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Survival tips for the Middle Ages

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2008

I spend far too much of my life daydreaming about scenarios like this:

I wanted to ask for survival tips in case I am unexpectedly transported to a random location in Europe (say for instance current France/Benelux/Germany) in the year 1000 AD (plus or minus 200 years). I assume that such transportation would leave me with what I am wearing, what I know, and nothing else. Any advice would help.

To which Tyler Cowen replies:

Find someone who will take care of you for a few days or weeks and then look for employment in the local church. Your marginal product is quite low, even once you have learned the local language. You might think that knowing economics, or perhaps quantum mechanics, will do you some good but in reality people won’t even think your jokes are funny. Even if you can prove Euler’s Theorem from memory no one will understand your notation. I hope you have a strong back and an up to date smallpox vaccination.

The comments are full of informative and entertaining options. I side with the commenters who feel that the most likely outcome is death within a few days. Unless you’re skilled at wilderness survival, finding edible food, shelter, and potable water in a time when those things were much more scarce than now will prove difficult. If you do manage to survive, maybe you could set up shop selling goods that people could use:

I’d start a shop that did nothing but boil water and then sell it. I’d market it as “de-spirited” water and sell it to midwives, priests, doctors - anyone who would be charged with the health of another. The boiled, micro-organism free water would dramatically improve the health outcomes for anyone with cholera or plague or infection. Even marginally better outcomes using clean water would bolster my reputation and business. Of course, barriers to entry would be pretty low in my business, but if I were widely copied, I’d start a health revolution. For that quantum timeline anyway.

Again, assuming you survive, other commenters suggest that you “invent” something, sell it, and become rich so that your wealth will insulate you from further problems, stuff like gunpowder, mass production, long bows, guns, soap, steel, the printing press, double-entry accounting, whiskey, capitalism, and hot air balloons. I’m skeptical of this approach…how many people living in the US know how to make gunpowder from scratch? Given enough time, I guess I could build a hot air balloon that actually flies and carries human passengers but anything involving chemistry would prove tougher.

How would you survive if suddenly transported back to 1000 AD? Leave your suggestions for survival in the comments.

Reader comments

graceJun 10, 2008 at 2:01PM

I have to agree that 21st Century person would die in a few days. Barring death from any kind of disease, I would try to forge a in the wilderness rather for a while until I sufficiently could observe any cluster of civilization, then find an entry into a successful, not necessarily the most successful, enclave of human beings. However, I believe that inventing anything might get you burned at the stake as a heretic or witch.

ChadJun 10, 2008 at 2:11PM

Assuming I could find a town/city and not die right away in the woods, I’d try and have as much fun as possible. Even if I happen to die, I’m just going to be born again in less than a thousand years.

ralitzaJun 10, 2008 at 2:12PM

Stick to the church and pretend as good as you can to be a pious believer. Even only the fact that you can read would put you far ahead, but as grace above noted, being too inventive in those times might.. no, will cost your life at the stake.

FshhhJun 10, 2008 at 2:13PM

You’d also have to try hard not to talk too much. Nobody would understand you and the risks associated with being an outsider in such a time would be grave. You’d have to find a way to convince everyone that you were a good stranger (ie. not possessed, not a foreigner, not retarded, not a spy, not a witch, not mute, etc.). Learning the language would be a major handicap and it surely wouldn’t be easy to hide in the woods reading discarded scraps of the NYT and eavesdropping on chatty passers-by.
In short, I think you’d have to be useful and unthreatening right off the bat or you’d be killed and eaten as some exotic animal.

ChristopherJun 10, 2008 at 2:19PM

I think you’d be strung up as a witch. But perhaps this is from watching too much Monty Python.

Barring that my concern would be that you’d set the future off its course by setting the start date for the industrial revolution several centuries too early. Althought the idea of co-evolution would suggest that perhaps people aren’t ready for hot air balloons in 1000 AD.

This brings you back to being strung up as a witch.

povJun 10, 2008 at 2:19PM

Start making predictions! In case you have really been transported back in time, recollect what actually happens in “the future” and you will surely gain a lot of browny points. Browny points = fulfillment of needs

Ted TschoppJun 10, 2008 at 2:19PM

I’d probably work in the church. I know more about the bible than many of the common people of the day, and have read and studied the classics we have today that would have been considered classics of that time.

If I couldn’t do that I’d look up family in Switzerland and try to hook up with them.

j.vpJun 10, 2008 at 2:19PM

I would take that potable water scheme and add lemons and sugar. Mmmm, tasty profit!

Seriously, though, if you were transported with whatever you have on your person — your clothes, your shoes, even your t-shirt would be pretty “high tech,” considering the quality of the stitching compared to whatever Sir Threadbare is wearing. If you didn’t die of dysentery or the plague you’d probably be killed for your watch or your pocket knife.

GKBJun 10, 2008 at 2:21PM

I would “invent” the flying buttress and become the most famous mason in the land. And I would use my wealth and fame to dethrone evil earls, fight against corrupt clergy, and win the love of a good woman!

Jeff AkstonJun 10, 2008 at 2:23PM

Why would the 21st century person die withing a few days? I will have built up immunities (through heredity) from a litany of historical diseases, but those in the 10th century would not have any immunities from the germs I will bring back with me for that gap of 1,000 years.

I’d be the one killing everyone else with my germs; not the other way around.

I’d be fat and have soft girlie hands, so I’m sure I could pull of some scam that I was a king from some far off land who had been mistakenly abandon, and they’d all take care of me.

Exurban JonJun 10, 2008 at 2:28PM

I think the best option would be to live as a hermit until I acclimated to my predicament. I would build a rough homestead, try to gather a few stray animals as livestock and begin a small subsistence farm.

Eventually, locals might run across me — or not — doesn’t matter really. Nevertheless, if they did come, THEY would be the strangers and I would be the suspicious hermit minding my own business. I will have hopefully manufactured a few basic tools or baubles I can use to trade. Also, hopefully I will have picked up some of the language picked up by listening-in to conversations of locals. Since I wouldn’t speak their language well, I would just maintain the role of being a particularly devoted Christian ascetic who left far-off lands behind.

If I saw benefit in spending more time with the locals, I could come out of my hermitage as appropriate. Of course, I would need to prove my worth or they wouldn’t want me around.

NickJun 10, 2008 at 2:28PM

My friends and I have had these discussions for a while and I am amazed that this isn’t already a book. Make it happen Kottke.

For all you designers out there, you could be an artist in residence for a church or rich landowner, but that sounds tough to do and you may just end up going mad or painting the ceiling of a church for 4 years.

I too, predict death.

paulski.mcbJun 10, 2008 at 2:34PM

Luckily, I have great skills. You know, nunchuck skills, bow-hunting skills. Computer hacking skills…

JoseJun 10, 2008 at 2:37PM

Well, I would just pop out my trusty iPhone 3G and…oh, wait…

I guess I would throw my iPhone at a small animal, in hopes it would provide enough food to tide me over until the locals killed me.

NicholasJun 10, 2008 at 2:39PM

I can’t believe no one’s suggested the culinary arts. Think about just what a rudimentary knowledge of 21st century food would seem like for folks way back then. Open up a taco/pizza/hamburger joint, and you’re bound to be the only one on the block. Add some candy and Mcdonalds style marketing (would you like to upsize your meal for a pence more?) and you’ll be ready to franchise in no time.

