What was once only available to kings and queens, but that you can do today? The answer: Shocking stuff you’ve never even thought of. If you ever worry that our world is in decline, this episode can help put that in perspective. We also look at some amazing predictions from 1921 about 2021, and see how we’re living in the world they only fantasized about.
Jason Feifer: This is Build for Tomorrow, a podcast about the things from history that shaped us and how we can shape the future. I'm Jason Feifer. Do you ever wonder how people of the past imagined our lives today? I wonder this all the time actually, I'm a little obsessed with it. In fact, I have this dorky annual tradition. At the end of every year, I dig into newspaper archives to see what people from a century earlier had predicted about our lives today. So, for example, what did people of the year 1919 say about the year 2019? What did people of 1920 say about the year 2020?
Jason Feifer: The answer is always a delight. They imagined futuristic technology and changing cultural boundaries, which are usually a little right and a little wrong. In a newspaper from 1920, for example, I discovered a burlesque show set in the year 2020 which envisioned a crazy world where, get this, men dressed like women and women dress like men and men stay at home while women went to work. Imagine that! But in all the years that I've done this search, I have never discovered anything quite like the results that I found in 1921 newspapers as they predicted life in the year 2021. I found these months ago, but I just cannot stop thinking about them.
Jason Feifer: I mean, yeah, sure, there are some whoppers in there. There's one paper that predicted Mexico will be more powerful than any European nation. There was another one that was convinced we'd have flying cars by now, which, come on, where are our flying cars? But these papers also envisioned fanciful, almost magical technologies that sound shockingly ordinary today. For example, here's this one.
Voice Clip (Charles Steinmetz): When heating is all done electronically, and I want 70 degrees in my home, I shall set the thermostat at 70 and the temperature will not rise above that point. This temperature will be maintained uniformly regardless of the weather outside.
Jason Feifer: That was a prediction from Charles Steinmetz. He was a genius electrical engineer of the time who went by the nickname...
Voice Clip (Charles Steinmetz): The Forger of Thunderbolts.
Jason Feifer: And people also called him...
Voice Clip (Charles Steinmetz): The Wizard of Schenectady.
Jason Feifer: And no offense to Schenectady, but that first nickname is way cooler. Anyway, when this guy spoke about technology, people listened. So his predictions about the year 2021 were widely distributed. Today, 100 years later, we know that he was exactly correct when he predicted that people could control the temperatures in their home. It is called air conditioning. And here's another prediction from the Forger of Thunderbolts and Wizard of Schenectady.
Voice Clip (Charles Steinmetz): There will be no need to go to some congested, poorly ventilated hall for a musical concert. We just push a plug into a base receptacle as we do for the vacuum cleaner or a table lamp and we can have the concert brought into our homes.
Jason Feifer: And how would this magical thing take place?
Voice Clip (Charles Steinmetz): Music will be supplied by a central station and distributed to subscribers by wire, just as we get our telephone service today. Perhaps this may be by wireless, the home being equipped with a radio receiving apparatus.
Jason Feifer: You got to hand it to him, right? I mean, the only part he was missing was the phrase Netflix and chill. Okay, Forger of Thunderbolts, what else do you got for us?
Voice Clip (Charles Steinmetz): With the electrical improvements to come, there will be a change in our transportation system. There will be more electronic automobiles and electric bicycles and tricycles will be developed. Because of their simplicity and low price, they will be available to almost anyone.
Jason Feifer: So he's a little ahead of schedule there, but we're catching up, right? Tesla has become the most valuable car company in the world. General Motors says all of its passenger vehicles will be electric by 2035. We are building the Wizard's world. And okay, I'm going to share two more predictions from the time. They both come from a different writer, it's someone named Moses Folsom who wrote in the Miami News in August of 1921. His first prediction is something that you might recognize.
Voice Clip (Moses Folsom): By 2021, the phonographic principle may have become practically infallible and the best books will be reproduced in plates for use in many different styles of speaking machines. The exact tones of the elocutionist in speaking the words of the dramatist, poets, teacher, philosopher, and novelist will be imitated in the library or parlor of every home.
Jason Feifer: That of course is a very convoluted way of describing what we would now call an audio book or a podcast, I guess. Finally, Moses in the Miami News rattled off a whole bunch of ideas.
Voice Clip (Moses Folsom): Moving sidewalks and elevators may be found in the densely populated cities and tubes may connect cities and men traveling them at a speed that is dazzling to the senses. Colored photography will be a fact and vast improvements made in movie pictures. The tides may be used for power as well as the rays of the sun for heat and power.
