How to live like (historic) royalty?
April 1, 2019 10:03 AM   Subscribe

Help me re-center my quality of life expectations by comparing what I have access to against aristocracy of the past. What lifestyle elements were accessible only to rulers and the elite in the past, and are generally accessible now? Here's a diagram!

I have a general sense:

Travel - aristocrats probably had the option to travel. But I could travel further than them.
Sanitation - While aristocrats probably had someone to take care of the dirty stuff, I have every day access to running water and toilets.
Variety of food - I know Charlemagne ate mostly gruel, just like the rest of his people. But I have access to global food stuff.

However, I am curious about specifics. What did Elisabeth 1 have? What about Abe Lincoln? Napoleon? The rich Venice merchants?
posted by rebent to Religion & Philosophy (39 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
This is a bit of an odd presentation of what you're looking for but you may enjoy The Supersizers, if you can get access to it. They live as those in other eras did for a week, it's a complete delight (I mean, Sue Perkins!).
posted by wellred at 10:09 AM on April 1, 2019 [23 favorites]

No nits or body lice. They were constantly scratching. And foot worms! and just so many ringworm and other minor infections plus bedbugs.

Enjoy how clean and smooth your skin and hair feel now.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:24 AM on April 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Do you have no preference as to era?

You have access to purple dyes, and possibly horses, and tea, and saffron, and lace and velvet and silk and salt.

You live in an age where many more children have dolls houses, not to mention dolls, which were previously exclusive to the aristocracy -- apart from anything else, the dolls houses were often miniatures of the child's own house.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:31 AM on April 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

It depends to some extent on the era, but sugar was a precious commodity for most of history. There is a scene in The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1600s New England) where the Puritan family goes without sugar for a week so that they can bake a pie for the parson.

Same goes for spices -- expensive and scarce. The desire to bring spices to the aristocracy fueled centuries of colonization and created the political structures we live under today. Meanwhile, you can stroll down to any grocer and buy as much (Cassia) cinnamon as your hands can carry.

This is more "ordinary life" than aristocracy, but you might enjoy What Charles Dickens Ate and Jane Austen Knew.
posted by basalganglia at 10:42 AM on April 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

Yes, you can wear purple (reference to Queen Elizabeth included), and have all the black pepper you want: "It is reported that the English King Ethelred II (978-1016) exacted 10 pounds of pepper from German spice traders prior to letting them do business in London."
posted by gudrun at 10:42 AM on April 1, 2019

posted by jgirl at 10:43 AM on April 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

The works of Liza Picard might be interesting to you. She covers different historic eras in London and analyses the daily life of the poor vs. working class vs. aristocracy.

Off the top of my head: clothing is a huge one. You have access to a wide variety of high tech synthetic fabrics, wrinkle-free fabrics, natural fabrics, and all sorts of textures and hues, and outfits suited for every activity, weather, or occasion. Comfort is valued today in a way that it never was previously. Historic Western garments would have either valued function, for the poor (did it keep you warm, in winter? did it allow freedom of movement in the fields? was it simple to make and to repair?) or conspicuous wealth, for the rich (did it display just how rich you were?) So depending on era you were dealing with discomforts like itchy wool, itchy lace, itchy and hot wigs or hats, droopy stockings, pinching belts and suspenders and buckles and laces, clothing that could be ruined in a light drizzle (starched collars would wilt, delicate dyes would run), and multiply discomfort by a million if you were a woman and expected to wear garments like corsets or panniers.
posted by castlebravo at 10:49 AM on April 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

Another recommendation for What Charles Dickens Ate and Jane Austen Knew, and also one for Pleasure and Privilege: Daily Life in France, Naples, and America, 1770-1790. One of the big takeaways for me was how terrible everything must have smelled. In addition to running water and toilets, you also have access to washing machines, dry cleaners, and Febreeze. Also, modern medicine and a decent understanding of how to avoid dysentery.