Besides, I think you’re much less likely to be accused of being a witch for making a mean reuben sandwich than if you were to take off flying around in a hot air balloon.

cam thomasJun 10, 2008 at 2:42PM

i wonder if foreign language ability would help? i speak fluent french and have to think i could sweet talk my way into being regarded as some kind lost royalty.

vinnyJun 10, 2008 at 2:44PM

L. Sprague de Camp covered a similar idea in “Lest Darkness Fall”. Read this review for details: http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/susan/sf/dani/016.htm. Excerpt:

“Lest Darkness Fall” (***+), published in 1939, is a seminal alternate-history novel. It is the story of Martin Padway, an modern archaeologist who finds himself in the Rome of 535 AD. This presents him with three problems. The short-term problem is that of making a living. He has a bit of money (1939 being back in the days when people typically had some silver in their pockets), borrows more, and proceeds to introduce friends, Romans, and countrymen to modern amenities such as brandy and newspapers.

The novel is a pretty good read, especially when you consider when it was written.

andyJun 10, 2008 at 2:45PM

Assuming I don’t get killed for this, I’d run a game of three-card Monte in the town center. The barrier to entry seems relatively low. I’d have to find a partner, first though. I’d pay off the local magistrate so they don’t put me in irons.

Once I’d made enough money from that I’d open up a bar/restaurant and introduce Europeans to the culinary 8th wonder of the world, slow-smoked Texas beef brisket and Carolina dry-rubbed pork ribs. Since those won’t be coming around for another 1000 years.

I’d take my shell game/bbq empire and use my clout to prevent the Grimaldi family from conquering the spit of land known today as Monaco, and would install myself as the prince.

JimJun 10, 2008 at 2:45PM

I would have great health/strength benefits. Being 6’ 4” and in good health I would be a GIANT, by far the largest person the population had ever seen. This would probably: 1. get me killed, 2. make me a tournament gladiator where I would be killed (what do I know about swords or jousting) or, if I was lucky, 3. a manual laborer for the local blacksmith.

lindsey Jun 10, 2008 at 3:02PM

step one : collect underpants
step two: ???
step three: profit!

Emmet ConnollyJun 10, 2008 at 3:03PM

I’ve thought about this too and think it very much depends on the period you’re dropped into. In this case, I’d try to be an artist. 1000 AD leaves me with a 500 year head start on the Rennaissance, and about 300 on Giotto, who “invented” perspective in paintings, so I think I could knock together some pretty decent sketches.

I agree that the toughest part of the job would be to survive the first few days. Getting together the raw materials to start manufacturing (or drawing) things immediately would be almost impossible. Head to a farm, try to get work, food and shelter and spend a few months keeping a low profile and learning the language before striking out on your own. Earning your first million is a lot harder than your first hundred million, as they say.

This is what happens when people who grew up on Quantum Leap and MacGyver have too much time on their hands, you know.

Bill AltreuterJun 10, 2008 at 3:06PM

Language is going to be a much bigger issue than seems to be supposed. Even if you speak the modern version of the local lingua, it’ll sound strange— try reading Chaucer, who was writing three centuries later to get a sense of it. Knowing Latin might help, but it was a living language then, and who knows what the accent was like? That will make hanging out in church tough.

Chances are that you’ll be quite a bit larger than most people, which will help. You’ll have a lot more teeth, too. Hope that you were wearing your glasses when you were transported— your contacts aren’t going to do you much good once they wear out/tear/whatever. Since lenses won’t been invented for another four or five hundred years you are going to look pretty odd.

judson Jun 10, 2008 at 3:08PM

I’m a big guy to..so, an enforcer of some type. Who has a good idea now and then.

EvanJun 10, 2008 at 3:11PM

Around the AD1000 barrier, by far the easiest way to survive is becoming part of the First Estate. Of course, the odds are overwhelmingly against anyone going back to that time period, but knowing simple things like (as posted originally) it’s a good idea to boil water first will help you out.

But living in a monastary, with assured sources of food (and beer, thanks much. You could even have the very same Weihenstaphaner we know today if you happened to land in Bavaria) and shelter are the best bet. It probably helps that I know Latin already. Even if you eventually become a layperson and teach at a private school or budding university (I’m thinking Peter Abelard minus the run-out-of-Paris part).

I’m just thinking of how to survive. Some of these suggestions are excellent. But inventing something to become so rich that you are insulated from further harm precludes that you live long enough to find all of your resources for doing so. I think that at last throwing yourself upon the mercy of an abbey, showing that you can read and write, and converse (maybe even in Latin) will get you a room for as long as you want.

But really, 1000 or thereabouts is a dicey time. The closer you get to 1066 (ideally after) the more likely it is that you’ll be able to survive, though.

suttonJun 10, 2008 at 3:12PM

If you have a wristwatch with you, you could revolutionize sea travel.

NoahJun 10, 2008 at 3:14PM

I’m glad Jim finally brought up the size thing. Keep in mind just how alien you’d be to these people:
a) You wouldn’t speak their language
b) You’d be a foot taller than everyone else, and much more hygienic (full set of teeth, no sores, etc.)
c) You’d be wearing ridiculously high tech clothing

They’d probably think you were an archangel or something.

gayat1Jun 10, 2008 at 3:19PM

I would head for any royal enclaves and become part of the court our present day knowledge would make us very valuable in that where kings, dukes and the like were indeed mighty.

rjtJun 10, 2008 at 3:23PM

There’s one particular bit of trivia that I stashed away in my mind against possible unwitting time travel (it doesn’t apply to 1000 AD, but I provide it here for free nonetheless, as a public service):

If - no, let’s be real here - WHEN you are suddenly and unexpectedly time-travelled to the early days of the Black Death, make straight for Nuremberg. It’s one of a handful of cities that didn’t get bubonic plague. I read it on a list somewhere, one time.

If I recall correctly, I expected to use this knowledge to rescue myself and a remarkably empathetic and pliable Dark Ages girl who was sort of a cross between Michelle Pfeiffer in Ladyhawke and the peasant girl Christian Slater nails in Name of the Rose.

Of course, they probably didn’t have bubonic plague in Nuremberg because they rigorously barred their city walls against just such threats as my t-shirt-wearing, weird-talking, time-travelling ass.

Still. Nuremberg. Remember it.

Nick HusherJun 10, 2008 at 3:25PM

Just to dispel the notions that you’d be burned at the stake: Until about 1020, it was basically unheard-of to be tried and killed for heresy. The Catholic Church didn’t really consolidate into a major political power—capable of jurisprudence—really until Pope Gregory VII in 1073.

The best option, if tossed randomly into medieval France or Germany—where I didn’t speak any variant of the language—would be to join a monastic order by trying to convince them in whatever grunting, rudimentary way I could, that I’m from the Orient and want to learn more about the late-great JC. It’s likely that nobody in that region would have any experience with the far east, so would take my strange dress and inability to speak the language as somewhat plausible. I’m sure my basic knowledge of Latin (basic sentence structure and ability to intuit my way through basic sentences) would get me a good ways with the clergy as well.

Once in the monastic system, I’d have a certain degree of freedom and a chance at significant political power. I could imply myself to the local duke if I used my mediocre knowledge of engineering, science and mathematics to fashion inventions and civic works projects.

At the very least I could make myself useful as an apothecary, basic penecilin is easy to create and a pre-asprin can be distilled out of willow bark and used in a tincture. This would work well with the boiling water scheme and it would be possible to use alcohol as an antiseptic as well.

redphoneJun 10, 2008 at 3:37PM

I’d hide first of all and attempt to create a camp of some kind and try to take care of immediate shelter/food needs.

When I’m ready to take a crack at exploring and interacting with the population, I would pretend to be mute. Pantomime is pretty much the same through the ages, I imagine. I would make it clear I’m from far away, which will take care of the language barrier issue for the time being.

I think I would keep my original clothes and try to present myself as an interesting diversion for the local royalty. Maybe come up with a list of party tricks, show off some education, etc. Make myself useful, and engaging, essentially. I’d try to stay away from anything that makes me appear to be a seer, as that’s a slippery slope towards ‘witch’.

