Time travel back to 1000 A.D.: Survival tips

by on June 6, 2008 at 11:44 am in History | Permalink

Londenio, a loyal MR reader, asks:

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.

I hope you have an expensive gold wedding band but otherwise start off by keeping your mouth shut.  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.

Readers, do you have any other tips?  Is there any way that Londenio can leverage his knowledge of modernity (he is, by the way, a marketing professor) into socially valuable outputs?  Would prattling on about sanitation and communicable diseases do him any good?

Mercutio.Mont June 6, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Could he attempt to reverse engineer or somehow build something which could conceivably be constructed and be useful in the year 1000AD? I’m thinking of something like a cotton gin or printing press?

ed June 6, 2008 at 12:10 pm

Here’s a similar post from Brad Plumer’s blog back in 2004:


Sebastian June 6, 2008 at 12:14 pm

Learn the basics of making soap. Even if you can’t convince anyone else about good sanitation, you can still wash your hands.

Milan June 6, 2008 at 12:15 pm

How well does he remember the shape of the world? Someone with a good recollection of global geography could do very well selling accurate maps.

Bob Murphy June 6, 2008 at 12:17 pm

Interesting point about the notation, Tyler. I had been picturing geometry proofs but those might be more useful if you got sent back to ancient Greece.

Isn’t there some sense in which you would be more wily (wilier?) than people a thousand years ago? I mean, you’ve read about a lot more cunning ploys and flashes of insight than these folks have.

Was it in Guns, Germs, and Steel where they discussed the role of literature in the conquest of the Incas? Something like, the conquistadors had read about these things and knew men were capable of such treachery, whereas it literally might not have occurred to the Incas that these white guys would ride in peacefully and then just go nuts on them.

I guess I’m wondering whether your reader could decide to take over the world.

critic June 6, 2008 at 12:23 pm

Hasn’t anyone heard of Mark Twain?

Benedict Leigh June 6, 2008 at 12:26 pm

I think it’s probably a lot harder than people expect. My best guess would be get killed by disease or irate peasants within 3 days.

For a really good take on using knowledge of economic techniques in pre tech societies Charles Stross’s series The Merchant Princes is a fascinating exploration of the issues.

RZ June 6, 2008 at 12:27 pm

Make sure you can endure lots of difficult physical labor in case you have to spend all day working on a farm, building barns, etc. It might help to read some time-travel or historical fiction to get an idea of how different life was then. Someone mentioned Mark Twain. You could also try some of the Outlander Series books by Diana Gabaldon.

Al T June 6, 2008 at 12:35 pm

Assuming like many professor I know you have a belly and soft hands (relative to the peasants in 1000AD) I say try to fool the locals into thinking you’re a lost noble that’s been kidnapped and just escaped. You’ll provide them lots of wealth down the road if they help you know.

Varangy June 6, 2008 at 12:35 pm

Crichton wrote a very mediocre book on this very subject. The neat bit was how message were ‘sent’ forward in time.

My advice: Try to pass yourself off as a foreign noble and mooch off the nobility and clergy for a while. Then marry into nobility.

Sisyphus June 6, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Wouldn’t the easiest way to use future knowledge to your advantage in 1000 AD be to know well the history of the time period and use that to become a successful fortune teller? The comparative advantage that you were actually right would be huge. Presumably your timeline would diverge rapidly from ours, but you could cement your reputation early and coast for a long time on it. Then, just write what would have happened in future centuries and you will be hailed as the greatest psychic in history when at least some of it comes to pass. But remember to be vague to account for the divergence, except for things that are unlikely to be affected by human history (e.g. Little Ice Age, volcanic eruptions, Tunguska asteroid strike, etc.).

LizardBreath June 6, 2008 at 12:47 pm

In AD 1000, Europeans didn’t have Arabic numerals yet. That’s probably your best bet, as either a calculating prodigy/performer or working as a bookkeeper for someone rich. (This assumes you’ve solved the language problems somehow; without that, you’re just screwed.)

Bring a copy of Lest Darkness Fall with you; barring the specific politics, the problems are going to be similar.