I also think of ways to make a home feel like a home: wallpaper, photographs, and glass were all inaccessible to lower classes until relatively recently. There is a Gilded Age mansion in my area that's covered in normal wallpaper, velvet wallpaper, stamped leather wallpaper, oak paneling, and fabulous tapestries--but in all the surrounding farmhouses, working-class people were covering their walls with paper bags and newspapers. Similarly, the main fabric that was available to working-class families was hand-me-downs or cut from flour sacks.
posted by witchen at 10:54 AM on April 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was actually thinking about this this morning. It sounds silly, but toilet paper. Wiping your ass with paper didn't become common until the 15th century, and toilet paper manufactured for the express purpose of wiping your ass has only been a thing since about 1850.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:04 AM on April 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Heat and hot water on demand and we don't need hordes of servants to light our fires or heat our water. Lights anywhere. More than one change of clothes. Winter clothes as warm as costly furs. Travel when desired.
posted by mareli at 11:06 AM on April 1, 2019

Portraits! Instead of commissioning an artist you can just take a selfie. To a lesser extent, high quality mirrors as well. And abundant lighting at night - candles and oil got expensive fast.

Another - clean ceilings. No soot from fire-based lights despite not having servants to clean said ceilings.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:11 AM on April 1, 2019

Queen Anne would have loved to have glasses, I bet.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:21 AM on April 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Also, privacy! You can enjoy privacy today like few could before. If you were poor, you were living in a small shelter with the rest of your family, everyone sharing one or two rooms and usually at least two to a bed. If you lived in the country, you could probably get some privacy if you went outside and walked a bit (weather allowing). But if you were royalty, even though you owned more rooms and land, you were LESS likely to have access to privacy because societal convention required you to be surrounded by servants and ladies-in-waiting and courtiers and guards and so on at all times.
posted by castlebravo at 11:22 AM on April 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

You can watch TV/things on the internet. Monarchs could hire performers to come in and perform, but it was limited to who was available in the environs/who could travel to them. You can watch any kind of performance you want in any genre, from any culture, just by going to youtube. And if you prefer live performance and live in a major city, you probably have access to more diversity of options than they would have.
posted by lunasol at 12:05 PM on April 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Even better than having a servant take your smelly chamber pot away is flushing that shit down the toilet, and, as noted above, the paper!
posted by mareli at 12:29 PM on April 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

You can put ice in your beverage in summertime -- ice that isn't imported.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:55 PM on April 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Something that you can do that even past monarchs couldn't is that you can exert so much more control over your fertility and sexual health!
posted by rue72 at 1:16 PM on April 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, not sure which era you specify, but simple soap wasn't a thing until the late 17th century, and wasn't in widespread use until the late 1800's.
Also, real dental care - done by actual dentists. This is something no one had in times past - the dentist was a 'surgeon' (or the other way around) and if you had a rotten tooth, it got pulled, and anything short of that didn't get addressed.
posted by dbmcd at 2:13 PM on April 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I winced reading it but still, fascinating - dental implants predate floss! Dentistry History - multiple short comprehensive guides. I am going to go brush my teeth now.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:05 PM on April 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

You will never have to endure an operation with only a shot of whiskey and a corncob to bite on. Antibiotics and vaccines allow you to not die from common infections and diseases.

Ice cream is cheap and readily available.

