s wardrobe is made up of clothing that is cold in winter, brutal in summer, and heavy year-round. Clothing traps and soaks up sweat so that the odors can be enjoyed for days.

Medicine Antibiotics are cheap and plentiful. So are simple pain medications like aspirin. While the very best medicine is not available to Joe, he can still get help for life-threatening stuff. He doesn’t need to worry about dying from a burst appendix or gangrene. Painful and counter-productive. The very best “doctors” of the middle ages are quite a bit worse than no medicine at all. There is no real painkiller outside of steady drunkenness. Even assuming the King doesn’t die of a chance infection, he’s likely to live at least a decade less than Joe.

Transportation Joe has a beat-up car that looks awful and breaks down every few months. It’s noisy and the air conditioning hasn’t worked in years. However, it is still faster, smoother, and more comfortable than… A fine carriage pulled by smelly horses. No smooth paved roads and no suspension mean that the King gets to feel every chuck-hole in the road in all of its teeth-shaking glory. The lack of a decent road system or bridge-building technology means that trips are quite long.

And let us not even consider going overseas.

Entertainment Cable television. Radio. Movie theaters. Joe might even be able to afford a game console. If he doesn’t own a computer, he can usually go to the library and get ‘net access. While he’s at the library he can also read, for free, thousands of works of fiction.

This is to say nothing of numerous sporting events at varying levels of sophistication and professionalism, from little league baseball to Wrestlemania.

Stage plays enacted by an all-male cast.

Handwritten books, almost none of which are fiction.

Very few of the “sports” of those days have survived until today, which says a lot about their entertainment value. The king could watch a little Jousting now and again, for what that’s worth.

Sex Joe and Mrs. Joe have numerous means of contraception to choose from. If they do something foolish and pick up a disease, penicillin is easily available.

If Joe can’t land a wife (or if the comforts of marriage are not to his liking) he can always turn to dirty movies, strippers (depends on how poor he is), and internet porn. By contrast…

As long as he keeps the Queen from finding out, his majesty can have unprotected sex with all of the smelly, unshaven women he likes.

Note that I made the comparison between males. The difference would have been even more extreme between females of those same eras.

So who would you rather be, Joe Hardluck or one of the richest and most powerful men in the middle ages? I imagine very few people would actually find being the king all that “good”.


From The Archives:

28 thoughts on “Good to be the King?

  1. That’s my reason why I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the SCA. Their nostalgia is seriously distorted; it’s about the middle ages as it should have been, not as it really was. (And everyone in the SCA pretends to be nobility, too.)

  2. Ubu Roi says:

    “Look, there goes the King!”
    “‘Ow d’you know?”
    “‘E hasn’t got s**t all over him!”

  3. David V.S. says:

    Heh. That’s why they purposefully call it Creative Anachronism.

    SCA folk would also promptly list that they do not re-create the subjugation of women, slavery, and religious persecution in their purposeful inaccuracy.

    Also the armor protects better, the instruments break less and hold a tune better, and the crime rate is much lower.

    The wine and beer are better, too. And oranges coated with cloves.

    (Anyone know if the Middle Ages had more or less smooching among the college-aged?)

  4. Shamus says:

    I like that there are people who are into this sort of thing. I would never take part in it, but I do like that some people are keeping areas of archaic knowledge alive.

    In my town are fairgrounds where they SCA types gather once a year and have their thing. Once in a while they would stop at the Taco Bell where I worked on the way home from the event. I can understand this: After a few days of eating bland food they wanted a taste of civilization again. It always caused a stir when they came in dressed in middle-ages garb.

    I will say this about the SCA folks: They were enormously polite, good-natured, and well-spoken. This left an impression on me. I knew when some guy comes into the store in a robe he’s going to be nice to deal with. The guy behind him in the stocking cap and faded Nirvana shirt? Much, much less so.

  5. Shamus says:

    Additional: I know someone who works at Home Depot. I would usually see the SCA types as they were leaving the event, but this guy was seeing them on their way there. They would often stop by HD to pick up whatever tools or supplies were just too complex or difficult to make by hand.