Jason Feifer: As we now know, some of that did come true. And Elon Musk is currently working on those tubes. So, all right, why am I telling you this and why did all of this capture my imagination? Here is why. Because as I think about these predictions from 100 years ago about life today, I cannot help but think about another thing that we are very familiar with today, and that's stuff like this.
Voice Clip (Fox News Anchor): Hey, if you're not too optimistic about the future of our great country, you have company. When you're talking about the United States as a civilization, 62% say we are on a decline.
Jason Feifer: Ah, yes. Decline. That was from Fox News where the anchor might as well have been singing ratings because nobody tunes into this stuff when they feel good, they tune in when they feel bad, which is why there's so much profit in making people feel bad. Oh, wait, what's that? Tristan Harris from The Social Dilemma, you have something to say too?
Voice Clip (Tristan Harris): This is checkmate on humanity.
Jason Feifer: We so often tell a narrative about decline. We convince ourselves that what came before was better and that our world today does not match the strength of our ancestors. And look, do we have problems? We sure do. Have some of our solutions to old problems also created new problems? They sure have. But I find it humbling to look back at what these people were saying 100 years ago when they could not control the temperature of their home or enjoy great entertainment wherever they go or capture a lifelike image of their loved ones in color.
Jason Feifer: Now we can do all of these things and more, and not only do we do them, but we do them casually. They are simply what we've come to expect because we live in a fantasy world. We really do. Listen to those people from 100 years ago, they were dreaming up wild things. They were indulging their imaginations and here we are just hanging out in the world that they literally fantasized about. And yet what do we obsess over?
Voice Clip (Fox News Anchor): Decline.
Jason Feifer: Anyway, the point is, we live in a fantasy world and we barely pause to appreciate it. I'd been turning this idea over and over in my head. How can we appreciate this more? How can we get a unique perspective on this? Then I got an email from a listener of this show named Sam Kallen who told me that as a way to appreciate life, he likes to do this interesting thing. I asked him to explain it.
Sam Kallen: So, in trying to find happiness and satisfaction in my own life, I know that keeping up with the Joneses, the grass is always greener thinking can be very detrimental to being happy. So I have this thing I do where I try to live better than an ancient king.
Jason Feifer: Sam heard this story in high school about Charlemagne, not Charlamagne tha God, but Charlemagne the emperor of the Romans and king of a whole bunch of other people. Anyway, he heard that Charlemagne ate oatmeal for breakfast every morning because that's all that was available. I looked into that by the way and I'll explain more about it later in the episode. But the point is, even as a kid, this fact stuck in Sam's head. He realized that we in modern times have more available to us than ancient kings did. And that felt like a good place to start in appreciating the things around him.
Sam Kallen: I appreciate air conditioning, I appreciate indoor plumbing, I try to be very thoughtful about the healthy food I eat because I can. People in the past, they couldn't do it. But most of this is guessing, most of this is guesswork. So I have a question, which is, what are some things that I can do that would have made ancient kings jealous?
Jason Feifer: Sam, that is exactly the kind of question I love and I want to answer it. But to really do it right, I think we need to go deeper than things like air conditioning and indoor plumbing, because nobody will be surprised to learn that Cleopatra or Julius Caesar did not get to flush a toilet. And also, some of the stuff once available only to royalty is best left in the past.
Kara Cooney: We all know that a king in the ancient world gets to have a harem.
Jason Feifer: Today, we could do without the harems. That's Egyptologist, Kara Cooney, who you'll hear more from later. Anyway, the point is, we need to go deeper than specific technologies or luxuries. We need to go to things more fundamental about ourselves and our lives, to the stuff we never really pause to appreciate. So in this episode of Build for Tomorrow, that is what is happening. We're talking to historians who study ancient ways and we'll present you with six fundamental things about life that were once only available to royalty around the world.
Jason Feifer: And by the end of it, I hope that we can all appreciate that our lives were made possible because the world is not in constant...
Voice Clip (Fox News Anchor): Decline.
Jason Feifer: In fact, our lives are made possible because we are constantly building things better, or at least enough of us are trying to. So let's do some appreciation. It is all coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. So this episode is all about the things that only royals could do yesterday, but that we can do today. Let's dive right in. I am going to introduce each item on our list with a little piece of audio that is common in our everyday world but that might've been totally foreign or even blasphemous way back when. And here is our first.
Voice Clip (Gentleman’s Gazette): Welcome back to the Gentleman's Gazette. In today's video, we'll discuss how to wear and pair the color purple in your outfits and why it's a color that you should reach for more often in your wardrobe.