Also no one is going to force you to marry a stranger to bolster your family's foreign interests.
posted by ananci at 3:34 PM on April 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

You wear clean clothing every day (unless you're lazy about doing the laundry). Most expensive clothing prior to the widespread use of cotton could not feasibly be cleaned before every use.
posted by praemunire at 4:27 PM on April 1, 2019

Regarding spicing meat as a preservative: there's a recent Reddit thread about French King Louis XIV's dining habits. He refused to eat spiced meat, maybe because he didn't like spice, but also because he could flaunt his status by having freshly killed meat at every meal. It is theorized that he may have started the dining custom of having salt & pepper available on the table to piq to taste.
posted by ovvl at 5:31 PM on April 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Regarding specifically Abe Lincoln and his dining habits: according to this article on, it seems as if Lincoln himself ate sparingly and simply. However, for the heights of luxury that he would have access to, consider this annotated menu for his 2nd inauguration ball from One of the annotations (for Terrapin) remarks:
"It is hard to evaluate whether the menu is incredibly fancy—it is certainly fancier than anything we have seen in the last 50 years—or actually fairly simple," says Freedman. "If you look at fancy meals of this era being served in New York and San Francisco, they are more splendid. The ingredients are more expensive, and there are more extensive non-dessert courses."

A more sophisticated bill of fare, Freedman explains, would likely have a more extensive list of game, including canvasback ducks, and a handsome variety of fish, such as shad and terrapin.


"It is just before the end of the war, so they were probably in somewhat of a dilemma as to whether to celebrate the inaugural splendidly or modestly," says Freedman.
So, maybe Lincoln might not be the best avatar of pseudo-aristocratic, American, mid-to-late-19th century living. Maybe one of those old-timey tycoons like Rockefeller or Vanderbilt or Carnegie might be a better lead?
posted by mhum at 5:43 PM on April 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

The ability to communicate instantly at virtually no cost with almost anywhere in the world is something that even the most stupendously wealthy and privileged could only have dreamt of.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:53 PM on April 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ok, so here's a blog post/article describing the meal that William Waldorf Astor (at the time, possibly the world's richest man) put on in 1889 order impress a bunch of big-wigs. The bad news is that some of that stuff is actually... still pretty luxurious: caviar, lobster, foie gras terrine in some kind of pastry shell. Some of the other items are more conventional, if somewhat old-timey: sweetbreads, mutton.

Worse news is the one thing they wanted to put on the menu but couldn't because it wasn't available is still not (readily) available: canvasback duck. The duck is not extinct but they're not widely available for purchase so you more or less have to rely on someone hunting one for you.

Perhaps more than what they actually ate (which, again, seems pretty luxurious even by today's standards), we may think about what they simply could not have conceived of eating. For example, I think it's unlikely that this Astor knew about pizza. His time on this Earth overlapped with when pizza was supposedly introduced to the US... but it was introduced by Italian immigrants of generally modest means who would not really have circulated in the same circles as an Astor. Certainly none of the ancestor Astors, all the way back to John Jacob Astor would have known about pizza. Nor nachos (invented in the 1940s), nor Caesar salad (1920s), nor Buffalo wings (1960s).
posted by mhum at 7:11 PM on April 1, 2019

Have you visited the Palace of Versailles? Honestly, when I went through it, I was expecting to be completely gobsmacked but it was... kinda like a McMansion. It's bigger than a McMansion, yes, but each individual room isn't actually that big.

The Hall of Mirrors was a wonder of its time, because having a huge sheet of unbroken glass to make a mirror with was an expensive luxury, but I couldn't help thinking that we could achieve a similar effect today with a truckload of Ikea mirrors and some gold spray paint. I had to keep reminding myself that the art was made by actual artists, and not mass produced for Home Goods. Actually a lot of it - tapestries, furniture, etc - looked like it was mass produced for Home Goods. This is probably because one of the things mass production gives us is the ability to make cheap knock-off Louis XIV chairs. So seeing an original Louis XIV chair at Versailles is oddly anticlimactic.

Also, fresh fruit at any time of the year. Even in my lifetime, the quality of fruit you can get in the winter has dramatically improved (I'm in the USA).
posted by selfmedicating at 7:13 PM on April 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

The Planet Money podcast did a great episode called "The History of Light" where they track economic progress over the ages by estimating how much it cost to produce a certain amount of light throughout history. They start with the colossal amount of effort it took to rend animal fat and make a candle, go on to the amount of work that goes into getting whale oil or kerosene for lights, and on to today, where lighting up your whole house at night is basically free. It really made me appreciate the light we have.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:26 PM on April 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

Music! Music of any kind any time and anywhere you want.
posted by Raybun at 8:47 PM on April 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

You might really like At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson.
posted by jrobin276 at 8:55 PM on April 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all amazing answers!