It’s hard though. Being a woman, I think my risks are much greater. I suppose if it becomes a desperate situation I can become a prostitute. bleh. I wonder how rough things would have to be for me to make that decision with the men being the way they were back then.

graceJun 10, 2008 at 3:46PM

It’s interesting that we conjecture about being deposited back to 1000 A.D. Europe. What if we were deposited back to 1000 A.D. in the same place we’re living now? It’d be a lot harder to fit in with the Native American population that’s for sure!

Matthew JohnsonJun 10, 2008 at 3:49PM

Things few people realize about the middle ages in Europe:

1) People were much more tolerant than we think. You had to work pretty hard to get burned at the stake.

2) Fuel (including wood) was scarce. Most forests were royal (or at least noble) property. The main fuel for cooking was dried cowpats, which are fine for stew but won’t get a good boil. So forget the whole purified water thing.

3) Coin was in short supply, too, due to a shortage of precious minerals. The resurgence in mining, which culminated in the Joachimsthal silver strike (whence we get the word “dollar”) was one of the things that kick-started the Renaissance and the Reformation. (There’s a reason kings borrowed money from the Medicis, Fuggers, and whatnot: they needed coinage to pay mercenaries.) Little coin means little capital, which limits the ability of time travelers to change the future through crazy schemes.

4) The notion that people of the past were shorter than us largely comes from a comparison with the 18th and 19th Centuries, when people were _much_ shorter due to the tough times at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. (Like agriculture, you had to invest a lot into the IR before it paid off.) For most of the middle ages your average decently-fed peasant was, on average, shorter than we are, but not by that much.

5) Plus, even if you’re 6’5”, do you think you’re much stronger than a guy who spent his whole live shoveling manure, guiding oxen and diggin furrows? How about a guy who was trained from childhood to swing a very heavy metal sword? Forget the whole gladiator/man-at-arms thing.

6) Your ability to read and write would be impressive. Unfortunately, they won’t be able to read your handwriting and you won’t be able to read theirs.

7) At the same time, for most of this period any educated person will have a memory that makes yours look like a pocket calculator.

8) Best tech-to-effect ratio of modern inventions: clover. Convince a local farmer to plant clover in his field during the fallow year, then watch as his yields in that field increase tremendously. (Thus “in clover.”) And it’s all free, free, free.

So: find a village (look for smoke at night), make like a deaf-mute, hire on as a farm hand, and hope some other time traveler is looking for you.

Joshua HeinemanJun 10, 2008 at 3:52PM

Preparations: Beginning now, I’ll carry an assortment of semi-exotic seeds stashed all about my jacket (I live in S.Francisco, I always have a jacket). I will install a swiss army knife in my cellphone.

Back to the Future! (i mean, past!): After being kicked back to the year 1000 sinks in & I stop freaking out, I’ll plant all my radical seeds & start a garden from all over the world… I’ll say I just came from traveling all through the known world & beyond. I’ll use the seeds as proof. Hopefully people will love the taste of such things & give me some exchanges so I can live comfortably. I will find a wife & we will be culinary stars. French food of the future will be changed forever!

SummerJun 10, 2008 at 3:54PM

Due to being young, female, and pale, I would throw myself at the mercy of a convent, and claim to be escaped from a marriage to a heathen prince. Then I would practice my embroidery and talk about Jesus until I got married off to someone, or achieved sainthood. Boring, but ladies have few options.

AlanJun 10, 2008 at 3:58PM

I would suggest being a doctor. Your knowledge of any basic medicine is advanced compared to theirs, and you’ll be able to save lives, prevent infections, etc.

EricJun 10, 2008 at 3:58PM

Isn’t this entirely what Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” is about?

JeffJun 10, 2008 at 4:00PM

“I would take that potable water scheme and add lemons and sugar. Mmmm, tasty profit!”

The problem is sugar, at the time, was a luxury (or at least much more expensive that it is now) so your lemonade is going to be fairly costly.

The actual idea of lemonade was possibly invented in medieval Egypt, according to the internets, too. So, someone already beat you to the punch (er, ade)… unless… that was you???!

reviewstewJun 10, 2008 at 4:13PM

I’m with Redphone, that entertaining people is a good way to go … Travelling gypsy musician would be my cover story. Regale ‘em with the exotic sounds of crappy ’80s pop music I memorized in my misspent youth…

TraciJun 10, 2008 at 4:20PM

I’d teach swimming lessons (immediately) and work on reverse-engineering a piano or other musical instrument (long-term project).

CameronJun 10, 2008 at 4:39PM

I wonder who in the modern era would be most likely to survive and thrive in the year 1000 A.D. Medieval scholars? Priests? Doctors? Farmers?

I suspect that there is a reason inventions happen when they do. For example, I’m not sure people in the year 1000 would be particularly impressed by perspective drawing, as one commenter suggested — they simply wouldn’t be ready for it. It might be easier to gain acceptance for an invention that’s just 50 years away than one that’s hundreds of years away, no matter how magical the invention.

AndrewJun 10, 2008 at 4:43PM

The Poul Anderson story “The Man Who Came Early” deals with this scenario (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Came_Early) with a 20th c. time-traveller encountering some problems translating modern skills to medieval Iceland.

Exurban JonJun 10, 2008 at 4:58PM

Honestly, this is easier than everyone’s making it. I’m actually from 3008 and am doing just fine in your time.

I just invented a cheesy little interface, sold it to Nintendo… voila, Wii makes me a rich man!

florianJun 10, 2008 at 5:00PM

I think fighting scurvy might be possible. Just use Sauerkraut and voilá, you could travel much farther, if you could make a triangular sail.

funtooshJun 10, 2008 at 5:01PM

… don’t forget that the bible was not translated into the local languages until the late middle ages. so you’d have to make do with the latin vulgata version (in case you are not fluent in Hebrew or Aramaic?) to show off your knowledge …

when it comes to learning the language, man, am i happy that i did take those courses in Old English and Old German. that will be of help, for once.

so much for the eurocentric view of the idea — i am somewhat reluctant to imagine being put into the arabic, chinese, african, american, … world of the time. though, come to thing of it, that ‘ll be one kind of adventure … and much less dark, maybe?

(to make things more enjoyable, albeit even less probable, one might add the option of choosing gender and race at take-off-into-time-travel…)

AllenJun 10, 2008 at 5:03PM

Re: beer in 1000.

Weihenstephaner was probably making beer in 1000 (their claim about being the world’s oldest brewery is based on fairly sketchy evidence—a single mention of hops cultivation in very old monastic records), but it would be nothing like what we think of as beer today. Barley yields and poor malting techniques, together with uncultivated yeasts, and primitive mash/lauter methods (the methods used now were invented in the 19th century) generally would result in a much weaker beer.

As for taste: Hops were just starting to get added to beer in that time period, in parts of what is now Germany. Cultivars available at the time would be very low in alpha acids. Malted barley was always dried by direct application of heat through fires, so almost every beer will have a strong smoky flavor. Plus, yeasts were unlikely to resemble modern Saccharomyces cerevisiae. And any beer not consumed young would quickly sour from exposure to lactobacillus. I imagine most beers would taste like a sweet, smoky faro lambic.

Anyway, the introduction of modern malting, kilning, and brewing techniques, skills that are not difficult to learn and which most homebrewers are familiar with, could easily produce a product without peer or competition.

funtooshJun 10, 2008 at 5:05PM

… don’t forget that the bible was not translated into the local languages until the late middle ages. so you’d have to make do with the latin vulgata version (in case you are not fluent in Hebrew or Aramaic?) to show off your knowledge …

when it comes to learning the language, man, am i happy that i did take those courses in Old English and Old German. that will be of help, for once.

so much for the eurocentric view of the idea — i am somewhat reluctant to imagine being put into the arabic, chinese, african, american, … world of the time. though, come to thing of it, that ‘ll be one kind of adventure … and much less dark, maybe?

