Something that often - okay, sometimes - comes up in my medieval classes is the "how could people live that way" question, usually related to things like modern medicine. Students quickly figure out that people in the Middle Ages doubtless had to have a very different standard of ordinary comfort than we do today. I don't mean to suggest that medieval Europeans were complete medical idiots (despite this account by a twelfth-century Syrian - scroll down to the 7th paragraph); I think they were especially good with herbs and other kinds of natural remedies. But it's also true that they couldn't pop an asprin every time they had a headache (or could they? certainly they knew about analgesics), or take some Ny-Quil to get some sleep when they had a cold. (Of course, it's primarily the booze in Ny-Quil that knocks you out, and medieval people had plenty of access to that. But I digress.) Students tend to be horrified when they think about the material comfort available to most medieval people, and it's true that I like my modern world, with things like antibiotics (at least, until all the bacteria out there become resistant), not to mention air-conditioning and central heating.
But another way to think about it is to remember that it is possible to live without all the comforts of the modern world. And it's funny, because I was thinking about this tonight on my way to the local drugstore. I have asthma, triggered by my zillions of allergies, which wasn't diagnosed until I was about 22 and which wasn't seriously controlled until I was 30, when I finally had the benefits to visit a proper allergist (as opposed to the kind you get to see at student medical centers). When I went to the decent allergist, and he figured out exactly how many things I was allergic to and what my current medication wasn't doing, he said, "I think you've become used to a very high level of discomfort." I wasn't quite sure what he meant, because I had been uncomfortable, which was why I'd originally had the asthma diagnosed, but I felt perfectly fine with my minimal medications (I had gone to see the new doctor only because I'd moved).
Of course, once I had proper medications, I realized how much better I felt than when I hadn't. I went home over the holidays and after I'd been home for 4 or 5 hours my mother said, with wonder, "You haven't blown your nose once yet!"
So, this all very well and good. But occasionally I'll run out of one of my medications and not have the time to pick it up right away. And I don't think much of it - I lived for years without these medications and I was fine, right? But then I'm always driven to get the prescription refilled because I feel like complete crap. When I moved to Rural Utopia, I couldn't get an appointment with the allergist for weeks, and my prescriptions ran out, and I was MISERABLE - I'd wake up in the morning with my eyes half-swollen shut from allergies. Most of the time, I forget I have asthma because I have virtually no symptoms - when I take my meds. But when I run out of Singulair, after about three days I have problems breathing again.
What does this have to do with medieval living? Well, I think I handled my allergies/asthma much better without medication than I do now, if I have to go without medication. Now that I know what it's like to be able to breathe easily and not itch/sneeze/run with snot all the time, when I do have those symptoms, I suffer from them much, much more than I used to before I got on these drugs. Back when I was used to them. Medieval people,who didn't have access to modern drugs, never knew what it's like to have those symptoms relieved. And they just lived with them.
(Unless, of course, their symptoms were life-threatening. Then they, you know, died, which would admittedly suck.)
I'm not arguing for getting rid of modern advancements, mind you. I have no objection to modern "improvements." It's just that I think sometimes it's important to remember that just because a life didn't have all the wonders and niceties of a modern American middle-class life, doesn't mean it wasn't worth living.