But please note, I'm not interested in how things have changed in general. So answers like "The ability to communicate instantly at virtually no cost with almost anywhere in the world is something that even the most stupendously wealthy and privileged could only have dreamt of." aren't really what I'm looking for.

posted by rebent at 5:06 AM on April 2, 2019

Books is a big one, but speaking more to the nature of your question, the expectation of accessible information. That's more in line with royalty/really powerful people of the past and "average american stuff". As in, we now expect that if we want to learn something, we can do so (with varying amounts of effort), whereas peasants of the past often would have had no expectation of learning anything they might have been curious about or needed to know unless they were very lucky and had access to educated relevant trades people. There are many periods in the past where peasantry becoming informed was actively discouraged, often through violence in different guises.

Purple dyes are a classic example, but there's a worldwide history of pigments and their development use by the powerful to send specific messages. Different blues are especially important in Christian religious art, even laws were created around their permitted use by artists depending on their patrons. These days we've got the vantablack nonsense as a modern equivalent. But your average person today could save up a bit and buy a lovely set of oil paints in a rainbow of hues, legally, and use it as they see fit, and it would include such all time pigment hits as cerulean blue and carmine red, both of which have histories of war and colonization behind them.

For food I think it's really interesting to check out the culinary history of Chinese dynasties. Depending on the dynasty, imperial cuisine has a lot in common (aesthetically) with modern "healthy" American diets. There was a lot of focus on fresh and raw ingredients, and on the different components all contributing to the health of the people eating it in a cumulative, preventative way. Sound familiar?
posted by Mizu at 5:29 AM on April 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Are you're after what royalty could have that you can't? They could have personal access to the greatest artists, musicians, and thinkers of their age. They could command that music be composed just for them, that plays and operas should be created and performed for them. Queen Christina of Sweden got Descartes to come tutor her (it killed him). Catherine the Great got Diderot to come to Russia (they didn't get on). You have access to all the writing and music in the world, but it's not for you personally.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 3:27 PM on April 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Assuming you live in some kind of democracy, you have the ability to participate in the political process and voice opinions that may be unpopular.

You can own land in your own right. In the feudal system the vast majority of people either could not own land at all or could only own land in exchange for an ongoing obligation to provide services to someone higher up the feudal hierarchy. In general only the monarch and (in some cases) the church could hold unencumbered alloidal title to land.
posted by jedicus at 4:24 PM on April 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Literacy is another one. Because of the tremendous expense of books and the opportunity cost of education (time spent learning to read is time not spent working fields or learning a trade), learning to read was largely restricted to the very wealthy and the clergy until the 1800s. At the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, fewer than 10% of men and even fewer women were literate. But literacy was highly class dependent: "In northern England the illiteracy of the gentry fell from about 30% in 1530 to almost nil in 1600, but that of day labourers stayed well above 90%."

The rich Venice merchants?

I recommend The Merchant of Prato's Wife: Margherita Datini and Her World, 1360-1423 (it's pricey, but your local library may have it through interlibrary loan), a book analyzing the substantial body of surviving letters written by Margherita Datini and her husband Francesco Datini, a wealthy Italian merchant of the late 14th and early 15th century. In 1870, 500 account books and 150,000 papers relating to Datini's business were discovered in a stairwell of the couple's mansion in Prato, creating one of the most complete pictures available of the merchant class of that time and place. Margherita learned to read and write as an adult, in part so that she could better correspond with her husband (who traveled frequently) without having to rely on a scribe.
posted by jedicus at 4:38 PM on April 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Although primarily focused on ordinary people of various classes, How to be a Tudor also discusses living conditions for the aristocracy to give some context to everything else, or when sources about ordinary people are a bit sparse on the ground.