(to make things more enjoyable, albeit even less probable, one might add the option of choosing gender and race at take-off-into-time-travel…)

Jason GJun 10, 2008 at 5:06PM

I can juggle, stand on my hands and make really goofy faces. I’d be a court jester or fool, which is pretty much the same thing I’m doing in this century.

Josh KirschenbaumJun 10, 2008 at 5:08PM

The “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis is a great story of a time-traveling graduate student going back to the Middle Ages…

REALLY good coverage of this issue in there.

MotoJun 10, 2008 at 5:11PM

C’mon. Ash from the Evil Dead series made gun powder, and that character is a moron.

Of course, in this hypothetical world you are pretty much dead if you go in naked via Europe. With clothing, there is a minor chance of survival if you can get some basic tools. I think the approach is to:
- Get in line with the local religion
- Start working hard
- Learn the language

Keep in mind:
- Low travel. Most people live and die within 20 miles. Trying to move beyond that is dangerous.
- Low calories. No food from the new world. No potato, tomato, strawberries. Almost everyone eats onions. Lovely. Your harvest goes to those in charge. And forget being in charge of anything (like the boiling water person - where do they think they will find the time to create the infrastructure?) The water sources will be valuable and defended.
- You have to make everything. Without standard tools. Or materials. Forget plastics, and most glass and metals.

MotoJun 10, 2008 at 5:12PM

C’mon. Ash from the Evil Dead series made gun powder, and that character is a moron.

Of course, in this hypothetical world you are pretty much dead if you go in naked via Europe. With clothing, there is a minor chance of survival if you can get some basic tools. I think the approach is to:
- Get in line with the local religion
- Start working hard
- Learn the language

Keep in mind:
- Low travel. Most people live and die within 20 miles. Trying to move beyond that is dangerous.
- Low calories. No food from the new world. No potato, tomato, strawberries. Almost everyone eats onions. Lovely. Your harvest goes to those in charge. And forget being in charge of anything (like the boiling water person - where do they think they will find the time to create the infrastructure?) The water sources will be valuable and defended.
- You have to make everything. Without standard tools. Or materials. Forget plastics, and most glass and metals.

johnnybeefcakesJun 10, 2008 at 5:22PM

I’d find a hidden spot and leave my future self a note to watch out for time portals.

nick sJun 10, 2008 at 5:36PM

Count me in with the ‘join a monastery’ folks: Hild of Whitby did pretty well for herself, though she’s something of a one-off.

Or this multi-step process, if you do land in AD1000: get down to al-Andalus, learn Arabic, stock up on citrus, get on a boat heading east, and look for Avicenna, because he may well be a time-traveller too.

RobotPirateNinjaJun 10, 2008 at 5:39PM

I’d become a thief, and hide in the woods.

Searching, always searching, for that one ring.

BillJun 10, 2008 at 5:40PM

Ash from Evil Dead also made a robot hand with medieval tools. If you can do that, then yeah, gunpowder should be trivial.

RexJun 10, 2008 at 5:51PM

I’d invent Dungeons & Dragons.

BoJun 10, 2008 at 6:00PM

I would appear as an alien god to them. (1) The super-light, super-powerful glasses on my face (protecting those would be my #1 priority) would represent a supernatural level of craftsmanship in the year 1000 — even without the lenses. (2) I’d be a foot taller than everyone else. (3) I would be speaking gibberish. (4) My big, shiny white teeth (with freaky metal deposits) would completely terrify them. (5) I would appear nearly hairless: balding, close-cut hair, super clean-shaven. (6) I would appear freakishly clean.

On second thought, I’d probably be beaten to death within a few hours.

londenioJun 10, 2008 at 6:50PM

The question made it to kottke.org!! I sent this question to the always wise Prof. Cowen after reading a chapter about the middle ages in a History book. I realized that everything I know is just useless outside my era.

Perhaps someone smarter than me should write a book about this, but some commenters are already pointing to some existing books. I have been thinking of aggregating all the comments here and at Marginal Revolution’s into a somewhat more coherent essay. Overally, it is an interesting exercise to realize how helpless we would be in spite of our superior knowledge and intelectual skills.

It is interesting to see how the comments in kottke.org have a more design flavor as opposed to the more econ focused comments in marginalrevolution.com


MattJun 10, 2008 at 7:36PM

This is just about the most awesome comment thread ever.

While it is fun to think about being a modern in the dark ages, I generally agree that the further back in time you go, the less applicable your knowledge will be (and the less likely you would be able to use it for fame/fortune/saving humanity).

So, if I ever find a time machine, I will go back between 10 and 50 years and kick serious ass, between predicting the future and being a technological genius.

jimJun 10, 2008 at 7:40PM


Don’t forget to buy some Google stock.

AndrewJun 10, 2008 at 8:33PM

A good place to start in the book department is “Engineering in the Ancient World” by J. G. Landels for a basics course in ancient engineering (water pumps, catapults, ships, wagons). It would help if you wanted to be useful.

Those of us lucky enough to be Archaeologists would definitely have the advantage in such a scenario. As many of the science fiction books and movies of time travel can tell you the Archaeologist/Anthropologist character always saves the day….

The cultures of 1000 A.D. would be so foreign to you that you would hardly stand a chance living among them without help. Language, while a barrier, is not of great concern as humans have the remarkable ability to communicate no matter the spoken language. It is the cultural slips that you make that would be the death of you; not bowing to the right person, looking at the wrong person, looking like a wrong person, entering by the wrong door, or merely because you look pretty. However, most human beings are the same no matter where you go (or when) so just wait until you find some farmer who looks like they won’t scream and run off and give it go, they will most likely be welcoming and willing to feed and shelter you, just don’t touch his daughter.

Best thing would be to find the nearest and largest seaport (Southern Europe, The Middle East, Asia, if you land in North America sorry but your out of luck on this one) as they would be used to strangers and you might just stand a chance getting a job where no questions are asked, then again you could get pressed ganged so don’t forget to lift with the knees and pull in long smooth strokes.

All in all if you were in relatively good shape, had your wits about you, don’t mind being covered in shit, blood, cuts and bruises you might just stand a chance of making it a few weeks.

Of course what would really help the situation would be The Guide, and with advent of iPhone 2.0, the days of not panicking in an ill-informed and headless manner are soon upon us.

TroyJun 10, 2008 at 9:18PM

I’d get to creating and selling mechanical woodblock Tetris clone.

KyleJun 10, 2008 at 9:37PM

As a Jew with a circumcised wee-wee, I’d hi-tail it to southern Spain as quickly as possible. The livin’s probably much better there anyway, during Cordoba’s golden age.

GitaiJun 10, 2008 at 9:46PM

I’ve got good Biblical Hebrew, so I could make a living in a monastery.

However, I think I wouldn’t exactly concentrate on survival. I think for the good of humanity, I’d kill myself. I’m carrying around viruses that my body has learned to live with, and if we’re talking about pre-bubonic plague, the European side of my heritage has selected for a body chemistry that protects me from a good number of pre-modern infections. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m utterly free of them; just that I won’t get sick from them.

Much like American indigines, the pre-modern Europeans I encountered might get new pandemics wiping out huge swaths of humanity just from my presence.

Ben NolanJun 10, 2008 at 10:42PM

I’d go to a big city (venice? rome?) and became the scientist-in-residence of some landowner.

ZackJun 10, 2008 at 10:54PM

This thread kicks ass. Jason, any chance of a best-of follow-up post?