Alex June 6, 2008 at 12:48 pm

Although I’m having trouble finding data to back this up, I believe people of average height today would be six or nine inches taller than average in 1000 A.D. (this is based on my recollection of the heights of doorways and suits of armor from the period). If this is the case, it’s very likely that you will stick out where ever you go, and you’re likely to be very intimidating. For a man, this height may end up being a big advantage (if it doesn’t get you killed), and for a woman, I’m not really sure.

In any case, I think that pretty much anyone from our time ought to claim that they’re Chinese, or from some other land “far, far away”. You’re going to look very different from them anyway, and the foreigner card will probably excuse some of the inventing that here seem to want to do. I don’t think you need to look Chinese at all in order to try this — and if you’re uncomfortable with all this, you could just make up a non-existent region that’s far away.

As for what to do, I would consider trying to get people to keep cats as pets (“as they do in my home country”), since the cats will help with rat problems, and may help to stem the tide of the coming bubonic plague. I would take a look at http://www.krysstal.com/inventions_08.html for ideas on what you might want to invent, but I agree that things like mass production and boiled water (and crop rotation, etc?) are nice ideas too, and aren’t going to show up on this list.

max June 6, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Didn’t Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi already answer this question in Army of Darkness? Just make sure you bring a shotgun, a chemistry textbook, and an Oldsmobile.

Brett Dunbar June 6, 2008 at 1:08 pm

The printing press isn’t much use without paper. Parchment is so expensive that it is the main cost, the copyist was a smaller expense, the shortage of writing materials limited output. If you know how to make paper that should be a good job to get into, not too physically demanding and a product that has a large potential market.

Michael F. Martin June 6, 2008 at 1:09 pm


Chet June 6, 2008 at 1:10 pm

Join a monastery and become a brewer. Do some easy home-brewing now, and you should be able to pick up everything you need in situ, since they were doing it anyway. But the knowledge of brewing that you could pick up on the Internet this afternoon were religiously-guarded secrets and recipes in 1000, or else completely unknown. Just some simple sanitation techniques would produce a revolutionary product, compared to the swill they had to drink back then.

Other than that, please don’t try to invent the steam engine or the computer or whatever, as a favor to the rest of us here in uptime. It would be nice if you didn’t change the entire course of future history. Isn’t that Rule 1 of polite time-travel?

J. June 6, 2008 at 1:15 pm

If you are transported back in time, then it’s already the case now (in 2008) that time slices of you existed in the past. Accordingly, we know already that you did not invent any amazing machines early, or, if you did, they didn’t catch on. (See David Lewis’s “The Paradoxes of Time Travel”.)

However, from this no particular practical advice follows, except that if you try to change history, you won’t succeed.

LemmusLemmus June 6, 2008 at 1:18 pm

Become the world’s first financial consultant. Advise local businessmen, such as smiths or taylors. You have a knowledge of marketing, at least basic economics (if you’re often sold out, your prices are too low), and you know at least basic arithmetics.

If that doesn’t work, try to capitalize on knowing how to read and write.

(offtopic: It would be nice if the blog actually remembered my “personal info”. This works with other typepad blogs.)

Paul F. Dietz June 6, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Cats are actually not very good at killing rats. Rats are too big and vicious.

Cats are a good vector for catpox, which can protect against smallpox.

MostlyAPragmatist June 6, 2008 at 1:21 pm

It will be difficult to pass as Christian if you are a man and you are circumcised.

Making use of your education is a great idea. Also, trying to invent a better plow, spacing the planting of seeds, and saving the best seeds to plant next year’s crops (instead of eating them) should prove your usefulness to the peasant population. If you have any mathematical skills at all, you could probably be useful to a King as a cryptographer if you could make your way to a suitable court. If you wear glasses, you should try to learn lens-grinding from someone at the time, or you’ll be impaired as soon as your glasses break or you need to change your contact lenses. Then you could invent the telescope. If you have a watch, then you can use it to tell longitude and that would be worth quite a lot, too.

bob June 6, 2008 at 1:26 pm

Don’t step on any butterflies.