Jason Feifer: You can reach for that color now, but back in medieval Europe, you would be in big trouble. So this story starts as a story about one color, but it's really a story about class and identity and much more. So let's start small and then we'll zoom out. Think about any movie or TV show or basically anything that contained ancient European kings and queens. What color do you associate with them? The answer of course is purple, royal purple. And royal purple is actually a very specific shade of purple called Tyrian purple. And here is the first thing that you need to know about that.
Andrew Rabin: Tyrian purple is phenomenally expensive in the middle ages.
Jason Feifer: That voice will be familiar to any long-time listener of this show. It is Andrew Rabin, a professor of English at the University of Louisville who researches the law and literature of early medieval England. And there is a reason that Tyrian purple was so expensive. As the BBC explained it, "It took tens of thousands of desiccated hypobranchial glands wrenched from the calcified coils of spiny murex sea snails before being dried and boiled to color even a single small swatch of fabric." AKA, we're talking about crushed snails, lots of them from very far away.
Jason Feifer: The named Tyrian purple refers to Tyre, Lebanon, where the snails were often sourced. And back then, getting snail juice from Lebanon to England was not an easy feat. But purple wasn't just scarce because of its price, it was scarce by law.
Andrew Rabin: But the king would be able to afford to wear it anyway, but by making it a legal matter, then suddenly it's a sign of class differentiation.
Jason Feifer: Because medieval England was all about class differentiation. To make everyone station in life abundantly clear, government passed these things called sumptuary laws, which were law that dictated who could wear what. The law said, among other things, that Tyrian purple was only for royalty. And there's an interesting reason for this law which goes beyond just class distinction. It also has to do with the rise of cities. So in the 11th and 12th centuries, Europe began to develop dense urban spaces, as we might start to recognize them today, and this created a social problem.
Andrew Rabin: You come to a city, and take a small town, everybody knows you, they know your family, they know your parents' parents' parents, you come to the city and suddenly you have no background. You can be whoever you want. And while that sounds like a great thing, in the middle ages in a world in which things have to be classified, suddenly, you need a way of distinguishing who the different people are in the city.
Jason Feifer: Because, and here is a horrifying thought for people who like class distinction, the poor could look exactly like the rich, because we're all just people. So how do you distinguish? The answer is, with sumptuary laws. A serf had to wear the clothing of a serf, lords had to wear the clothing of a lord. Everyone is identifiable so that you're never able to pass as someone you're not. And certain groups, certain undesirable groups, also had to wear certain things. Foreigners had to wear clothing that identified them as foreigners. Jews had to wear a yellow star. The Nazis did not invent that, it came from the middle ages.
Andrew Rabin: Unless you have a way of distinguishing us from everybody else, you might find yourself accidentally talking to a Jew, which...
Jason Feifer: And prostitutes had to wear a red armband or striped hood. That is the origin of a red-light district, it's associating prostitutes with the color red. Although of course creating strict definitions of who someone is or is not and how they must identify themselves doesn't actually fit perfectly well with how complicated people really are. And that is evidenced by this story that Andrew told me about the law and prostitutes back then, which, okay, I admit this is a little bit of a tangent, but it is just so interesting that I had to share.
Andrew Rabin: There's actually a wonderful legal case from 1396. This fellow named John Brittney comes down from the city of York to London to do some sort of business. He picks up a prostitute and the two of them are actually caught in the process of doing what one does with a prostitute. At which point it is revealed that the woman that John Brittney had picked up was really a man. And so the first question is, did John Brittney know this? And he denies it absolutely. "I would never do such a thing." But of course there's no way of knowing.
Jason Feifer: So now the court must decide what laws John or the prostitute broke. And this is surprisingly complicated.
Andrew Rabin: Only women are prostitutes, and legally, sodomy is only a crime if you're on top. So this person, this is actually the only example of male transvestism we know from the later middle ages, this person basically falls right between two legal categories and they were actually brought before the Lord Mayor because they have no way of, in any sense, categorizing this person, saying, "You did this wrong, you did that wrong." They know there's something legally wrong there, they just can't figure out a way to address it. It's interesting reading the record because you can really feel how panicked they are about this.
Jason Feifer: What was the result?
Andrew Rabin: We don't know.
Jason Feifer: Oh, no!
Andrew Rabin: There's no record of how-
Jason Feifer: If that is not the basis for a historical mini series on HBO Max, then I do not know what is. Producers, get in touch. Anyway, let's get back to sumptuary laws. How did we ultimately move away from these laws so that anyone could wear whatever they want? It begins in the 18th century. Social change was in the air, just ask anyone beheaded during the French Revolution, but also in part thanks to new technology, the economy of Europe was changing and the merchant class was on the rise.