    His experience with the SCA types is similar: Very polite, if oddly dressed. He knew the guy in the pantaloons (or whatever) was going to be a nice customer who knew what he wanted. By contrast, there is a better than even chance the burly guy in the NASCAR ballcap is going to be an insufferable know-it-all who will talk to the help like they were retarded, make a mess of the display, open packages, complain about prices, and hit on the cashiers on the way out.

  6. Pete Zaitcev says:

    Somehow this reminded me of an article in The Onion: “Reenacters Burned Down Atlanta”.

  7. Stephen B says:

    Amazing, isn’t it? Our standard of living today well exceeds that of royalty in the middle ages, but we still find reason to complain. I try to appreciate it every time I flip a switch and an electric light comes on. No fumbling for matches, adjusting the wick constantly, cleaning the sooty lamp chimney, smell of kerosene (which was a nice replacement for whale oil), etc.

    1. Wide And Nerdy says:

      Unless you’re a king or a noble, I wouldn’t worry about that. You probably wouldn’t be able to afford to use a candle on any regular basis.

      1. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

        That’s what the servants are for, all the king or queen needs to do is ask that they want the castle lit up and bam, candles are lit

  8. My friends and I are not card carrying members of the SCA, but go to SCA events, and renn faires. We enjoy going to places before, and after, in our garb. The looks amuse us, but it’s the same group that goes pretty much every year, and we are more concerned with the enjoyment of the events, than the authenticity of our personas. Some of us wear armour (hand made chain mail, hand made scale mail), others wear clothing–a pirate, and a Norse warrior.

    And we try to be nice, since mean people carrying steel weapons tend to draw police, where as the same steel carrying folks whom are nice just get a bit more of a wide berth.


  9. Hanov3r says:

    Pete Zaitcev Says:
    “Somehow this reminded me of an article in The Onion: ‘Reenacters Burned Down Atlanta’.”

    There’s a much better, perhaps more relevant Onion article at – “Society For Creative Anachronism Seizes Control Of Russia”, dated May 26, 1999.

  10. Allan says:

    “Medicine: Painful and counter-productive. The very best “doctors” of the middle ages are quite a bit worse than no medicine at all.”

    That’s not quite true, although certainly in some cases, but providing they weren’t burned as a witch in their early years and were reasonably well off (Meaning they had access to classical medical texts) the best medieval doctors could be helpful to your average ill royal.

    1. jawlz says:

      And some of those medieval poultice recipes actually did work (and would work today, though there would likely be issues with producing them on any kind of massive scale):

    2. jawlz says:

      And some of those medieval poultice recipes actually did work (and would work today, though there would likely be issues with producing them on any kind of massive scale):

  11. Tolmar says:

    I’d say plays beat television, medieval books are at least as good as modern, court entertainers beat radio, and jousting completely and utterly destroys modern sports.

    The king has every last one of those better.

    And the internet makes up for all of that a thousand times over.

  12. Huckleberry says:

    Point taken in general; but:
    I wouldn’t dismiss the king’s food quite as easily: game, poultry, fish etc would have been quite varied (and the king gets the best bits), vegetables would have been fresh from an organic vegetable patch (though there wouldn’t have been potatos, rice or pasta); same goes for apples, pears, berries etc. (Though the menu might be slightly less interesting in winter…)

    Similarly for entertainment: hunting (with a falcon!), knight tournaments, dancing, burning the odd witch, board games and stories told in the evening by the fireplace could be good fun as well.

  13. King of Men says:

    Commenting on two-year-old posts, now. I need to find some new ways to procrastinate at work. Anyway, though, it seems to me that this is the wrong comparison. Joe Hardluck now may be better off than the king then, but what about Joe now and the king now, or Joe then and the king then? If you hold the time constant, it’s better to be the king.

  14. Lupis42 says:

    Couple other thoughts on the King in the middle ages:
    The toilet paper is still disposable, but it’s linen. Nowhere near as scratchy as recycled paper. (In an ironic twist, after it’s TP, it’s boiled, bleached, and made into paper.)