James D. Miller June 6, 2008 at 1:35 pm

He might be able to use his knowledge of probability theory to make a lot of money gambling

Robin Hanson June 6, 2008 at 1:38 pm

If you had a year’s warning to prepare yourself you might stand a chance, but if you were moved back without warning it would be pretty hopeless without that strong back.

Hap Allen June 6, 2008 at 1:44 pm

All the above suggestions are fascinating.

But the first thing I would do would be to tune into the current reality upon arrival. First things first. What’s possible given the constraints I become aware of. Immediate needs: water, food, housing. Instead of grandiose plans, first do what you HAVE to, Then do what you WANT to.

Mikko June 6, 2008 at 1:56 pm

I would recommend a trip to local grocery store before leaving. Buy as much spices as you can – mostly they are much better currency than gold. :)

Jim Glass June 6, 2008 at 2:10 pm

Most of these comments seem to focus on how to become a success and influence people back then.

But your first task is survival. Get every vacination you can think of right now (though many won’t be much good due to the evolution of disease over 1,000 years) and carry as many antibiotics as you can on your person at all times so when you are *poofed* back there they go with you.

Europe was a cesspool of diseases back then that came in from all directions (Africa, Asia, etc.) Life expectancy was short, and yours is going to be shorter due to your total and utter lack of natural immunity to the rhapsody of local plagues. (Think of what happened to the Native Americans when the Europeans visited — that’s you.)

Be very wary of drinking the water (you know what people did in it), drink beer. Figure out your other survival strategies on your own.

Ryan Waxx June 6, 2008 at 2:15 pm

Most of you are acting as if corruption didn’t exist – understandable given your modern perspective, but it WILL get you killed.

You ‘invent’ something, you better have a noble patron who has the power to protect the invention and the profits, because any official can take the former and tax farmers will take the latter.

Great Zamfir June 6, 2008 at 2:25 pm

I wonder if we are not gravely underestimating the people from the middle ages. Some people suggest beating them at their own trades, by knowing more about
warfare or marketing than medieval fighters or market salesmen.

But that seems unlikely to me. Those people have spend years or decades on their trade, and learned from experts. Whatever you know about theory will be likely to overwhelmed by your lack of practice. Plus both warfare and trade are typical ‘know your opponent’ jobs, something you are going to be bad at.

I guess your best bet is to become a clerk/assistent to someone who also requires some number crunching, as that is perhaps the only skill you have that is obviously better than medieval expert level. So my advice: practice your handwriting.

Great zamfir June 6, 2008 at 2:48 pm

oooh. i think DJ superflat just nailed the issue. If this is indeed Terminator style time travel, and you arrrive in the middel of a city naked surrounded by lots of lightning, I think we do not need to discuss survival changes any longer.

jorod June 6, 2008 at 2:51 pm

PS If Obama is elected, we might go back to living like the middle ages.

Great Zamfir June 6, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Which made me realize that when you travel back in time to the year 1000, actually being a Terminator would solve a lot of your problems. Like the disease, and what to do when the kings do not repay your loans.

mk June 6, 2008 at 3:03 pm

If you can bring stuff back, textbooks, boyscout style how-to manuals, info on metallurgy, basic machinery, electricity, and natural medicine. Aside from that, a good knowledge of medicine or engineering would prove very useful (a doctor going back will have more valuable skills than a sociologist.)

Finally, if you CAN bring stuff back, a sturdy handgun and a sturdy rifle (with plenty of ammo) will take care of the “burn as a witch/heretic” and random murder problems.

Jacob T. Levy June 6, 2008 at 3:08 pm

The power of the metal fastener-screw is still unknown in Europe 1000. Even a non-machine-tooled mold and a soft, low-melting-point metal like lead could mean that you could, e.g., build boats that would hold together a lot better than the status quo.

But it’s also a very simple technology– once people see how it works, you have no intellectual property in it.

No one’s yet mentioned Alan Lightman’s entertaining response to Twain, “A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court.”

Jim Wise June 6, 2008 at 3:18 pm

Oh, and don’t take the above advice of setting yourself up as a new profit seriously unless you _really_ have been meaning to work on your tan.