Andrew Rabin: So as the merchant class comes to gradually be wealthier and more influential on national policy than the traditional aristocracy, especially if they're all out killing each other on crusades or on the Wars of the Roses, those distinctions become less and less enforceable and less and less meaningful.
Jason Feifer: So, to summarize, how do we live like royalty today? We get our purple on. And okay, here is now the second way that we today and every day can live like royalty.
Voice Clip (Bjork): (singing)
Jason Feifer: You are right, Bjork, it is oh so quiet. I mean, I right now I'm recording this in a quiet room by myself. You might be listening to me while you're alone too. And here we are giving ourselves the royal treatment.
Andrew Rabin: In the middle ages, the vast majority of people would have lived in relatively cramped quarters. The idea that we today can have your own room or even your own bed is something that would be incomprehensible back then.
Jason Feifer: For most people in the middle ages, the concept of personal space literally didn't exist. You worked and ate and lived squished up against other people. And at night, entire families would share a bed. Sometimes, strangers or travelers would hop in bed with them too to keep warm. And this wasn't weird for them. It was just how it was. But things were different for royalty of course. They had plenty of space, a castle full of space, and most people were not allowed to get anywhere near them for obvious reasons.
Andrew Rabin: Well, certainly letting people come near him didn't work for Julius Caesar all that well.
Jason Feifer: But here's where it gets fun, because you and me, today, we get to live like royalty with our personal space, but we also get to live better than royalty because we have something that they did not. We have personal space and we also have privacy during our most intimate moments. So let us now take a quick digression into the most intimate moments of medieval royalty and why privacy was not really an option. First, let's talk about making a baby, because when you're royalty, sex is not just sex. It is an official act of extending the royal bloodline, which is a matter of the state. So it must be confirmed.
Andrew Rabin: Because this is an age before DNA testing, before any of our modern ways of ensuring that a child has the genetic material of the father, they have to be able to demonstrate that this child was produced by this woman after insemination by this man. And if you can't prove that, if you cannot demonstrate the legitimacy of the heir to the throne, that is a major tool for families or countries that oppose you.
Jason Feifer: This meant that a royal romp required a royal witness.
Andrew Rabin: So you can, in some circumstances, be having sex inside one of these lovely curtain beds and there are people out there making sure it goes on.
Jason Feifer: Come to think of it, there are two ways to look at this. Number one, you can live better than royalty by having normal, private sex with someone, or number two, you can get kinky and have someone watch you have sex and then live exactly like royalty, a royal threesome. And here is another very intimate way that our lives are more private than royalty. It has to do with the bathroom.
Andrew Rabin: Especially if you're in the aristocracy, if you're living in a castle, what we would call the toilet or the bathroom or the water closet, it's called the garderobe. And basically what it is is a hole and a seat that goes outside the castle so that you would sit on this hole and do your business and it would literally drip down the side of the castle.
Jason Feifer: Which means that if someone was outside the castle and knew what to look for, they could look up and say, "Huh, look at that, the king has taken a big oh dump."
Andrew Rabin: So if we think about, again, what we think of as a really private moment, back then, that is part of the lifestyle.
Jason Feifer: So, just to be crass, but also very clear, what you were saying is that medieval castles were just constantly smeared with human shit?
Andrew Rabin: More or less yeah.
Jason Feifer: So, to summarize our second way to live like royalty today, just find a quiet space to be alone or sleep in a bed by yourself or with the person of your choosing, with someone watching if you want, because personal space was once only afforded to royals. And of course, if you want, you can wear purple while you're doing it. Okay. On to the third way to live like royalty which is related to some of the things we just discussed.
Voice Clip (Lysol): Try Lysol Deodorizing Cleaner and leave your kitchen smelling like a breath of fresh air.
Jason Feifer: So, we just learned that in medieval times, the upper classes' poop came sliding down the castle wall, but what, you might wonder, happened to the lower classes' poop? Well, in medieval cities, the second floor of a house would jut out onto the street. This was for two reasons. Number one, because it enabled those cities and towns to have wider streets, which was useful because streets could be crowded places full of animals, but two, because that way, people could walk underneath those overhanging second floors.
Andrew Rabin: If you're not careful and you are not staying under those overhangs, you well could end up with a surprising new way of styling your hair.
Jason Feifer: And to be clear, your hair would be styled by buckets worth of human urine and feces that was tossed out the window and onto the street because that is what passed as plumbing back then. Medieval cities were tremendously smelly places full of waste and animals, which of course also bred a lot of disease. Everywhere you went, you were surrounded by smell. Andrew says it is a common misconception that medieval people didn't bathe. They did bathe, they did care about how they smelled, but there was only so much that the average person could do about it.
