1000 AD survival tips

Kottke pointed out this thread, a discussion starting from this question:

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.

The discussion was picked up at and Metafilter.

All those threads are deeply fascinating for what they say about people’s attitudes to the past (and indeed their historical knowledge or lack of it). Most of the responses seem to fall into one of two types; the ludicrously over-confidant: “With my crazy future knowledge verily I will become as a God! I will invent the steam engine! And antibiotics!” and the opposite: “Aargh! By local standards I will be ignorant, stupid and freaky and so I will be burnt as a witch/raped/murdered/die of exposure/murdered again! I won’t last a week!”

I obviously have too high a faith in human nature, because it seems to me that clearly the right thing to do is find the nearest settlement (probably not very far: Europe wasn’t as densely populated then, but most places would be under cultivation), act in as non-threatening a manner as possible, look willing to help in any way possible, and do a Blanche DuBois: rely upon the kindness of strangers.

You’d be unlikely to end up as anything more successful than a serf, and if you happened to turn up at a time of famine or war you’d almost certainly be fucked, but I still think it’s your best chance of survival. The Middle Ages were pretty brutal, but that doesn’t mean that everyone then was either a bumbling idiot or a psychopath.

» The illustration is from the Lindisfarne Gospels and so about 300 years too early for the question, but hey-ho.

2 replies on “1000 AD survival tips”

Yeah, I was fascinated by that thread too. I have to admit though I couldn’t help but lean toward the “you’ll be killed” camp. I just think culturally you would be so foreign that any attempt to cash in on your “superior” knowledge would simply draw the attention of the powerful and thwap! That’d be it. Your plan actually goes a long way in solving that problem by simply removing the whole attempt to cash-in.


New reality show! Create a tear in the space-time continuum, send 8 ruggedly good looking and utterly narcissistic doofuses through the resultant time rift, and see whose plan results in glory / the least horrible death…

I just think culturally you would be so foreign that any attempt to cash in on your “superior” knowledge would simply draw the attention of the powerful and thwap! That’d be it.

I completely agree, but also: let’s assume you find some very farsighted king with plenty of resources who is willing to invest in your expertise. How many people, starting with the tools available in the early middle ages, could manage to end up with a steam engine capable of, to keep it simple, grinding corn? I just think it’s much much harder than people think; the steam engine example would require a combination of blacksmithing, metallurgy and engineering, for a start. And then even if you managed, would it actually be any more profitable? Given that iron is so much more expensive, transport costs are so much higher and so on. And what will you use for fuel? Do you know how to make coke? Or are you planning to start up a coal mine?

There must be a few skills that have remained fairly similar; if you were a very skilled sculptor, painter, potter, leatherworker or whatever you might be able to find a job in a local workshop even without much grasp of the language. But the advantage comes from having old knowledge, not modern knowledge.

Entering into the spirit of the thing: if you were going to attempt to make a modest fortune through technology back in the year 1000, if you’re allowed to prepare in advance and you can get to a large town, one possibility might be to learn as much as possible about simple paper-making.

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