RyanJun 10, 2008 at 11:01PM

I think Bo gets it right:

Go aggressively alien-modern.

You’re never going to fool people into thinking you fit in. There’s too much that would be different between you and the locals, and unless you were dropped in a location where you had a magnificent ability to eavesdrop and learn a bit about the people before you met them, any blending-in approach would be over right when it started.

First, I’d find a small town — one where the word-of-mouth of my arrival would be brief and wouldn’t lead to rioting or something. It would be especially good to initially meet a group of kids or teenagers, because they’d be the less likely to harm or kill you. See E.T. for details.

I’d calmly and serenely smile, presenting the locals with my iPhone as a gift to help build trust. I think the key would be to get a group of townspeople to believe that you’re not crazy or intending to hurt them. Let these townspeople do the work of introducing you to (or shielding you from) people from other towns. I’d act as much as possible like God, using any pieces of technology I had with me to coerce the locals into my holiness.

GitaiJun 10, 2008 at 11:19PM

I’ve got good Biblical Hebrew, so I could make a living in a monastery.

However, I think I wouldn’t exactly concentrate on survival. I think for the good of humanity, I’d kill myself. I’m carrying around viruses that my body has learned to live with, and if we’re talking about pre-bubonic plague, the European side of my heritage has selected for a body chemistry that protects me from a good number of pre-modern infections. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m utterly free of them; just that I won’t get sick from them.

Much like American indigines, the pre-modern Europeans I encountered might get new pandemics wiping out huge swaths of humanity just from my presence.

R J KeefeJun 10, 2008 at 11:49PM

I’m with Eric! You’d be burned at the stake on account of the first ten things that you said to anybody — only, unlike the Connecticut Yankee, you’d actually be burned because you’d given up smoking and weren’t carrying a lighter.

And what you’d really want is a seriously reconditioned olfactory awareness system.

The idea of going back in time is not nearly so much fun as that of bringing favorite people into our time: Mozart of course (a wildly unpredictably proposition, I’ve decided — he might very easily steal off in someone’s Maserati), Christine de Pizan (who’d be amazed), Horace (who wouldn’t be surprised by anything), Alexander Pope (who might actually make iambic pentameter cool for a week). Then there are the greats who would learn nothing from the experience: Dante and Beethoven.

peterJun 11, 2008 at 12:06AM

Arriving in France, 1000AD, would be much the same as rural France today: raise your voice, speak slowly, and repeat if necessary (with French accent).

I would put a bet on Haley’s Comet coming into view in 1066 - and clean up up when it did, cementing my position as head wizard. Though I may need to be patient.

Jason GJun 11, 2008 at 12:07AM

I can juggle, stand on my hands and make really goofy faces. I’d be a court jester or fool, which is pretty much the same thing I’m doing in this century.

goatlandJun 11, 2008 at 1:57AM

Actually, Noah, the difference in average height between the year 1000 and now is only a few inches.

And how would you all treat someone who dropped in from another time, Think about how different they would be. I live in a very small rural town and if a really strange stranger showed up it would be quite obvious. I wonder how we would receive them.

KaranJun 11, 2008 at 3:08AM

I’m surprised at the number of people assuming you’ll die very shortly after arriving there, but chances are it won’t be weather because you’ll be in the middle of the Medieval Warm Period, so take some comfort from that. Most likely you’ll be treated as a total foreigner, but that shouldn’t mean instant death so long as you’re not aggressive.

Assuming you’ve survived long enough to find yourself on a farm, you could set about introducing a number of clever devices we take for granted. Wheelbarrows, for example, were only ‘rediscovered’ in the later medieval period. If you’ve been clicking around kottke.org today, you might recall the wooden bikes, too. Simple things, but proving yourself useful in this way is likely to keep your neck intact and even get some respect from those around you.

Both of these would help in a rural and urban situation, so you’re not necessarily restricted there. After proving your worth, you can safely move on to doing those things that push the envelope of the times a little more :)

mistercharlieJun 11, 2008 at 5:15AM

Invent whiskey, assuming it’s not around already. Sell it for drinking and as an antiseptic.

Emmet ConnollyJun 11, 2008 at 6:40AM

Great thread. There’s a so-so A-Z guide to survival in 1000AD here. Slavery actually looks like a good option that would give you some time to find your feet.

SteveJun 11, 2008 at 6:40AM

Assuming you survive: invent the steam engine. I have always been puzzled why no-one invented this sooner; the basic theory has been known for at least 2000 years and is pretty simple to grasp. For some reason it wasn’t until the 17th century that somebody actually produced a practical engine.

I would expect that anyone who has ever seen a steam engine working would be able to figure out enough details to instruct a blacksmith to produce a reasonable working prototype (language considerations aside). Hook it up to a mill or a loom and, hey presto, instant fame.

Alvin LucierJun 11, 2008 at 8:14AM

I’d kidnap a yokel, subject him to an anal probe and through a series of simple pictograms explain that I came from the sky. Then I’d high tail it sharpish.

John LampardJun 11, 2008 at 8:36AM

Would picking up a lute and playing it like I was trying to invent roll and rock, Back to the Future style, count as making myself useful during such a time period?

anastasiavJun 11, 2008 at 9:12AM

Speaking as someone who is a medieval reenactor (no, not Renn fairs - living history!) I just want to tell you how entertaining this question (and its answers) has been. I’m fascinated to realize that most people think they’d end up burned at the stake simply for speaking a different language than the “locals”.

Actually, for a lot of people, I think you’ll be surprised at how familiar (at least in a sort of “Little House on the Prairie” cultural reference sort of way) life in the Medieval Period would be. I’d encourage anyone who finds this question kicking around in the back of their mind to check out The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium (by Robert Lacey) (Short but pithy recap here, and here’s another) and learn a bit more about what we actually know about the time period. I think you’ll find it to be enlightening.

TimJun 11, 2008 at 9:25AM

It startled me in the MR comment thread how everyone assumed the person being transported back in time was male and white. I guess because virtually all the commenters, and the original author, were.

If you happen to be a woman, things are going to be very different.

HollieJun 11, 2008 at 10:15AM

Join a convent then introduce canning of vegetables/soups, ‘as God guided me to do through my dreams.’

Sheri BheriJun 11, 2008 at 10:22AM

I would end up being treated as a witch or as a whore.

The skirt I’m wearing is short (showing my …(gasp)… KNEES) and made of rather flimsy, garish cotton (whore). And although I have nice skin and beautiful teeth (whore), my hair is short and I wear glasses (witch). My hands are soft and I’ve obviously lived a life of comfort (whore). I would have to lie about my age and find a way to explain my abdominal scars (witch). I would also have to lie about being able to read, write and figure (witch).

JeffJun 11, 2008 at 10:40AM

Maybe someone here in the comments actually DID go back and started the plague with their antibodies, or some derivative.

NasJun 11, 2008 at 11:09AM

Why is everyone assuming you would end up in Europe. Shouldn’t we have solutions for living in North America 1000 AD?

AllenJun 11, 2008 at 11:44AM

Re: lute, rock & roll.

The lute didn’t exist in 1000. It wouldn’t be developed for a few more centuries, after crusaders brought the Arabic oud back to Europe. And of course, major/minor scales and harmonics wouldn’t develop for another half millennium. Early medieval music isn’t my period, but probably any music you played would probably run quite contrary to contemporary musical tastes. With some woodworking talent, you might start an eventual musical revolution by inventing some more modern instruments (shawm, violin, recorder, clavichord or harpsichord), but I doubt you’d get rich off it.

mgJun 11, 2008 at 11:45AM

If I were a lady time traveler and somehow wound up in the 14th or 15th century, I’d try to become the king’s mistress, have a bastard (and hopefully survive childbirth, I suppose that’s the only wrinkle in the plan) and be set up for life. Such ladies, if they were cooperative enough, often ended up with their own households and made advantageous marriages. Given the volatile politics of the time, though, being close to royalty was always a gamble. So maybe I’d be a dairymaid? Strange as it sounds, that was one of the best ways to make a living as a single woman. NTS: learn how to milk a cow, just in case.