Andrew Rabin: They are crowded in with all their family members. Don't just think about excrement, but just basic things like sweat, or you have an infection, if you've been passing gas, all of the smells that just come about when multiple people are together in a room that doesn't necessarily have great ventilation.
Jason Feifer: But there was one place that they could go to escape that, only one place in their lives that was large and airy and did not stink of other people and animals. And it was not the castle, they weren't allowed in the castle, but it was a place aligned with the castle. It was the cathedral.
Andrew Rabin: You are in a space that is bigger than anything you can imagine. I mean, it's just huge. In fact, during this period, they didn't have pews in church, so you're really just going into this gigantic room. This was a sacred experience for these people on a level that we in many ways can't access today. And a big part of that was entering that space and smelling the incense, smelling the myrrh.
Jason Feifer: You want to show people your power? Give them a place where they can't smell each other. Of course, royalty didn't need this, they had access to big airy places all the time and they also had perfume, perfume that was very expensive and beyond the means of an average person. So, in short, if you want to live like royalty today, then just take a nice, deep breath, and unless someone just ripped a big one, you'll likely be happy with what you smell, which is a privilege.
Jason Feifer: Okay, time to take a short break, but when we come back, we will hear a little more about medieval Europe and also expand outward into Egypt, Japan, and some other parts in between and find out more about how compared to everyone else throughout history we are totally the 1% of the 1%.
Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. So, to recap, royalty today looks like wearing purple while sleeping in an empty bed and smelling nothing but the fabric softener on your bedsheets. And now, let us add to the list with our fourth way of living like royalty.
Voice Clip (Bill): (singing)
Jason Feifer: After hearing schoolhouse rock, you might think, "Well, yeah, obviously royalty didn't have democracy. That would have been the end of royalty." But I am talking about something more fundamental here. It is not just that you got to elect the law maker who wrote the bill who's sitting on Capitol Hill, or, well, I guess the lawmaker who took the money from the lobbyist who wrote the bill on Capitol Hill, but still, the point is, you can read the bill. In fact, you can read a lot of what the government produces and you can listen to and understand and maybe even directly engage with that elected official.
Jason Feifer: All of that was something that was once reserved for a very exclusive group because of a critical gap between ruler and ruled, and it was language. If you were a common person in medieval England and you wanted to somehow speak with your leader, well, good luck with that. First of all, it was just supremely unlikely that you would ever get their ear. But even if you did, they would have no idea what you are saying because following the Norman Conquest of 1066 when various groups from France invaded and occupied England, the ruling class in England spoke a language called Norman French.
Jason Feifer: In fact, several generations of rulers would pass before any of them could speak the language of their people. You know Richard the Lionheart, AKA Richard I of England who shows up in countless movies like king of heaven and is always with an English accent?
Voice Clip (Richard the Lionheart): And I'm the king of England.
Jason Feifer: Nah, he didn't speak English. This means that in a very practical way, the common person had no access to their rulers or even what their rulers had written. And that has consequences.
Andrew Rabin: The systems of law and the systems of government are all now in Latin and French. And as a result, people don't have... or your average person doesn't have access to the law and access to the rituals and sources of law in the way that they did before.
Jason Feifer: And the law was even more complicated. At the time, all law was written and performed in a specific language called Law French, which wasn't exactly French, it was based on Old Norman and Anglo-Norman, and it stuck around.
Andrew Rabin: And so, for a long time, even after the monarchy and the court had abandoned French and were speaking English, if you were a barrister, if you were a lawyer, you still had to learn how to speak this Law French. And what eventually happened was that it became so completely incomprehensible to the people who were speaking it that it just had to be abandoned. They were teaching nonsense words at that point.
Jason Feifer: When I heard this, I thought, oh my God, we are still living with the legacy of Law French today. I mean, if you have ever had to engage with the legal system, and for your sake, I hope you have not because it is a torture chamber run by monsters, well, you would know that the law is not written for you to understand. Legal language in America may technically be in English, but it is designed as a barrier so that you must pay for entry, Law French. But this language barrier between royalty and the common person was not exclusive to law or medieval England. You can rewind thousands of years before and find it in the pyramids of Egypt too.
Kara Cooney: I have to bring up a much hated phrase amongst Egyptologists, and it's called democratization of the afterlife.
