Imagine yourself falling through a time portal and finding yourself in medieval England. Are you doomed to nasty, brutish and short life? Maybe not, if you follow our advice.
If you search the term ‘medieval’ on Youtube, one of the first results you will probably see is “Why You Wouldn’t Survive In Medieval time”. Created by the popular channel, The Infographics Show, the video starts with the premise that you have suddenly been transported back in time and have woken up in a medieval village. It then gives an explanation of what life would be like as a peasant farmer, and over the next ten minutes goes on to describe aspects of daily life, and experiencing famine, epidemics and warfare. It’s a grim story, filled with disasters, poverty and death.
It should first be noted that the video isn’t very accurate about medieval life – a lot of their descriptions are at best oversimplifications and often just not true. But with about 2.5 million views, we concede that people do enjoy watching it.
Still, we wanted to tackle the premise of their video – could you survive in the Middle Ages? Let’s start by giving you a more definite time and place, as the medieval world could mean seventh-century France or fifteenth-century Japan. The video doesn’t specify, but it looks they are referring to England around the mid-fourteenth century. You find yourself waking up in some village and one would think that several people will be looking at you, wondering who you are and what you are doing there.
The first major problem is that you don’t speak their language. You know modern English, but the English in the fourteenth century is very different. You could probably understand a few words, but any type of conversation is going to be impossible at this point. However, you are going to be able to make use of one of the most important skills that will allow you to survive in medieval times: being able to write. Find some way to begin writing, even if it is taking a stick and drawing letters into the dirt. It doesn’t really matter what you write, since the villagers will not understand modern English either. But they will soon realize that you are an educated person, as relatively few people could read or write. You have already revealed that you are person of some importance.
The Church is your friend
Try your best at communicating – this will be your main challenge in the weeks and months to come – and get the villagers’ help. It is most likely that they will believe that you come from a foreign country and somehow have gotten lost (they might believe stranger ideas too). You might want to remain in the village for some time if you can rely on their charity. Be helpful to them – there is always work needed to be done around the village – and learn as much of the language as you can.
Your next step is to seek out a church, or even better a monastery, and get their help too. Again, demonstrating writing to them will help show that you might be an important person. Hopefully, you will gain enough ability to explain who you are and how you got to medieval England – saying that you are a time-traveler will probably get you the same reaction that you would get if you said to people nowadays, so we advise against that. Instead, claim to be from some distant, but not too distant land – Finland would be a good place. Perhaps you were on a ship that got lost at sea, and somehow you found yourself washed up on the shores of England and stumbled upon the village after wandering about.
Having connections with the local church is important for you. Besides offering more help to your basic needs, priests and monks also allow you to network with the wider world. Assuming you want to thrive in your new medieval life, you’re going to need to meet with the upper classes of society. Church officials are your best opportunity to do this.
The skills you have
We noted that you wanted to thrive in your new life. This probably means that you do not want to be a peasant farmer. But to do so, you will need to rely on skills and knowledge that you have from your modern-day life.
It is highly unlikely that your present-day job will be very useful back in the Middle Ages. Being an airline pilot or computer programmer will not get you very far in the fourteenth century, but your more basic skills will be invaluable. The most important of these is mathematics – you can do arithmetic and write it down. Arabic numerals were still a relatively new system during this period, so knowledge of them can get you lots of work. Governments, businesses, and the Church all need clerks and accountants.
Your ability to read and write means that you can become a scribe, and at least copy manuscripts. If you can learn medieval English or Latin well enough to write, that will allow you to do far more. If you have any ability to draw or paint, that will be a huge bonus, as illustrated manuscripts would earn much higher prices. There are actually a lot of ordinary skills that would be in demand in fourteenth-century England, as long as you can do it well – cooking or playing musical instruments can lead to nice jobs. More specific skills, like architecture or playing chess, could be turned into lucrative careers.
You will want to get yourself to a major city – in England that only means London, but if you can go further, other European cities like Florence and Venice are far more wealthy. It is here that you can find more opportunities and live in more luxury.
What about war, plague and famine?
The videos about surviving the Middle Ages stress dangers that could get you quickly killed, but one should not be too worried about them. For example, it’s going to be highly improbable that you are going to be caught up in warfare unless you actively try to get involved in it. The English kings did go to war during the fourteenth century, usually with France and Scotland, but their armies were made up of people who choose to be there, either for money or as part of their noble service. Moreover, England in the fourteenth century was remarkably safe – there were some Scottish attacks along the northern border and a handful of French raids on southern ports, but most of the country would never be threatened by invasion.
It is true that sometimes the harvest failed in the Middle Ages, and it could lead to disasters like the Great Famine, which hit England between 1315 and 1322. Food security would always be a challenge, but that does not mean that everyone would be starving all the time. Governments put in measures regulating food supply and prices that could alleviate some problems. Moreover, if you already have some kind of work like the jobs listed above, you are probably going to have enough money to afford food. Sadly, like today, famine in medieval times was something that falls most harshly on the very poor.
Finally, what about the Black Death? It is estimated that it killed between one-third and one-half of the population of Europe, so yes it is a challenge. That said, there are some things you can do to increase your odds of surviving. This type of pandemic spread through a region quickly, but it would not last more than a few months. If you know it’s coming, you can do what other medieval people did – escape the city and try to ride out the plague from a more isolated location (aka extreme social distancing).
You actually have a lot more important health concerns besides the Black Death. A recent study noted that more common diseases like tuberculosis were a greater threat. In general, the best advice is to eat well and do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle – the same recommendations you would get for today. Finally, medieval physicians should not be totally avoided, as they can do a good job at healing injuries and wounds – to story of how one doctor was able to successfully remove an arrow buried halfway into a person’s skull surely reveals some impressive skills.
Hopefully you will not be transported back to the Middle Ages and have to live the rest of your life there. It would certainly be an incredible challenge and adjustment. But if you do happen to time travel, remember that you can use your knowledge and skills to make a good living in that world. If you do, just make sure to write about your experiences so that future historians will get to read about them.
Top Image: British Library MS Additional 24189 fol. 5v