Jim Wise June 6, 2008 at 3:25 pm

err, `prophet’. Sigh.

John June 6, 2008 at 3:26 pm

Bring a working watch, preferably something mechanical that could be copied. Not only is the development of a watch incredibly important, but any many with a boat would find you incredibly useful since they could use it determine their distance traveled in longitude.

Alistair Morley June 6, 2008 at 3:41 pm

I think a lot of us >could< go down the war machine route. There are many military technologies and innovations that would be easy to construct and seriously impact medieval warfare: 1) Trebuchet: Premier seige engine which I believe isn't around in 1000 AD. Trivial to build from rough timber and easy to scale-down for mini "demonstrator". 2) Gunpowder: everyone knows the formula and how to source the materials, right? 3) Crossbow: Again, a powerful weapon to make Cataphract-kebabs not in contemporary existance. 4) Re-curve bow: Exists, but not in Europe yet. Again, all you need to know is the principle; the engineering is relatively easy. Don't forget bodkin arrowheads for extra penetration. 5) Hot air balloons (actually, Hydrogen should be possible with acid + iron). Fantastic recce, demoralising for opposition, and again requiring no detailed engineering knowledge. 6) Telescope lenses. You can grind glass, right? 7) Triangular sail. Need I say more? When you combine these with simple innovations in combined arms and logistics (camp organisation and crude sanitation alone will cut your casualties by >50%) you could fashion a pseudo-15th century army capable of wiping the floor with any 11th century force. Seriously, once a wealthy patron could be persuaded/sees the efficacy of just one idea, then you’d rapidly be given funds (and credibility) for another, then another. There was a big market for military engineers, especially down around Italy; you’re not creating a new market, just taking over an existing one. Be sure to trade up patrons to the King Or Pope, and you will have the resources/contacts/credibility to diversify into other technologies with more social applications. Once at this stage, simple innovations in agricuture, sanitation (“bacteria are evil spirits that live in dirty water”), mechanics, medicine and metalworking (primitive blast furnace), maths, accounting, and navigation should be easy to do, demonstrate quick returns, and see you set for life.

As many people observe, the first few days/weeks will be the hardest. So this would be my plan:

Providing you can speak “local” if not latin, why not tell tales, or sing songs for your immediate upkeep? Peasant life is boring; and travellers from distant lands may at least be fed for the benefit of their stories and news. The “son of foreign nobleman” ruse sounds good (I’m on pilgrimage, but was robbed by brigands who took my horse). As for origins, I’d say Kingdom of Prestor John and keep the Christian angle too.

As soon as you can, go to the local clergy. Show you can write your name and do long division. Even without latin you clearly have latin alphabet and education. You can also probably correctly ennunciate latin even if you can’t understand it. This is staggeringly unusual for laity circa 1000AD and with your clothes and speech should get you attention/audience with the next level up in the church.

Get yourself passed up the Clerical hierachy; at each stage, demonstrate your superior education. Geography and languages are a great way to show that you have travelled and make your story sound plausible. If you can, demonstrate a few “amusing tricks of my homeland” (NOT Magic – they will respect the difference) to keep yourself interesting. Paper planes, spinning optical bird-and-cage illusions, windmill/propellors, air pressure-glass-water or candle-air tricks, likeable tunes, modern chess or cards. It’s amazing how far a little novelty will go in that day and age.

Intermediate plan is to get to court travelling in some clerics retinue. Scope out nobles, and look for a employment as a squire or equivalent, as would often befit a foreign nobles younger son. Tell them about the trebuchet and get your first “commision”. The hard part is now done; follow instructions above and conquer world.

All in all I think if you can avoid quick death in the first few days or weeks, and have a bit of luck with disease I think the world-changing outcomes are not unfeasible. The difficult part is simply getting an audience with the small number of people with the resources and demand for your knowledge.

anomdebus June 6, 2008 at 3:48 pm

My advice: seek the protection of the church by being pious and start by specializing in something roughly done at the time, easy to practice and unsurprising. The first will probably be of best protection from retaliation for being an outsider. You are most likely not going to be able to get the protection of nobles without actually being at their level. The second will keep people from getting too scared of you. I would probably go the brewing route.