    Shaving: there are no safety razors, but the ability to shave is about the same from AD 850 to AD 1850, it just becomes cheaper and more widespread.

    His majesty’s wardrobe is made of wool and silk. All of it fits without adjustment. Think a nice tailored suit. There’s probably also some furs, in the winter. Very warm. In the summer, he just takes bits off. And as for bling, well, his majesty has his pick of attractive trinkets made out of expensive things to fit his whim. He can decorate himself and his environment to his hearts content, and (in terms of percentage of personal wealth) it will cost him less than a hundredth what it will cost Joe.

    Most modern sports have roots in martial arts. Same with medieval sports, they were just more dramatic, because the consequences were more severe. Jousting is like NASCAR, except the loser always crashes. What’s more, his majesty always gets to see his sports enacted live, and up close. (Joe still wins though, the internet is pretty awesome, and there’s no such thing as time shifting in the middle ages).

    Travel: Depending on the year, the king may have actually had suspension on his cart. Still not as good as a car. The king can also afford to go overseas. Joe almost certainly cannot. If Joe lives in the US, Joe (assuming he did not attend college, and is not employed in a high-travel job) is unlikely to ever leave the country.

    Sex: Joe must find locate a partner who shares his interest, use some form of physical barrier to avoid life-threatening diseases, and is likely to find himself breaking at least three or four laws over the course of his life. (Though that has less to do with modern, and more to do with American politicians compulsive need to make laws about sex).
    The king can have anyone he wants, more or less at any time, and in any manner. He has no need to fear any disease other than those that he could have picked up in other means. His partners will probably be bathed and dressed to his tastes, and while many of them will be expecting (and receiving) some form of quid pro quo, he is unlikely to cause undue disruption to anyone’s life in the process. (Something which may be negated by the fact that his simply being in the same room with people disrupts their lives).

    1. Wide And Nerdy says:

      In addition to bathing, they likely had access to some kind of perfume.

      Besides, the odors people did have to live with back then, they were used to. It would certainly suck for us though.

    2. skellie10 says:

      Not sure what you mean about the king not having to fear sexually transmitted diseases. They had plenty of STDs back then, up to and including syphilis, which was definitely fatal at the time.

      1. Fists says:

        Hey look, I’m not the only one reading this in 2016 and wanting to point out that STDs were a fairly significant risk, and not uncommon.

      2. Wide And Nerdy says:

        Depending on the king, he could maintain a stable of exclusive mistresses, which would minimize the risk of STDs

        Still not as good as Joe’s situation. He’s either married, and a theoretically monogamous relationship would probably carry a very low risk of STDs. And he can get medicine for alot of the stuff he does catch. And if he’s not married and relies on adult entertainment, that carries even less risk. Though its admittedly less satisfying than having your pick of women, at least Joe has vastly better options if he can’t find a woman vs his counterparts of that era.

        Its not perfect either way, Joe’s wife or the mistresses could sleep around on the downlow and carry unknown risk of infection that way.

  15. Dasick says:

    I thought this post would be about the immense responsibility that comes with being the king.

  16. Siliconscout says:

    WOW … I missed this one in the archives, just want to shout out to Shamus that the new links at the bottom of a post brought me here and I am quite happy it did!

    For the record I would rather be Joe Hardluck … even ignoring the improvements in quality of life that a modern Western society provides he has a chance to make his lot better. Education, Entrepreneurial Spirit, blind luck could all help him better his station in life but if he’s born in the middle ages then then he can be what his station allows of him.

    The King for all his power is still beholden to the will of the church, his nobles and even to a lesser degree the peasantry because he has no real money of his own and must rely on them to provide for him either directly via taxation or via credit.

    His life was pre-ordained at birth (as were most of them noble and peasant alike) with no care or consideration for what he might like to be and do with the time he has on earth. If he just wanted to be a farmer, a merchant, an explorer, scholar or a ships captain that simply isn’t an option for him. Even abdicating the throne won’t help him there, the best he could hope for is tucking himself away at some estate or running off to another country. There he would have ever MORE reliance on others for funds and no real power at all, and that assumes someone didn’t simply have him killed.

