Generations of foreign tourists in Europe have heard advice about traveling in groups, haggling prices, avoiding pickpockets, and being able to communicate in, if not the local language, then at least the lingua franca. It turns out that very similar guidance applies to time travel in Europe, or at least specifically to the region of England, France, Germany, and northern Italy in the central Middle Ages, roughly between the years 1000 and 1400. In the new video above, history Youtuber Premodernist provides an hour’s worth of advice to the modern preparing to travel back in time to medieval Europe — beginning with the declaration that “you will very likely get sick.”
The gastrointestinal distress posed by the “native biome” of medieval European food and drink is one thing; the threat of robbery or worse by its roving packs of outlaws is quite another. “Crime is rampant” where you’re going, so “carry a dagger” and “learn how to use it.” In societies of the Middle Ages, people could only protect themselves by being “enmeshed in social webs with each other. No one was an individual.” And so, as a traveler, you must — to put it in Dungeons-and-Dragons terms — belong to some legible class. Though you’ll have no choice but to present yourself as having come from a distant land, you can feel free to pick one of two guises that will suit your obvious foreignness: “you’re either a merchant or a pilgrim.”
Unlike modern-day Europe, through which you travel for weeks barely speaking to anyone, the Europe of the Middle Ages offers numerous opportunities for conversation, whether you want them or not. Without any media as we know it today, medievals had to “make their own entertainment by talking to each other,” and if they could talk to a stranger from an exotic land, so much the more entertaining. But having none of our relatively novel ideas that “everybody’s on an equal footing, that everybody’s equal to each other, nobody’s better or worse than anybody else, nobody gets any special treatment,” they’ll guess your social rank and treat you accordingly; you, in turn, would do well to act the part.
Imagining themselves in medieval Europe, many of our contemporaries say things like, “If I go there, they’ll hang me as a witch, or they’ll burn me at the stake as a witch, because I’m wearing modern clothes and because I talk funny.” But that fear (not untainted, perhaps, by a certain self-regard) is unfounded, since medievals “were not scared of people just because they were different. They were scared of people who were different in a way that challenged the social order or threatened social chaos.” Their worldview put religious affiliation above all, without consideration for even the most hotly debated twenty-first-century political or racial battle lines. But then, as we never needed time travel to understand, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.