JohnJun 11, 2008 at 4:43PM

I would try to convince some farmer to let me grow hemp as one of his crops. Then make superior rope and combine left over hemp pulp with some wood pulp to make paper (perhaps gifting some Toilet Paper to the nobles for favors). Then spread this business to other towns.

Once I had raised enough money I would find a local artist to carve me an alphabet and some punctuation; make a few sets of reverse castings and ‘invent’ Movable type and the printing press. Considering this would eventually get the nobles and church upset with me for taking the control of knowledge out of their hands, I would quickly hightail it out of there.

I would then take that technology with me to Alexandria and try to reproduce and save as many scrolls from the great library as possible (it having been sacked a few times already).

From there I would ‘invent’ the triangle sail and Bermuda rigging and set up a fast trading route via the seas with an eventual goal to get to North America (although I would rename it in my family name - Greenland) with a small southern colony of craft specialists and set up a trading route with the northern native tribes.

RoarkJun 11, 2008 at 7:18PM

In the “dark ages” most anyone considered unusual was declared a witch; tortured and put to death. Acting pious, and averting your eyes from anyone dressed well will keep you alive longer while you consider your next move. I agree that boiling and selling water might be the best idea - any invention too extreme for the degree of intellectual understanding will get you torched.

Mike JonesJun 12, 2008 at 3:02AM

I don’t think I’m as pessimistic as everyone else - I don’t think a premature death is a given. I think we’d have a good chance at making it.

For starters I’d pretend to be a travelling merchant trading shreds or my stretchy socks (seems plausible right?), until I found somewhere I could image living, preferably near the ocean; a previous commenter’s idea that ports are multicultural was genius.

Language would be tough, English would be more alien than latin I imagine (grade 10 french finally pays off). But hey, I’d learn.

By training I’m a microbiologist so I think the saving grace for all of us modern folk would be hygine. I bet 90% of the diseases back then were preventable with a little hygine - wash up, no eating off the ground, no rotten/uncooked meat. On that note, I’d probably start fermenting stuff, eg dairy product, alcohol, medicines, etc. I’d also start pasteurizing stuff if I could make lots of fire.

This thread is amazing, so many aspects I never considered like the lack of wood, height of people, or predicitng a comet (brilliant!)

AliJun 13, 2008 at 6:46AM

Hmm, centuries before even rudimentary feminism. I’m SOL. My options as a strange, weird-talking, and comparatively spinsterly woman (I’m 22! Long in the tooth, by Middle Ages standards) are realistically, either marriage or a nunnery, and whatever I can leverage out of those two paths. Since I’m queer and Middle Ages midwifery is relatively crude (a leading cause of death for women would be childbirth or pregnancy-related complications) there’s no WAY I’d go the marriage route, even to a rich dude, unless he were gay. The nunnery is the best option: at least I’ll avoid dying in childbirth. Also, it would be easy to be really convincing on my vows of chastity.

I have an arts degree in politics and my career path is documentary film. Neither will help me much. Since politics would mostly be about feuding barons with armies, and the Church was stable as a rock, nobody will be interested in me polling the peasants for their opinions. However, I’m lucky that I speak several languages and found Chaucer charmingly easy to read. Wherever I was in early Europe, I could probably get by since I know French, English, German and a little Spanish. (Hopefully I’d end up in France.) My general language ability could help me pick up Latin.

Still, my best options are either to ascend in the ranks of nun-dom or to branch out somehow in trades. Even though I’m an atheist, years of cramming for exams would help me with Biblical memorization, and my knowledge of modern business could definitely help me market whatever the convent produced in the community. If my superior business acumen (I’d go with expanding the convent’s brewery, or maybe marketing some new cheeses or a holy water - or we could fake some relics. Medieval people loved relics and they were all fake) helps me rise up in the ranks of nuns, maybe I could get a position of some kind advising a ruler’s wife or mistress and indirectly, the ruler. This is well before the era of Machiavelli, and far, far ahead of any political science. Journalism wouldn’t even exist! I would definitely have an advantage on information gathering, spy tactics, negotiation and bargaining, and public relations in general for any political leader, and I wouldn’t be a romantic threat for whatever lady I served because of the nun thing.

As for my legacy - if I didn’t figure out how to get back to my wonderful 21st century, I could definitely write some poetry and plays. Since this is pre-Shakespeare, nobody would realize my Romeo and Juliet was a knock-off. Actually, maybe forming a roving band of players would be a better option than a nunnery as soon as I’d picked up the local language. Going into theatre is a better opportunity for finding a gay husband to give me legal status, anyhow!

TomSJun 13, 2008 at 12:30PM

Since I’ve got some skills and experience with horses, I’d probably set about being a teamster for the local landed gentry. It would probably keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. It might even provide some limited opportunities for travel and innovation.

If the local economy could support some worthwhile export, like say a 20th century beer, a coal fired blast furnace producing steel, I’d probably try to establish a regular trading expedition / pilgrimage to Rome and the middle-east. The main idea being that it would be easier to be accepted as a traveler, if you actually travel, not to mention the fun and profit.

Joe FuscoJun 13, 2008 at 2:41PM

Everyone seems to be paddling furiously to re-create some level of 21st century “security blankets,” facsimiles, or standards of living.

It’s simple. You’re on a permanent camping trip, basically. Ditch the hipster skillsets. Build a shelter, start a fire, and start fishing or trapping animals. It’s a full-time job.

Welcome to 1000 A.D.

The PagemanJun 14, 2008 at 5:00PM

use an assembly line for everything else you would want to invent :)

AlexaJun 14, 2008 at 8:19PM

If we’re talking about Europe, I have some experience camping, so I may be able to survive in the wilderness a few days. I always have a compact in my purse, so hopefully I could find some way to focus the light from the mirror to start a fire. I should start carrying a magnifying glass in my purse. Shoelaces make great snares, though I’d have to be certain the king’s men weren’t coming through the woods when I did my hunting/cooking.

As a woman, the first thing I’d have to do once stumbling upon a town or village is to find appropriate garments; I don’t think my t-shirt, jeans, jacket look would cut it. Then again, I’m tall (5’9”), and if I were able to bind myself tightly enough, I might try to pass for a very weak man. If I did decide to stick it out as a woman, I’d trade my jeans away easily enough; they’re not only of superior material, but with unparalleled stitching, and of course, they’re blue (blue dye was expensive back then). I would be able to get a nice dress or (more likely) several cheaper ones; that way I could wear one and trade the rest for food/capital.

Marriage isn’t an option. Not only are there a myriad of risks in carrying children back then / childbirth, but the risk of STD alone is more than I’d care to chance. I’d also be reluctant to marry unless the guy was of a drastically different race (Native American, Asian, dark-skinned African), as my ancestors came from Europe and it would be too gross. A nunnery would be my best bet. Luckily, I have a little knowledge of German, and even less of Old English, but as Old English is very similar to (even modern) German in some ways, it shouldn’t be *too* much trouble. Then again, I may land somewhere where they speak a Romance language, but I’m sure I’d adapt.

