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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Time Traveling Hell: An Honest Look at Your Relocation to the Past

Have you ever wondered, "What would it really be like to go back in time?" When I was a kid I used to fantasize about time traveling. The middle ages in England have especially held a mystical allure for me, which should be no surprise. But once you have gotten over all your thoughts of adventure and grandeur and glory you'd realize that traveling back like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court actually presents a large number of problems. This is what you would encounter if you actually traveled back in time. These are true for most time periods and cultures but I’ll use medieval England to bring them to light.

1. Language - You appear in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe the middle of somewhere. Either way it doesn’t really matter because you haven’t studied medieval English and depending on what century it is Shakespeare himself might not even recognize it. Even if you had bothered to learn medieval English, you would’ve had to pick a dialect and hoped you ended up somewhere where the locals could understand you.

2. Avoiding Incarceration - Once you get over language, people will want to know who you are and what you are doing there. Since almost all of the lower classes never ventured further than a 10 mile radius their entire lives, your presence as an odd stranger would be disturbing. Since you’re traveling alone, they’d know you weren't a noble or a merchant. So what are you? You’d better hope they don’t care enough to turn you in to the local authorities.

3. Money - You've got none and the only honest way to get some is to sell your labor. But you’ll need to get to one of the great cities, like London or York. How are you going to get there with no money? If you start working for a local lord there’s a good chance you’ll be contracted to work for a period of years. There was no two weeks’ notice in medieval times. Maybe you’d just be made a serf since you’d have no documentation or way to prove you deserved to be free to roam about.

4. Food - again, no money. If you're another Grizzly Adams, sure, go kill a family of squirrels or gather some disgusting mushrooms from the forest. Let's hope the local lord doesn’t catch you stealing from his forest though. Or worse, have outlaws catch you stealing from their livelihood. But even if you were offered the local fare, it would be terribly bland, full of lots of awful things for your teeth and digestion, and with strange new tastes that would honestly send you to the loo for days. Adjusting to the local diet would be difficult.

5. Conscription - if you’re wandering about the land or just working dutifully for a lord, there’s a good chance you’ll get shoved into service when the lord goes to war. Having no martial skills, let alone knowledge of strategy or tactics since who the devil learns that anymore, you’d be a low ranking soldier. You might be assigned as a crossbowman or a foot soldier or just as a guard for the baggage train. All of these are perilous. And then, once you were confronted with an enemy, what makes you think you know anything about properly wielding a weapon in defense?

6. Disease - I know, I know, let’s say all your dreams come true: you survive on your own, make it to a city, know the language and can be understood, have money, and adjust to the food. You’re still likely to die of a disease at any time, not just because it’s the middle ages with poor hygiene but because your immune system is going to be adapted for a completely different environment than literally everyone else in the country. And if you do get sick, I hope you like being bled and having superstition passed off as expert medical advice. For the record, you would get sick! Seriously.

7. Skill (or lack thereof) - Okay, so add good health to your wish list and let’s say you got it. Hizzah! If you know something of chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics, music, medieval military tactics, medieval agrarian economies and trade, or advanced theology, you might just have a useful skill. If you know Latin or Greek or the medieval versions of other European languages you might also do well. For me, I’d bank on my knowledge of history and play it off as prophecy because, seriously, how else am I supposed to survive? Your only hope with any of these is to get to the right people and show them your skill. This is a monumental task in itself and I’d guess only 2% of time travelers have ever been successful at it.

Dream scenario - You make it all the way to the top! You’re a successful builder or diplomat or military commander or adviser who pretends to have knowledge of the future through sorcery. You get to do this for a high ranking lord, perhaps an earl or a duke if you’re very lucky. Or the king if you’re just a jackpot winner. These people would accept you and give you a livelihood but it would be conditional. You’d have to perform well and delight them. Lords had very few constraints on their whims and you’d do well to avoid displeasing them and falling out of favor. If you constantly please them, you might have a cozy life. If you want something more secure you could always join a monastery or convent.

9. If you’re a woman, I’m sorry to say that you wouldn’t make it this far. That’s just an acknowledgment of an inherently sexist culture and society. Even if you’re not going to medieval Europe, you’d likely encounter extreme prejudice in almost any culture. Joan of Arc is so inspiring partly because she was a peasant, not unlike an ignorant time traveler, who did accomplish as much and go all the way to the top. But she couldn’t stay in the Dauphin’s good graces, and oh yeah, she had God on her side performing miracles. If you were a woman, you would be seen as property or a prize and not as an independent agent valuable for her personhood. Maybe only if you played my game and pretended to be a prophetess/sorceress.

10. Death. At some point, you would die of course. War would do it or famine or childbirth or maybe just cutting your hand on that rusty nail by the stable. Your chances are terrible! Disease would most likely get you. And even if you lived to be an old age I don’t think we consider how difficult it would be to go back to an era without regular bathing, with serious rotting teeth and halitosis, with buckets for bathrooms, with uncomfortable and ridiculous clothing, with class distinctions in every area of life, and with widespread ignorance. The ignorance alone could drive you mad. And if the chances of survival were slim to none, what would be our chance at happiness? Related posts: 10 Facts You Didn't Know about Medieval English History I Don't Get It 10 Things Not to Do on Facebook


  1. Please beg pardon for the foul language. The main gist of the commentary is in line with your discussion. I find this appropriate:

    As a woman:
    I find that in Western culture I'd travel to sit at the feet of Jesus, to one of the matriarchal tribes of pre-discovered North American, or to sometime in the 1960s. That's pretty much it. Unless I also have superpowers. That's a whole different story. I mean, I already have time travel, so....

    1. Well yeah, sky's the limit then. :)
      I see now that Louis CK does a lot of the talking for you, haha. But I can understand why you'd pick those time periods, obviously.