(Btw, when I google for the amazon link, the second result was this NPR review, with the tagline "Not as stinky as you think", an accurate summation of an important takeaway from the book. Ruth Goodman does a lot of historical reenactments so she smell-tested the hygiene methods described in historical sources. She's good at describing how things that sound appalling to modern day sensibilities aren't actually that bad, plus raising considerations that are otherwise overlooked. For example: lighting and heating was provided by big central fires, with no chimneys. This turned the upper half of the room's air into a non-breathable constant toxic fog, essentially.)

To the best of my recollection, How to be a Victorian discusses the upper class a little but royalty not at all, presumably because of a greater, wider availability of sources to draw from. The upper class stuff might interest you, though.


Some food things:

1. According to How to be a Tudor, dairy products were seasonal -- there was a season for milk, a season for butter... you wouldn't expect most of that stuff to be available year round. It just didn't keep long enough.

2. Here's a source from the Talmud:
"Antoninus and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, whose tables, because of their wealth, never lacked for radish, lettuce or cucumbers, neither in summer nor in the rainy season."
posted by Cozybee at 10:47 PM on April 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


Before the introduction of cheap mechanically-produced paper in the mid 1800s, paper was really expensive. Poorer people - even if they were literate - couldn't afford to scribble notes on paper; every scrap was valuable. Even people writing letters might economise by using each side of the paper more than once, with lines of text at angles. If you go back before paper, then parchment was even more expensive (relatively speaking) because each piece represented the hide of an animal. Notes written by ordinary people might be scratched onto bits of wood, or pottery, or wax-covered tablets.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:16 AM on April 4, 2019

What I'm gathering from the above answers could be summarized as: everything. A shorter and more concise question might be "What do I not have access to that aristocracy of the past did?"

Let's use AskMe's categories as an outline:

clothing, beauty & fashion: Not only do you have access to the best fabrics and most coveted colors that aristocracy did, you have access to technologically enhanced fabrics that no one in history ever did. Also, re: colors, what ever happened to those hypercolor tee shirts? Someone should bring those back.

computers & internet: The internet largely applies to most of these categories / answers. The fact that you got to be alive during the first technological era really just puts you on an altogether different planet than the one aristocracy of the past inhabited.

education: Depending on your intelligence, primary educational performance, and societal status, you have access to varying levels of education unparalleled in history. Even ignoring those qualifiers, again, thanks to the internet, you have a wealth of information at your fingertips that no one has ever had before.

food & drink: Particularly if you are located in a major metropolis in a first world country, you have access to nearly any type of cuisine the world has ever known. Probably multiple options of each, at that.

grab bag: Honestly, what ISN'T on the internet yet? answering this could be a valuable piece of information.

health & fitness: You have a wealth of scientific evidence down to the cellular level of what is and is not good for your body and longevity. Vaccines, antibiotics, diet, exercise, and on and on. Aristocracy of old saw being fat as a sign that you were wealthy because you could afford more food than others. You know better.

home & garden: You live and sleep in a place that is warm when you want it to be, cool when you want it to be, dry all the time, won't fall down on your head, smoke ventilates from it should you want a fire inside of it. You have running water you can drink without fear of disease/illness, so much so that you can bathe in it on a daily basis, at a temperature of your preference. Your sewage magically disappears down a hole. You have light at your fingertips without fear of it burning your abode down. You have floors that are free of dirt because you have machines that keep them that way. Etc.

human relations: You have psychologists and psychiatrists and modern mental health meds and social scientists and access to nearly every written work preserved throughout history. Near real-time access to current global politics and policy. You have AskMe. Again, internet.