    Heck from that perspective the lowly peasant is probably in a better position because, whilst he will likely never join the nobility, with luck and hard work he could attempt to, and perhaps even attain, a different station in life than that which he was born to.

    1. DIN aDN says:

      Hah! Wow, I’d never seen this post either. For the record, some of those assumptions about the quality of life available to the nobility are pretty specific to certain times and places – but I’ll definitely concede that access to medicine is far, far better in the modern era (EDIT: Removed possible politics bad times talk) than it was for anyone in the middle ages. As for the rest, though – eh, I’m sure Shamus has done some more reading in the interim anyways. Suffice it to say that England and The Germanies, our big influence on pictures of the medieval period, were far from the be-all and end-all of the times.

      Byzantine officials and the high nobility in Poland or even France probably did quite a bit better than Joe Anglo-Norman Monsieur le King in the above post, to say nothing of Italy, the Andalusians or The Various Caliphates.
      EDIT: Also: India, China. The Indonesian islands, the continent of Australia pre-Europen settlement. Mesoamerica, North America, South America. Other bits not covered here. All interesting places with very different societies and natural contexts going on! And far too big to really go into detail about, especially since I know so little.
      Oh, and the Bantu states, Ethiopia and everyone else who was up to things in Africa outside of Egypt. Good lord people managed to travel a long way. And on that note, all the Polynesian kingdoms! – you know what, I think that really does make the point there.

      But then again, life for the highest of the high in Achamaenid Persia or Mid-Late Kingdom Egypt was probably better again than what was enjoyed in those examples (with similar caveats on medicine and some associated care and legal professions, and woe betide you if you were [EDIT] not a favoured group in society, and that goes even further back into the past.

      If Shamus ever reads this, then I guess I have to say – eh, he’ll probably never read it, and even if he did neither of us (barring some spectacular supernatural secret capacities on the part of Mr. Young) have ever been able to experience life in the older ages of humanity, so all I can really say is that I find the subject very interesting and am also interested to see that the same does hold true at least to some degree for the aforementioned Mr. Young and the others who have commented here.

      And I’ll likely never see this comment again or any replies, but hey! At least the snazzy links at the top of the site go to interesting places.

  17. skellie10 says:

    One thing I can’t help noticing is conspicuously absent from this comparison is job satisfaction and free time.

    If Joe is low-middle class then there’s a good chance that he works long hours at a tedious and depressing job, five out of seven days a week. After he gets done with that, he needs to commute from his place of work back to his home, cook himself dinner, and attend to his household chores.

    The king can leave much of the real work of governing to his advisers, if they are trustworthy and he is so inclined. If he does care about his job, he gets the satisfaction of knowing that his work is important and meaningful. If he does a bad job, it’s very difficult to “fire” him. He gets to work from home, and everything outside of his job is done for him by a team of servants.

    There’s no question that Joe is materially better off than the king, but in terms of job satisfaction and free time I think the king has him beat. I’d say Joe still wins over all, but I wouldn’t say it’s quite such a landslide.

  18. Aeshdan says:

    Samus, this seems like kind of a meaningless comparison to me. Of course the modern man enjoys a lot more luxuries and freedoms than a medieval king, but that’s because the two live in different worlds. The relevant comparison would be between a medieval king and a medieval peasant, because the two actually exist in the same sociopolitical-temporal context.

  19. Noah Gibbs says:

    One thing I keep seeing alluded to in the comments but never quite mentioned: Joe has to deal with being lower-status than almost everybody he deals with regularly. The king is higher status than literally everybody he deals with, unless he’s going on a state visit to the Pope.

    An awful lot of people here are trying to express in different ways: yeah, but what if I want to feel *better* than the people around me?

    And status is a *gigantic* human need. And I suspect it’s a lot of the reason people actually *say* “it’s good to be the king.” They mean “compared to everybody else standing near the king.”

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