Jason Feifer: This is Kara Cooney. She's a professor of Egyptian art and architecture and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA. And this phrase, democratization of the afterlife, the reason that you don't want to drop that at a party full of Egyptologists is because everyone will tell you that there was no democracy back then. But, loosely speaking, Kara is using the word democratization because we're talking about something that was originally just available to kings and that eventually became more and more widely available. So let's talk about what are called The Pyramid Texts.
Kara Cooney: These very carefully coded inscriptions, they talk about the rebirth of the king using special, magical incantations and chants and word order and things like that. And those Pyramid Texts were exclusive to the king.
Jason Feifer: They're literally carved into the inside walls of the pyramids and are meant to be chanted by the people reciting them as they sent the king off to the afterlife. The oldest one dates back to like 2,400 BC. And what did they say, these special words that were once only for the king and could never be seen by someone else? Well, here's an actual little sampling.
Voice Clip (Pyramid Texts): Take your head, collect your bones, gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh.
Jason Feifer: Creepy. Anyway, these texts were originally just for kings, but over the course of many years and dynasties, they were also shared with queens. Then they made their way to the elites and then to local rulers like governors and then to powerful landowners and on and on until...
Kara Cooney: And then you could see that eventually developing into the Book of the Dead and more people have access to it, even people potentially verbally who couldn't afford a coffin.
Jason Feifer: So, all right, how do we summarize all this stuff about language? The way to live like royalty today is to speak the same language as your elected leaders, be able to read a legal document, have access to weird death rituals? Yeah, sure. But Kara can take this one level deeper.
Kara Cooney: The most exclusive thing in the ancient world is probably the ability to read and write, which would have been limited to 3% or less in ancient Egypt according to Egyptologist John Baines.
Jason Feifer: To live like a royal is to exchange and have access to written information. This, to be clear, is still not available to all in America. One fifth of the population is functionally illiterate. That is terrible, though it is a lot better than the ancient world.
Kara Cooney: 80% of our population can participate in written texts and administrative texts, bureaucratic texts, can see things written on TV or in the newspaper and understand what's going on and be a part of society, that grants power and it grants pushback and the ability to have some sort of say over your fate.
Jason Feifer: So that is our fourth way of living like a royal. Now, here is the fifth.
Voice Clip (Kit Kat): (singing)
Jason Feifer: Okay. Let's talk about food for a moment. When I set out to make this episode, the only thing that I just knew we would get into was food, because of course, for most of human history, food was hard to get and exotic food like spices were the subject of secret trade routes or outright war, and a grocery store today is beyond the wildest imaginations of even the wealthiest people from the ancient world. But I am not going to just list off a bunch of ones rare foods here, because there's something more fundamental to think about with this subject.
Jason Feifer: To get to it, let's return to a guy that you heard at the beginning, Sam Kallen, the listener of this podcast who tries to live like a king in his daily life. As you might remember, the idea for him started when he heard about Charlemagne in high school. He was that despite this mighty king uniting the majority of western and central Europe...
Sam Kallen: He still ate oatmeal for breakfast every single day. That wasn't because he couldn't afford it, that wasn't because he wasn't so powerful, it was just because that's all there was for him to eat.
Jason Feifer: Now, I looked into this and the truth may be more complicated. One of Charlemagne servants was a scholar named Einhard and he wrote what is basically the definitive guide to Charlemagne's life. According to Einhard, while the king was indeed "temperate in eating", this meant that his meals consisted of "four courses, not counting the roast" and that "he was so moderate in the use of wine and all sorts of drink that he rarely allowed himself more than three cups in the course of a meal". So we might have different definitions of temperate here, but that's for good reason.
Kara Cooney: In the ancient world, if you were fat, that was a beauty in and of itself. It was a way of differentiating yourself from society.
Jason Feifer: That's Kara Cooney again, and while she focuses on ancient Egypt, what she's saying here applies to a wide swath of history. Charlemagne had a gut. About 70 years after his death, his predecessor was literally nicknamed Charles the Fat. Rulers like to eat and they like to show it because common people definitely did not have that ability.
Kara Cooney: People are just going for whatever calories they can get and the diet of the normal, non-elite person would have been most in Egypt, which is where I study, and mostly the carbs, bread, and beer.
Jason Feifer: And you know what the common person definitely didn't have access to back then but that a king really loved and that today we all have it pretty much all the time? It is sugar, or at least back then it was sugar as they knew it.
Kara Cooney: Sugarcane is a modern invention, sugar beets, modern invention, corn syrup, modern invention, and it takes a lot of factory processing to get that sweetness. Sugar in the ancient world was from fruit if you had access to fruit, which didn't last very easily, and if you juiced it, you could get sugar, but it was a hard thing to get your hands on.
