Who Would You Have Been?

On Sunday, we checked out a couple of exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at courtly life in Europe during the Renaissance and the end of the Middle Ages. One exhibit was on the armor and stuff from the era of Maxmillian I. The other was on all the gadgets and fancy stuff that were in the courts between 1550-1750.

We played a game. Who would you have been back then?

Looking at all the gears and intricate mechanisms in the automatons, we decided that were made by someone like Ian — someone with an instinctive knowledge of machinery, attention to detail, and zero interest in social life. In other words, they were made with someone with an autistic spectrum disorder. He would have thrived in an old workshop. Or in a monastery somewhere, rewriting old manuscripts before the invention of the printing press. There’s no question that half those old monks were someone like Ian.

Depending on my birth, I would have either been in the kitchens of a castle or deeply involved in castle intrigue, poisoning my husband’s enemies. Steve would have been managing the ledgers and documents for a lord. Jonah, too wiry and thin to wear the pounds of armor, would still have been involved in the military in some way. Maybe as a scout or part of the cavalry.

15 thoughts on “Who Would You Have Been?

  1. not good times for my people, either. and, even if I change the exercise to some other medieval state, roles for women were so limited that it is painful to even consider the options. not a game I play lightheartedly.

    if we were forced to? ie, assume you are neither dead, forced into a harem or its equivalent, enslaved or prostitited, i think i could have been some form of seamstress.

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  2. If you were a peasant or ordinary town-dweller, it’s highly likely both boys would have been conscripted by one army or another (most of these countries were regularly fought over) – and very unlikely to have returned (40:1 chance against). Life in any army was nasty, brutish and short – with disease being the biggest killer.
    [Just reading about medieval warfare – following the bibliography in the latest Guy Gavriel Kay novel]
    Sorry to rain on your parade…..

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  3. I can answer that. We all most likely would have been peasants. I would have been a peasant and 95% of everyone else who this question is posed to would have been one as well. The fact that my mathematical and engineering aptitude puts me in the high 90th percentile in our society would have almost certainly gone unnoticed and unrealized in the past.

    Whenever one imagines the past they usually put themselves into some role that requires some sort of edcuation, training, or family background. This is a highly idealized and unlikely outcome.

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    1. Jay said, “I would have been a peasant and 95% of everyone else who this question is posed to would have been one as well. The fact that my mathematical and engineering aptitude puts me in the high 90th percentile in our society would have almost certainly gone unnoticed and unrealized in the past.”

      Ah, but maybe you would have been the-peasant-who-is-really-smart-about-putting-up-barns and sheds!

      My people still do a fair amount of cattle ranching, and there are endless construction and repair projects on a modern farm–mostly barns and fences.

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  4. Like others, I have a hard time fantasizing about life as a woman in that era. Pre-Reformation there were at least some good options for rich or lucky women to be nuns and in rare cases scholars. Probably you would have to choose between having a man and being able to read. Throw in the maternal and infant mortality rates, along with the grueling life of a mother, and I’d probably choose reading.

    On the other hand, I do love to fantasize about a life in which I live in New York City and can go hang out at the Met and eat in the cafe pictured (I’ve been there once or twice).

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  5. To judge from family geneologies, after about 1600 I would probably have been living in the colonies. If female, I would have had between 5 and 20 children. Most would have lived to adulthood. I would have had a good chance of living to 70 or 80. If I stayed in England or Holland, I would have lived to about 40 or 50, with luck.

    As literacy was important to the Puritans, I would have been able to read. My existence would have been recorded on legal documents.

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  6. Who I would have been depends in part where I would have lived, and my ancestors lived all over Europe, although a plurality (not a majority) were English. Having a high IQ and an affection for learning, I probably would have been a cleric of some kind, which would have involved celibacy in some areas and not others. My success in that world would have depended on luck and family connections, probably more than today, so I could have been anything from a bishop to a poor curate.

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  7. BTW, I think people are being too negative about opportunities in the early modern period. I don’t understand the claim that the boys would have had a 40/41 chance of dying: there would be no population left if that were true. In fact, bright boys from poor families commonly moved to towns and found mercantile success (like Adam Winthrop, John Winthrop’s great-grandfather) or advanced through the church (like Cardinal Wolsey). Opportunities for bright girls were considerably more limited, to be sure. And the assumption of peasant status is too cavalier: something like 25% of the English population were yeomen or gentry or townsmen, not peasants.

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  8. I don’t understand the claim that the boys would have had a 40/41 chance of dying: there would be no population left if that were true.

    I would claim a 41/41 chance of dying. No one gets out alive. But I would also claim that for the majority life was a lot more nasty, brutish, and short than modern people idealize it to be.

    In fact, bright boys from poor families commonly moved to towns and found mercantile success (like Adam Winthrop, John Winthrop’s great-grandfather) or advanced through the church (like Cardinal Wolsey).

    I am sure it happened. I am also sure it was not “common.” The fact that we think it so is biased by the fact that the people you mention are actually historical figures and so are recorded. Most people are not.

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    1. D.M. Palliser, “The Age of Elizabeth,” pp.83-84: “[T]here is abundant evidence of mobility into and out of all social levels, downwards as well as upwards . . . . [C]ontemporaries were concerned about the extent of individual mobility . . . . The sober evidence of prosopography shows that they were right . . . .”

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      1. Evidence that mobility existed isn’t the same as it being “common.” The figure you cited were evidence. That does not mean that they were representative.

        I am sure that such social mobility existed. It is also the case that it was nothing like modern times. In the countries that some of *my* ancestors came from serfdom existed and that was quite the barrier to mobility.

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  9. I can only give summary snippets here, not statistics. Palliser, Wrightson, and other leading social historians of the early modern period portray a society with a considerable amount of social mobility. I don’t know of anyone who has attempted a statistical comparison between twenty-first century America and Tudor-Stuart England, but I wouldn’t be sure that the percentage of first-generation college students today is higher than the percentage of first-generation clergymen, townsmen, and gentry in the earlier period.

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    1. Well, I’ve not read those works so I will have to take your word for it. These social histories have a general problem, though, of focusing on the people we have records about and accounts of, which is to say the people who were literate and successful. The lower classes were much more anonymous and ignored. So accounts of social mobility are biased towards the socially mobile and not the ones who were stratified.

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