A Challenge: Maps We Take For Granted

by Sable2 min read29th May 201529 comments

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Personal Blog

Imagine that you were instantly transported into (roughly) the 13th century.  I'm not great at history, but I'm picturing sometime around the crusades.  You're sitting there, reading this post on your computer, and BAM!  Some guy in chain mail is asking you if thou art the spawn of a demon.

 

Given this situation, I present to you a challenge:

 

You are stranded in the past.  You have no modern technology except your everyday clothes.  The only thing you do have is your knowledge from the future.

 

What do you do?

 

I'll make this a little more structured for the sake of clarity.

1) You appear in Great Britain (or the appropriate analogue for your native culture).

2) Assume the language barrier is surmountable - in other words, it may not be easy, but you can communicate effectively (by learning the language, or simply adapting to an older version of your native tongue).

3) Further assume that you manage to gain the ear of a ruling lord (how is not important, just say you're a wizard or something) and that he provides you with enough money, labor, and expertise (carpenters, smiths, etc.) to build something *so long as you can describe it in enough detail*.

4) You are only allowed to pull from general, scientifically literate knowledge - high school/bachelor's level only.

5) You can't use your knowledge of future events to your advantage, as it requires too expert a grasp of history.  Only your knowledge of the way the world actually works is available.

 

The reason for 4) has to do with the point of the question.  I'm trying to figure out the kind of maps that we have today that are considered "general knowledge" - the kinds of things that are so obvious to us we tend to not realize that people in the past didn't know them.  

 

I'll go first.

 

The germ theory of disease didn't achieve widespread acceptance until the 19th century.  In other words, I'm the only person in the past who is quite confident about how diseases are spread.  This means that I can offer practical advice about sanitation when dealing with injuries and plagues.  I can make sure that people wash their hands before cutting other people up, and after dealing with corpses.  I can make sure that cutting instruments are sanitized (they did have alcohol) before use.  And so on. This should reduce the number of deaths from disease in the kingdom, and prove my worth to the king.

 

I'm trying to build a list of things like this - maps of the way the world really is that we take for granted.

 

Have fun!

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The problem is that most of our modern methods rely on other technology that was also not available in the 13th century. So you need to be aware of disused practices, not modern ones. In your example, sterilisation would be useful, but also very expensive. Washing your hands would typically be counterproductive, because they often did not have access to clean water. Spreading cholera is bad! That is why people drank small beer rather than water.

Useful maps:

  • Crops require nitrogen, legumes fix nitrogen. Do Dutch-style crop rotation and anticipate the Agricultural Revolution by centuries. Fritz-Haber is sadly a non-starter.
  • Royal authority and legitimate descent are highly resilient, and temporary assaults on them will be reverted. Don't count out Henry III when he's a small child and most of his kingdom is occupied by a foreign king with the backing of the English nobility. Don't count him out later when he and his son are prisoners. Don't back shooting stars (Langton, Louis, de Montfort, etc) against the majesty that doth hedge a king.
  • Penicillium is useful! Try and find some of that if you can!
  • Iron is less reactive than the other elements contained within it. Firing oxygen through it will remove the impurities much better than other methods then available, and allow you to make lots of cheap steel. Note: this was actually known in the 13th century, but not in England.

Sterilization is easy -- all you need is boiling water.

As to diseases, what you need first of all is not washing hands, but rather separation of drinking water and human excrement (aka sanitation).

Some basic military technology should also be highly useful to raise your credibility :-)

What do you mean by some basic military technology? People were not complete morons back then, and they actually had the best military technology what their contemporary industry and economy could support, and had the best strategy regarding the tools they had access to.

they actually had the best military technology what their contemporary industry and economy could support,

Did they, now? To give a simple example, gunpowder is quite easy to make. You don't think the industry of the times would support its production?

To give another example, such a basic thing as a stirrup took a surprisingly long time to get to Europe.

had the best strategy regarding the tools they had access to

And why do you think so?

To give a simple example, gunpowder is quite easy to make. You don't think the industry of the times would support its production?

They just started having gunpowder in the era of the question, but for a few centuries the guns were very crude and ineffective, and you couldn't make any better guns without better metalworking. There is another question about how you could make a modern gun in medieval times, and the answer is, even if you had a complete schematic it would border on impossible.

such a basic thing as a stirrup took a surprisingly long time to get to Europe

They already had stirrups in the 13th century.

About the strategy. Make up a better strategy using only the tools they had access to, and I (or anyone well-read in that time period) will show you how they would beat you.

I was making a more general point: it is not true that the military technology (at any age and for every society) was the best their industry an economy would support.

I (or anyone well-read in that time period) will show you how they would beat you.

No, you will not. The simple reason is that you cannot show me anything -- an argument of the kind "My cavalry charge would destroy your left flank! No, my left flank will withstand the charge and scatter the cavalry!" cannot be settled.

an argument of the kind "My cavalry charge would destroy your left flank! No, my left flank will withstand the charge and scatter the cavalry!" cannot be settled.

I was talking about strategy, not tactical movements, and those can generally be settled. A lot of people, for example, come up with ideas like "people should stand further apart so they will not be such an easy target for arrows / muskets" or come up with maneuvers which work well in computer strategy games but wouldn't work without instant communication, etc. If it's a "fridge logic" kind of think, like "hey, why didn't they just think of doing X", they probably did think of it, or even did try it in the past and failed.