I don’t think the point is necessarily that you are smarter than people at the time, just you in theory stand on the shoulders of taller people. The smarts come in when you tailor your message for your audience. Hence: don’t go on about microscopic beasts but do recommend killing rats, for example.

PlanMaestro June 6, 2008 at 3:50 pm

1000 AD Europe?

Please find out who were the “Sea People”. Learn greek, “discover” the greek alphabet, and tell us about the “Dark Ages”. And if you can write the “History of the Trojan Wars” even better.

Andrew Lias June 6, 2008 at 3:58 pm

A fairly good list, Alistair, but the telescope is going to be problematic. The limiting condition is the quality of glass that you’re working with. The glass of that period was expensive and riddled with imperfections. You’d have bubbles and discolorations that would make any telescope you built fairly limited in utility.

I suspect that some of the other items on your list require much more knowledge than the basic concept. The triangular sails, for instance, would also require a good understanding of rigging that I don’t think most people who weren’t passionate sail enthusiasts would have.

Likewise, I understand the priciple behind a crossbow but could I make one using the tools of the time? I don’t think I could. I think that the fraction of people who would be able to is fairly small. I suspect that even a recurve bow would have a lot of hidden complexity that might defeat a lay attempt to introduce the technology.

I’ve already spoken to the problem of gunpowder. Making a neat pyrotechnic is one thing, but building a useful weapon to use the tech is much more difficult and potentially dangerous (I suspect that my first attempt at a hand cannon would blow my fingers off).

Of all the suggestions I’ve seen, bookkeeping seems like a capital idea. Any one of us would be fantastic at arithmatic because of our knowledge of decimal notation. If you knew a few simple accounting principles (such as double-book accounting), you’d be able to seriously leverage your influence and be able to put yourself in a position where you could have the money and influence to try more ambitious innovations.

It also occurs to me that anyone who knows modern agriculture might be able to accomplish a lot. If you know about complimentary crops, you could easily multiply the yields of your lord and thus your own place in the world.

Bruno June 6, 2008 at 4:05 pm

He’d write a book ( have a ghost writer to do it) and go to TV(?) shows to talk about how life was on 2000 AD. He’d make a lot of money and be famous, I have no doubt about it.

Bandwagon Smasher June 6, 2008 at 4:14 pm

I would think he would be best off becoming a doctor. Our modern rudimentary (high school) understanding of biology and how the body works is far superior to what they had in the Middle Ages. Even without a scientific background, our traveler could do a great amount of good treating illnesses. At the very least, he would know to sterilize wounds and advise about nutritional value and parasite risk.

PlanMaestro June 6, 2008 at 4:17 pm

And if it as 1000 BC Europe even better

Joshua Holmes June 6, 2008 at 4:29 pm

If you don’t know Latin, you’re pretty much dead. European languages have all changed drastically since 1000 AD. Since you can’t communicate with anyone, you’re going to have to use pointing and sign language to get help from anyone, probably the church. More than likely, you’re going to be enslaved or killed out of fear.

If you know Latin, you may be able to hit up the local church as an exotic pilgrim, and ask for sustenance and a place to stay. You may be able to get to Rome and get a job in the church hierarchy, but you’ll still have a couple of problems: you don’t speak Tuscan, so you’re in trouble dealing with the locals, and you’re not exactly 1000 AD orthodox Catholic. Sooner or later you’ll make some sort of flippant remark about germs or the Earth’s orbit, and you could end up dead, possibly worse.

Jack M. June 6, 2008 at 4:44 pm

A good plan would be pretend to be a crazy religious figure who has taken a vow of silence or have been “touched by God.” Take off all your clothes (yes, naked, this will help) and run inside the nearest church, but don’t say a word. Kneel down and start praying, or start waving your arms wildly.

If people try to talk to you, simply point to your mouth, point to the cross/sky, and start praying. Pray to God it works. Eventually, some church figure will give you clothing, and if thinks your devout, believe you.

Then find a picture of the local lord—and keep pointing at it and nodding your head and pointing to a cross until they take you there.

