Advice for Time Traveling to Medieval Europe: How to Staying Healthy & Safe, and Avoiding Charges of Witchcraft

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Free Yale Course on Medieval His­to­ry: 700 Years in 22 Lec­tures

Peo­ple in the Mid­dle Ages Slept Not Once But Twice Each Night: How This Lost Prac­tice Was Redis­cov­ered

How to Make a Medieval Man­u­script: An Intro­duc­tion in 7 Videos

What Sex Was Like in Medieval Times?: His­to­ri­ans Look at How Peo­ple Got It On in the Dark Ages

Behold a 21st-Cen­tu­ry Medieval Cas­tle Being Built with Only Tools & Mate­ri­als from the Mid­dle Ages

A Con­cise Break­down of How Time Trav­el Works in Pop­u­lar Movies, Books & TV Shows

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.


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