Jason Feifer: Kara says there is a great irony to this, because back then, consuming sugar was a sign of status. And now, thousands of years later, industrial sugar is of course one of the cheapest substances available. So the marker of status has flipped.
Kara Cooney: The rich then have to deny themselves sweet and food now to show themselves and differentiate themselves to be thin and perfected whereas the poor are now allowed to eat as much sweet as they want.
Jason Feifer: And what are we to take from this? Well, look, I am not going to tell you how to eat and I am making no statement about body here, but I am saying we are free to eat and enjoy what we want which was once a royal luxury. Although simple pleasures, no matter the period of time, are never entirely simple. So, okay, it is now time to move on to the final item on our list, the sixth way to live like royalty today. And it all starts... Where else? On a YouTube channel called Love of Pets.
Voice Clip (Love of Pets): Hi, in today's video, I want to show you all of my birds. I have 29 birds.
Jason Feifer: That is a lot of birds, but for centuries, there was a group of people who would have said, "29 birds? That's cute. I have birds that'll eat your birds."
Annika Culver: The aristocracy in Japan, there were daimyo who were the feudal Lords. They would collect falcons.
Jason Feifer: This is Annika.
Annika Culver: Annika Culver and I'm associate professor of East Asian history at Florida State University.
Jason Feifer: And what did Japanese royalty do with their falcons? Starting around the year 300, they hunted with them. Falconry was an upper-class sport, though sometimes, they just take the birds out to get some fast food.
Annika Culver: The practice of keeping these large, essentially duck ponds, where you would release the falcons to agitate the ducks to fly up into your net.
Jason Feifer: But I don't bring this up just to talk about birds, because, yeah, you could collect birds today if you wanted to, but you may not want to. So, instead, let's talk about the bigger idea here, because Japanese royalty did not just collect birds.
Annika Culver: And they would also collect porcelains and rare objects of arch that were found in Korea or in China and therefore they would have this exotic allure.
Jason Feifer: And here, ancient Japanese rulers had a lot in common with rulers from so many other times and places. Records of royalty collecting things goes all the way back to the earliest writing in Mesopotamia where bronze age leaders in the 3rd millennium B.C. collected statues and exotic animals and jars filled with spices and historians think that this was in part to give them a kind of other worldliness, like only someone that powerful could acquire these things from so far away just to have them. Now, of course, things are different. Anybody can get basically anything from anywhere, but we haven't lost our desire to collect or to equate collections with status.
Jason Feifer: I mean, just go on Instagram and you'll find people showing off their giant sneaker collections or watch collections or whatever collections. Why are NFTs taking off right now? Maybe it's because buying a bunch of digital nonsense helps us feel like royalty. Collecting today is a funny thing. I mean, a collection is only valuable within the context of the world it was collected in, and that world can change. It happened in Japan as this tradition of collections was passed down to modern times. About 20 years ago, the flea markets in Tokyo started filling up with these particular kinds of vases that were once only collected by the wealthy. Why?
Annika Culver: Because families, their science were dying of people who had been colonial administrators, their heirs essentially didn't know what to do with these objects.
Jason Feifer: This, I'm just going to hypothesize, is why some people today have collections that really aren't about individual exclusive or even expensive objects at all, they're about the totality of the collection itself, like the act of collecting itself is the thing that's valuable. Like, okay, here are three actual Guinness World Records. The largest collection of hamburger related items in the world is owned by a guy who goes by... Wouldn't you know it? Hamburger Harry in Florida. He has 3,724 hamburger things. And that may sound like a lot, but not compared to the largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia.
Jason Feifer: That is 93,260 items owned by a guy named Steve Sansweet in California. And the largest collection of different types of traffic cones? Get ready because it is a whopping 137, which sounds small compared to those other records, but I guess I don't know how many types of traffic cones there are out there. Do you? Maybe 137 is a lot. Anyway, congrats to David Morgan of England for caring that much about traffic cones and living like a damn king in the process, the king of traffic cones. All right, let's take stock of what we've learned here. How do you live like royalty today?
Jason Feifer: Here's what I'd like you to do. First, put on some purple clothing, then go into a quiet room, any room will do, just somewhere where you can be alone, then take a deep breath in. You smell that? You feel that? It is the smell of nothing. Beautiful. Next, read something. Read anything produced by a leader of law or government. Maybe you can follow your local state senator on Twitter. Hey, maybe even tweet at them, see if they reply. Maybe they'll ask you for a campaign contribution. Then when you're done with that, treat yourself to a piece of candy.