Then break your oath to the lord (pun). They will marvel at your language having been “changed” by God. Then bow to him and make gestures towards the cross to make him believe you are there to serve him and were sent by God. He will keep you, somehow.

Then use basic cleanliness to help him. Show them all to boil water–people will get less sick. Dress someone’s wounds. Wash food/cook well. Basic things to show that 1) you are there to help them with new found ways; and 2) not a threat. And perhaps if you know some science/magic tricks–making things disappear; making ice float; or basic card tricks—it might convince them (but be careful of witch craft!)

At this point, also be learning the language. When you learn enough, make up a story about a religious experience erasing your memory/language besides a saint telling you that you had to help this man. Say you’re from a far off land that was invaded by Muslims and the saint spirited you away to safety to this land to help the lord here. If you can, make it the local patron saint.

Now the lord should trust you, and you should have enough language skills to advise him on war/agriculture/industry/taxes in addition to medicine. After a while, get some land and follow the above advice I gave.

MW June 6, 2008 at 4:49 pm

And I guess, to actually give an answer to the question:

1. If you know a year beforehand, spend all your time knowing everything possible about the time and place you are traveling. Old Britian would be ideal where you could hopefully get some passing knowledge of olde english in a year’s time.

2. Most people were farmers then. Try to see if you can get food and shelter from some farmer in exchange for work. Hopefully you don’t die of disease.

From here on out, it gets tricky without any property rights. Any gains you get, people will probably invade your country for. Probably the best you could do is be an intellectual and “reason” modern economics and property rights. Basically emulate what Adam Smith did and maybe impress a King and jumpstart the industrial revolution by 800 years.

Anonymous June 6, 2008 at 5:18 pm

Since you will be much taller than anyone else, it will be completely impossible for you to disguise yourself as a peasant or go anywhere unnoticed. You will soon be discovered to have much better health and teeth than even local nobles, and soft hands.

Assuming you end up in Europe, your best bet would be to pass yourself off as a “holy fool” wandering madman of noble birth from a faraway land. Learn some basic prayers in Latin and make an extravagant show of Catholic piety, kneeling and praying and babbling incessantly in an incomprehensible language (modern English). Hopefully, this will ensure that no one will dare harm you. Use pantomine to beg for alms and food.

The extraordinary fact of your existence will ensure that you will soon be brought to the court of the local king. Become his mascot or court jester, slowly learning the local language. There will always be someone at the court who will be considered a scholar; ingratiate yourself with that person and teach them arithmetic using Arabic numerals (you don’t need to speak their language to do so).

As you learn the local language, invent a backstory to tell: you’re the son of the king of a wealthy foreign land, but were imprisoned soon after your birth by a usurper. Due to a soothsayer’s prophecy, the usurper felt compelled to physically treat you extremely well but denied you any contact or news whatsoever from the outside world. One day you were bound and blindfolded and taken on a very long journey by boat, and then on an equally long overland journey, during which your captors moved about only at night, in utmost stealth, and spoke languages incomprehensible to you. Then they abandoned you at the place you were found, and vanished.

Live out your life in the relative comfort of the king’s court. Cross your fingers and hope that barbarians don’t storm the castle and kill everyone inside. And remember that even the Queen of England died of smallpox as late as the end of the 17th century, so accept the fact that diseases might do you in no matter what.

Upset_Nerd June 6, 2008 at 5:22 pm

Trying to teach them useful ideas from economics and expecting them to make a difference seems fairly pointless considering how difficult that task is for economists even today.

As many others have said I’d bet that the biggest contribution you could make would be knowing about the importance of basic hygiene and somehow trying to leverage that knowledge as best as you could.

Michael Tinkler June 6, 2008 at 5:41 pm

The gold wedding band is a good idea. 1000 might be a little early for pepper, but I often think when I buy a container of green or black pepper just how far I could get in the late middle ages with this…

Train to become a master mason – growth field for the next generation…
Move to Austria and invest in silver mines…
Organic fertilizer and fallow ground…magic!

You want comfort? Head to Cluny in France – nicest monastery in Europe. Celibacy is a small price to pay.

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