If I pretended to be a man, I’d have more options and freedom, but I’d definitely try to learn some form of defense/weaponry, for hunting/protection. I like the ideas of going to a port town or Nuremberg, and I would have a little start-up capital from trading away the fine garments that are my 21st century clothes. Oh, and providing my cell phone had some battery power left, I’d bill it as God’s Bell, play the ringtone samples, sell it for as much as I could manage, and hightail it out of town before the battery died. Same with my camera (which is almost always in my purse as well), though that’s riskier; I may end up selling the camera for parts (or better yet, disassemble the pieces and use the camera lens to start my fires—though of course this would only work on sunny days). If I could afford some land, I’d buy it and live off it if possible (hiring someone to help manage it, of course); if I couldn’t, I’d try to find work as a craftsperson making baskets or painting and ‘inventing’ small but potentially profitable things as I saw fit. I don’t know enough about engineering to invent a steam engine, but given the help of a blacksmith, I could rig up a pair of scissors. If I managed to find a glassworker who could make quality lenses and the shipping system was anything like it will be 400-600 years in the future, I could even rig up a telescope and get rich the Galileo way (use the telescope to spot ships about to come into port before they can be seen with the eye, invest in them, profit when the ships come into port).

Religious life or a life hiding out in the woods away from the nobles who owned the forests would be my back-up plans.

PeevesJun 15, 2008 at 1:00AM

‘We’re not automatically immune from diseases back then just because by the time history gets to us, all that immunity is packaged into our genes’.

I cut myself off. Basically, we are not packaged with antibodies that specifically fight bubonic plague but I would say our resistance to common viruses like influenza or the common cold will give us a better chance when we run into their archaic relatives.

stavJun 23, 2008 at 12:00AM

umm i cant believe noone has said this already, id find herbal drugs such as weed and poppies…id make cocaine, opium, start a production, and sell all that crap to unwitting lords and barons…oh and to peasants, then id start pimping hoes, and id also create the drug movements of the middle ages!

richardJun 23, 2008 at 1:02AM

I think this comic handles the issue pretty adequately.

Sugar FixJun 24, 2008 at 12:20AM

I wanted to find a way to capture as much of the collective intelligence of this thread as I could in a handy easy to remember form — the pop song. Yes… this thread has been put to music. Enjoy. :)

1000 A.D.

lielieJan 03, 2009 at 2:20AM

I would sing a lot of decemberists in the hope that the locals related to what i was talking about, enraptured by the universal beauty of the songs.

JennyJan 03, 2009 at 2:27PM

Possibly a grim option, but for women, there’s always the world’s “oldest profession.” Unpleasant, dangerous and degrading, perhaps, but it could be significantly less repressive than going into a convent or marrying for survival, especially if you’re unable to “marry up.” Those seem to be the only real options for women. I agree that it’s silly to think a time traveler would be automatically burned at a stake, but certainly a woman time traveler trying to pass for a man and getting discovered would be taken as a serious religious and cultural threat (Joan of Arc) and very likely put on trial.

kevin Jan 03, 2009 at 3:43PM

Definitely the best kottke comment thread ever.

ChrisJan 03, 2009 at 5:02PM

I’d reall like to see a collection of useful things that could be made with raw materials make and how to make them. Things like soap, gunpowder, and wine I think can be made pretty easily.

epicfailJan 03, 2009 at 8:57PM

I have invested almost an hour reading all the comments, and most of the hyperlinks references (including the nice song!). The topic caught me off-guard and I couldn’t help but post a version of my ideas for surviving such a journey.

As covered in most comments, language is an important issue. I can speak fluently 4 languages, and one of them is Hebrew. Communicating with the people in a situation when you have to learn to speak their language to get along will help you cover the basics and later the advance sections more promptly than merely studying the language from a book.
Perhaps Hebrew and vast knowledge of the read bible can help me get along as soon as I master the basics of the spoken language. However, I won’t (a paradoxical definition it is to grammatically relate to the past as your hypothetical future !) pursue such a goal as settling among religious people.

As an artist (I’m pretty good at sketching, water colors and digital painting - ugh, digital painting won’t really work at 1000 AD), I’ll try offer my services to the church and to the landlords, or learn the craft of jewelery making an attempt to join a group of cutting edge jewelery makers, with my alien conceptions in art.
My programming knowledge won’t do me any good, maybe a better attitude towards solving problems than most of 1000AD’s peasants.

Knowing how many things work in theory doesn’t help me immediately, as I don’t know how exactly a lot of those things are made (ingredients, proportions etc) - it’ll take me weeks to years of experiments (funded by whom?) to realize how to engineer something by only possessing theoretical knowledge of its functional structure (I can vaguely remember how to exactly build/create a few things which won’t be a lot of help to medieval people).

Another idea I really like is being a traveling merchant. Traveling from region to region carrying and selling goods. It is a great opportunity to see the old world and its different areas, learning much about cultures and hearing rumors and legends - maybe writing a book in the process (over bamboo scrolls if needed !) about the different cultures, and document the times of war and the times of peace (and maybe slip in a note that I’m from the future *wink*).

This topic got me thinking about some of the education I received - which may prove the least McGyver like (mostly theoretical and not submittable in life and death situations). I think of reading some books about herbs and medicine, and maybe history books about the ancient world of 1000 AD :)

Conclusion : The most practical knowledge that I acquired was during my military service for the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) as a grunt/field medic. Survival knowledge, and first aid (plus some more advance theory behind the things) might prove useful in the old world.
I’m resuming to my musings.

DonJan 03, 2009 at 9:56PM

I didn’t read all the posts, but those I read didn’t deal with some of the very very basics.

You show up, and you are a stranger. If they don’t kill you immediately, it will depend on how you look. If you look like you might somehow be of the same group or a recognized group, you might have a chance as a free person (if that group is free). If not, you might become a slave.

If you ‘look’ right, and they like you, you’d have a go at it. Just knowledge of how to handle simple wounds would make that community much more successful. Don’t have to die from a scratch.

The comment regarding bringing back a bug is pretty real. You could kill off a civilization. Of course, they would not understand it, but you would. I think I’d feel really rotten if everywhere I went, people died like flies.

Could offset that by letting them know that fleas carry some version of the plague, and don’t kill off the rats, as they host the fleas.

Thanks for bringing it up. Neat idea to toss out.

blahJan 03, 2009 at 10:35PM

the fillings in your mouth would likely appear to be the work of satan. you have too many nice teeth to seem a realistic denizen of the era. and disease would kill you in days, you have no immune protection for biohazards from 1000ad and there is no way we could synthesize anything for you

Charley ParkerJan 04, 2009 at 12:23AM

As an artist, if I lived past the first few weeks (unlikely as I’m a transplant recipient and only alive by virtue of modern pharmacology) I’d try to apprentice to an artist or decorative craftsman - find out how to refine linseed oil, mix it with existing pigments and “invent” oil paint.

More likely, I might try to apprentice or become paid-in-food labor for a blacksmith or woodworker, and strive to become a maker/builder - concentrating not on advanced technology or modern knowledge, but on concepts that may have been unfamiliar at the time.

I don’t (yet) know how to build a beautiful modern stairway, but I know what one looks like; same with chairs, tables and desks. Tongue in groove flooring and dovetail corner joints may not be known by the local craftsmen.

Ideally, I would try to think of useful and novel things that can be made with iron or wood, perhaps double boiler pans, a pressure cooker, a rolling pin with an axis, wooden handles for kettles, screw-top containers; or iron and wood tools that may not have been though of - slip joint pliers, claw hammers or angled crow bars.

It should be possible to construct crank-operated clothes wringers or washing tubs, maybe make the bent-wood equivalent of loose-leaf springs (for the local duke’s wagon).

Some ideas might not work or be relevant, but once I got a picture of what was available/possible, just try some and see what people would pay or trade for.