Jason Feifer: And when you're done with that, if you'd like, put that candy wrapper in a box with 5,000 other candy wrappers that you have been saving, which doesn't sound very hygienic to me. But whatever, you can accumulate whatever you want. Hey, go get a falcon. According to the North American Falconers Association, it is not easy. You need to study up for a test and apprentice with a falconer for two years, and there's a bunch of other stuff. But anyway, it's possible. In other words, living like royalty today is a lot like basic living, which is pretty awesome. Now, one caveat here, which I am glad Sam brought up.
Jason Feifer: You remember Sam, the listener of this show, the one whose quest to live a king kicked all of this off? Anyway, when I spoke with him, he brought up this really important point. Because, yes, what I described in this episode applies to many people in the world, but certainly not all.
Sam Kallen: This question overlaps a lot with privilege and inequality. A lot of what I say about I can live better than an ancient king could also be said about many people currently alive in the world. And I always think about that. The solution that I have, and it's not a perfect solution, but the solution that I have is I like to imagine my ancestor saying, "I built this for you. I sacrificed for you to build this toilet. And yes, other people can't have it, but you, you can, and how dare you squander that opportunity to enjoy this beautiful world I've created for you?"
Jason Feifer: I really like that, and I'm going to take it a step further, because, of course, this isn't just about appreciating what we have or what our predecessors built. It is also about us one day being those ancestors that Sam just described, the ones who sacrificed and built understanding that the generations that came next could benefit from their work now and build on top of it. It is about doing something today that the people of tomorrow can thank us for. And it is my humble opinion that this important work is done by people who focus on progress and growth and optimism and not the people who spend so much of their time and energy and lives convincing others that it's just not worth it because we're in a...
Fox News Anchor: Decline.
Jason Feifer: And everyone who has a different perspective from you is contributing to a...
Fox News Anchor: Decline.
Jason Feifer: And new things and unfamiliar things and even uncomfortable things are all evidence of a...
Fox News Anchor: Decline.
Jason Feifer: Because yesterday is done. It has given us all that it has to offer and now it's time for us to build from there. We have problems still to solve and there always will be. But the first step is to look ahead and see upward, forward motion, and to see and appreciate how high the people before us had climbed and how it's all part of a continuum and now it is our turn. Any of us fortunate enough to enjoy the basic freedoms of our lives who can see that tomorrow's generation is waiting for us up the hill, we have the opportunity now to do better by them. It doesn't happen by convincing everybody that life is on the decline.
Jason Feifer: Instead, we should want to help everyone live like royals. And that's our episode. But, hey, if you are like me, you are still pretty hung up on this news that royal poop literally tumbled down castle walls and you want to know more. So I have a little more detail for you coming up. But first, want to feel more optimistic about the future? I have a free audio course that can help you do it and you can find it by going to jasonfeifer.com. J-A-S-O-N F-E-I-F-E-R.com and clicking on the free training button at the top.
Jason Feifer: While you're there, you can also see more of my work and get in touch directly. I promise to reply. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram. I am @heyfeifer. This episode was written by me, Jason Feifer, and reported by me and Britta Lokting. Sound editing by Alec Balas. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The actor you heard reading old 1921 predictions was
Brent Rose. You can find him at brentrose.com. This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute.
Jason Feifer: The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators whose focus is on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation, and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that is you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. That is, cki.org.
Jason Feifer: Okay, now, as promised a little more about medieval royal pooping. So, as we discussed earlier, bathrooms in castles basically emptied out of a hole in the side of the building and then his majesty's dump would just go sliding down the outside wall. And this would surely lend a castle the wrong code of paint, shall we say. So what's up with the White Tower, which is a central tower at the Tower of London. It was built during this time. It's very nice and white looking. How'd they keep it that way? Well, I am glad you asked because Andrew Rabin has an answer.
Andrew Rabin: One of the ways they kept it white was that all of the garderobes are on the side of the building that doesn't face the city and doesn't face the river.
Jason Feifer: White in the front, poop in the back. And also, just for fun, here is another fact about London's lack of good sanitation services back in the day.
Andrew Rabin: One of the best things to do if you ever go to a medieval city is to look at the street names, because the entire history of a city is written in its street names. So if you go to London, there's a street called Wall Street, and it's called Wall Street because there used to be old wall of the city that went right down there. Right next to it is a street called Houndsditch because when you dumped your waist over the wall of the city and it ended up right there, that's where all the feral dogs would go to get food.
Jason Feifer: We've come a long way, haven't we? Well, that is all for this episode. Thanks for listening. I'm Jason Feifer, and let's keep building for tomorrow.
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