law & government See above. If you live in a first-world democracy or something similar, you have the basic expectation that you will rise and live every day free of fear of death or dismemberment, and the knowledge that should these be threatened or in fact executed, legal recourse will protect or avenge you. You have torts and courts at your beck and call, assuming you can afford access to them like your average citizen can, at least in some form.

media & arts: Again: internet. You can access a copy of almost any media or art preserved by history. Thanks to travel and museums, you can practically go and see almost any of the original copies as well. If you're wealthy, you likely own some.

pets & animals: Aristocracy of old certainly dabbled here - dogs, cats, and birds of prey come to mind. Horses were more utilitarian to the aristocracy of old, you now have the luxury of considering them luxuries. (Interesting side note, when I lived in Malaysia and had to figure out how to ship my dog back to the US when we relocated, I learned a lot about what airlines based in Muslim countries will and won't ship: Emirates will send your bird of prey, stallion, or exotic cat anywhere you want. Dogs not so much.) Also, for your animals, you have the animal version of modern medicine to keep them alive and well for as long as possible too.

religion & philosophy: Internet! You can know about them all. Pick whichever ones you like. Cherry pick the parts you like and leave the rest. You could spend your whole life studying just one of these spaces. The breadth of human endeavor in these spaces that was ever written down and your fingertips.

science & nature: See above. You actually know which species will cease to exist in your lifetime. On the rare occurrence a new one is discovered, you will likely find out and it will be added to the permanent record of scientific history. New marvels of science are being discovered and proven on an almost daily basis in our lifetime. And you get to hear about them all, almost instantaneously.

shopping: Amazon.

society & culture: Just like science & nature, religion & philosophy, et. al. - it's all at your fingertips and archived forever now. This is a luxury you can explore in ways aristocracy of old couldn't even dream of. Appropriation is now considered a cultural taboo. We've developed in ways that we culturally understand the in-sensitivities that our ancestors engaged in around these.

sports, hobbies & recreation: Luxuries of themselves that most aristocracy dabbled in little, if at all. Again, you can study all of them via modern media and the internet. You can go and watch in person the best people in the world at play or practice in any of them. You can own trophies and memorabilia of their exploits. You can explore the deep sea and the highest mountains and the furthest plains and the sky and soon even outer space, all as a common man.

technology: Enough said. What a marvelous time to be alive. Everything that has been dreamed in futuristic imagination is coming real in our very lifetimes.

travel & transportation: Where can you not go now?

work & money: Well, death and taxes, amirite? What's interesting here is that there are few things that the global elite have access to that you can't gain, in a similar form or fashion, any more. 500 years ago, ice in your drink was something only the king would know the pleasure of. Not any more. Here too, thanks to technology, much of this is becoming virtual and permanently recorded. Less and more to worry about by the day.

When people ask me when I'd pick to go back in history to, the answer for me is always: Never. I'd stay right here. There may be a whole lot of crappy shit to deal with in our day and age, but humanity has never had it better. Unfortunately, thanks to climate change, that may not always be the case for our descendants.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:56 AM on April 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Forget specifics and searching fails me, but I remember clipping out a Terry Pratchett article from the newspaper back in the late '90s (NERD!) which said of PCs/laptops "We hold in our hands power Kings of old could never have dreamt of and say 'Oh yeah, I got it in Dixons for £299'".
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 5:55 PM on April 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

One of the big takeaways for me was how terrible everything must have smelled. In addition to running water and toilets, you also have access to washing machines, dry cleaners, and Febreeze.

Seconding this - even the royalty didn't have access to the same kinds of sanitation and plumbing that we do today (and there was a time when bathing was considered indulgently sinful to boot). Even the upper classes tended to have one or two undergarments that they wore over and over and over again, and put on the regular clothes over that. No matter how elegant the gown is that you're wearing, if what you have on under it is a shift that hasn't been washed in a week - and you haven't been washed in a month - you're gonna smell kinda funky.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:27 AM on April 16, 2019

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