How about wheeled rolling toys, a yo-yo, a loose leaf table, a fold-away chair (slot and groove), or even hanging porch-style swings (for the duke and his mistress).

If I could buy mirrors I might “invent” the periscope, a novelty that might also be used in battle (or for spying).

Perhaps quite useful would be rabbit and other rodent traps, based on the modern but simple design of those plastic tilting live-capture mouse traps, but made of wood.

If I succeeded in getting established, I’d hire helpers to mass-produce simple, unadorned but useful wooden shelves, cabinets, bed frames and tables, that could be carried flat in pieces and be hammered together with wooden pegs once in the home - and change the name of my shop to Ikea.

mr tJan 04, 2009 at 1:38AM

well i would use my mp3 player and totally like, blow some people’s minds.

i’d probably get to visit royalty and rock an oldschool party, it would be sick, and i would totally score with all the ladies with those giant hairdos. i would do my best impression of ricardo montablan on fantasy island.

of course, i would have to rig up some kinda enclosure to get decent sound out of the little headphones, but i’ve done that before with not much around, like cone up some old scrolls or something.

after the battery died, i’d be all like, what happened? and that’s when i bust out my moonwalk - right out the door, alright

TechnohazardJan 04, 2009 at 1:42AM

There are definitely a few things to bring to the table that would guarantee survival and comfort.

First, head for the largest military installation possible. Sell yourself off as a military/science advisor to the king. Telescopes, cryptography, gunpowder, hot air balloons, antibiotics, antiseptics, barbed wire for cattle ranching, sterilization and surgical procedures, basic physics (for catapult trajectories)… once you’d convinced the king of your knowledge on a few military matters, he would inevitably trust you on just about anything else.

The quickest way to do this would be guerilla tactics and high-carbon steel. “Unconventional” warfare was generally not practiced for matters of honor and lack of better alternatives. Inventing modern assembly-line techniques and standardized parts for armor assembly could quickly build a formidable fighting force.

The number one invention you could probably bring would be concrete! The romans invented it, but the secret to making it was lost and only rediscovered something like 13 centuries later. You can make it with plenty of slave labor, or a waterwheel/windmill powered rotating drum to mix. Couple this with steel reinforcement to build extremely strong walls.

As someone above mentioned, a steam engine is a relatively simple device. Mechanizing a society would vastly improve quality of living by reducing labor costs for things like field-plowing, water pumping, and eventually overland transportation. Naval superiority would be guaranteed!

Geoff CanyonJan 04, 2009 at 1:47AM

An interesting read on the subject is the science fiction series the cross-time engineer, about a nice Polish kid who gets kicked back in time to ten years before the mongol horde is scheduled to overrun Poland. He sets about turning Poland into the technological superpower of the thirteenth century so they can defeat the invading forces.


OnymousJan 04, 2009 at 12:21PM

The best bet as far as trying to prove how f-ing brilliant you are would be geometric proofs or constructions, just a couple basic things like interior angles and bisecting a straight line, you can do it with a piece of string or a stick and a bit of charcoal. it shows you know math and you don’t have to worry about changes in notation too much.

Fan of CleanJan 04, 2009 at 1:07PM

I would live as a hermit - the lack of hygiene (I don’t believe bathing was a regular habit, not to mention brushing your teeth) would be hard to take. The thought of living in close quarters with a bunch of people that haven’t bathed in a couple of years and have mouths full of rotting food packed around rotting teeth is enough to make me relish the idea of living alone. I would take the idea of an extended camping trip and run with it.

Given the weather in Northern Europe, I would start trekking south to get to a more moderate climate. Find a good empty spot somewhere like southern Spain, look for a cave to build your hideout and do your best “Swiss Family Robinson” imitation.

abastNoxNowJan 04, 2009 at 4:41PM

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dlikhtenJan 04, 2009 at 9:03PM

Since inventing something really great and profiting would lead people to claim I am a witch just to get me out of town. So instead I will go straight to the lord of the area and offer to help construct weapons never seen before. I don’t need to do much, just slight weapon improvements making his army a bit superior to the rest. He funds my lab work and I give him weapons. Live a quiet life thinking.

Also with wealth in the middle ages comes the need for protection and force. Unlike in our society where the government keeps us safe (we can argue this point, but compared to older systems we are living in heaven!) the old governments were what the lord wants to do. So being just rich is pointless. So the solution, be in good grace with the lords, help them strategize a bit, and make a bit of weapons, not much but enough to keep em happy.

The major trick is to not make the stuff quickly. The more you give the more is expected, so don’t give much. Don’t demand much back, just a reasonably comfortable life, so you can keep reminding the lord how he pays in peanuts and gains advantages. He will keep you safe from the religious nuts too.

A big plus if you can be friends with the lord. An even bigger plus is if you can convince him to give you his ugly younger daughter. Kinda guarantees you will be on reasonable terms with the lord.

ARoquentinJan 05, 2009 at 2:10AM

Most of the innovation schemes posited in the comments assume access to materials, labor, and workspace, commodities that would likely be wholly unavailable to a gibberish-speaking newcomer who must immediately choose between being branded a hermit, a witch, or a whore.

Also, disease would almost certainly be mutual threat for you and anyone you encounter. You’ve likely never lived in areas with concentrated pathogens (compounded with poor sanitation/hygiene) that were commonplace in the epidemics of the time.

Finally, knowledge of an historically relevant written language might help but please remember that spoken dialects vary widely in rural Europe, even in modern times. In Medieval times even more so, and so you could encounter a dialect for which is was no written record. Written language wouldn’t help much until you could spend enough time with another educated person to bridge cultural divide and prove to them you are not a witch. And this would indeed take a while. A previous comment about modern individuals’ shallowness of memory compared to that of Medieval monks was quite apt.

My advice: head for the hills and try to avoid dying of exposure within the 1st year. Your available options, whether it be simply continuing to survive or industrializing the society around, would be much clearer then.

AnonJan 05, 2009 at 4:05PM

Id be a level 80 frost mage.

Adam AldermanJan 06, 2009 at 7:57AM

This actually happened to me.

Several times.

MeJan 06, 2009 at 8:52PM

Hmm… I dont know what I’ll do! I think that if I go to 1000 AD I would steal a sword, spear or axe and go kill a couple of peasant families then I would take all their belongings and become a trader… I wouldn’t be ashame of killing PEASANTS… Then I will become friend with a noble and kill him for fun

Kevin the WileyJan 13, 2009 at 11:28PM

I’ve spent far too long reading this.

Someone suggested coming up with some geometric proofs.

Who, besides hardcore math majors and high school freshmen, know geometric proofs?

Anyway, I took Latin I and II in high school and I’ve been enough ancient Latin texts to have a feel for the hand writing of the time, so I could probably communicate to a scholar or a priest. Looking incredibly clean and a little muscular with some flab I would probably appear extremely angelic. I also look a lot like a number of paintings I’ve seen of Jesus and Michael the Archangel, so I could probably just paint throw on a thorny thrown and pretend to speak aramaic. Although I doubt this would work and would just about quadruple my chances of getting killed, as I doubt they would take kindly to me impersonating Jesus, he was a very big deal back then.

Ideally, I would pretend to be a traveling merchant from Byzantium or some other well developed country (accounting for my incredible clothes) I would then trade my ridiculously comfortable shoes to a king, use the money to make a whole bunch of Archimedes screws and other simple machines that, while already 1000 years old, probably weren’t found at your local blacksmith. Then I’d use my funds to travel to Alexandria, where me and a bunch of mercenaries and zealots would storm the library. I’d find some wacky and inventive way to smuggle all of the scrolls out, and then I’d return in 2012. The knowledge available in those scrolls would spur a new enlightenment, not necessarily of technology, but of anthropological understanding.


This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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