My point was that no matter how good you think you are in modern sciences and no matter how intelligent you are, you probably couldn't lead a medieval army better than someone who has a lot of experience in doing so, especially without spending years of getting familiarized with the time and place you ended up in. They are not chimpanzees with much less mental capabilities than a human, they are humans just like you, and would probably fare just as well as you in the modern world if they were raised here from a young enough age. And by having a lot of experience in their method of warfare, they would have the advantage over you if you had access to the same tools like them. An exception might be if you know of a historical battle so you know what the enemy did and you can use that advantage in advance, but even that thing would only work if the battle took place soon after your arrival (or you didn't do anything significant until then) because of the butterfly effect. And in that case, without having created a reputation there, good luck convincing the leader of an army to listen to you.

I was talking about strategy, not tactical movements, and those can generally be settled.

No, I still don't think so. In even more general terms you're talking about history counterfactuals and those cannot be settled. You're basically thinking of the case "but what if my opponent is really stupid and suggests stupid things" :-)

no matter how good you think you are in modern sciences and no matter how intelligent you are, you probably couldn't lead a medieval army better than someone who has a lot of experience in doing so

Certainly true. But I could probably be a very valuable adviser :-) The reason is that if I were to know military history well enough, I would know what works and what doesn't without the cost of the trial-and-error discovery.

Take a bit more ancient example: the Greek phalanx. It was considered to be an excellent formation for quite a long time, and yet the way to beat it turned out to be trivial: use highly mobile light slingers to harass the unwieldy phalanx until it falls apart. If you happen to know that, you could be a very helpful adviser to a Greek (or Persian :-D) general a century or two earlier.

Knowing how the strategy and tactics evolved in the "future", which paths failed and which did not is highly valuable knowledge.

Take a bit more ancient example: the Greek phalanx. It was considered to be an excellent formation for quite a long time, and yet the way to beat it turned out to be trivial: use highly mobile light slingers to harass the unwieldy phalanx until it falls apart. If you happen to know that, you could be a very helpful adviser to a Greek (or Persian :-D) general a century or two earlier.

Peltasts were commonplace in Greek warfare; they didn't displace the phalanx, or prove the phalanx's weakness, they supported the phalanx formations. This is the issue; war is considerably more complex than a "Formation X beats formation Y" equation. Roman legions continued using variants of phalanx formations centuries after the Greek and Persian war.

That said, there is technology that could be brought back to revolutionize warfare: Logistics. Modern statistical methodologies would be an incredible asset. But being the guy calculating how much food to bring and when to send deliveries isn't as exciting.

This seems like a Catch-22 situation. The original point was how to build your reputation at the beginning. Even if we assume you had some brilliant strategic ideas (which I still doubt, but let's assume you had), how would you convince them to let you, a random stranger, become their advisor?

You will need to be trusted to be allowed to lead their army, but you intended to achieve a brilliant victory to become trusted.

The original point was how to build your reputation at the beginning.

No, it wasn't. The OP specified (see point (3)) that you could have all the resources you need just for asking.

Some guy in chain mail is asking you if thou art the spawn of a demon.

...and you are asking for the best strategy to convince him that he was right? :D

There is an excellent discussion about it on worldbuilding.stackexchange.com

The main consensus is that the best strategy in the beginning would be to seek refuge in a monastery. This would allow you to learn the dialect and the local customs, and not starve in the first days looking for jobs none of which you are even halfway proficient in, while barely being able to communicate. People with strange accents and strange clothing would not be out of place in a monastery, especially if they claimed they are some pilgrims who became lost (or were just robbed). Such a learning period is very important, because the language was different enough that you would taken to be a stranger, and despite being able to read and write, you would have large difficulties with the calligraphy of that time. Just google for a 13th century manuscript, and see how fluently you can read it, and how easily you could write one. (Hint: bordering on impossible if you don't spend a lot of time learning it)

If you want to change the world or at least introduce some modern technology, you will need the support of powerful people. It would not be easy to just waltz into the throne room of a lord and claim you could lead his country better than him. However, in the monastery you could learn a lot about the society you just landed in while being in relative safety, and with time you could earn the trust of important people, and carefully build up your reputation as a respected scholar.

Don't forget, that in those times the biggest scientific curiosity was among the clergy, and most scientific discoveries of the era were made either by the clergy or sponsored by them

Otherwise you might just end up shoveling dirt on a pig farm, and too concerned about your day-to-day survival to be able to do anything important. If you don't own any land, you are a nobody, unless you can somehow become useful as a scholar. Or save the life of someone important in a battle, but you would need extreme luck for that.

I think this belongs on reddit, not on LessWrong.

At least it's an interesting post. There are so few of those these days.

4) You are only allowed to pull from general, scientifically literate knowledge - high school/bachelor's level only.

The benefit of civilization is that you can do more with less knowledge; everyone is more specialized. If "high school / bachelor's level" means something that any person learns in that time period, then you can do lots of things, but if it's every person, then you're in trouble. Vitamin C being in citrus fruit and an effective treatment for scurvy and legumes fixing nitrogen are both very helpful tips that are fairly easy to transport back in time... but what percentage of moderns with a high school education know that? What percentage of moderns can look at a plant and identify whether it's a legume or not?

It seems to me that any map that we "take for granted" is, by assumption, a map that we could not accurately recreate from memory. I have a generic understanding of how internal combustion engines work, but not nearly enough to be useful in a project to redesign them from scratch. (I actually know more about early steam engines because of my historical interest in the early industrial revolution than I do about the car I drive almost every day!)

This is a common topic in XIX century literature. Specifically, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and some of Jules Verne's books.

By the way, I suspect that a better way of achieving what you want is to read some original texts from that era and figure out what people of that time assumed as obviously true. As it stands, you are asking for amateur guesses about perceptions of people seven centuries ago about whom the amateurs know very little (and most of that "knowledge" comes out of Hollywood, anyway).

Much of what we teach teenagers about human biology is very recently-acquired knowledge, historically speaking. Modern knowledge about the circulatory system, aerobic and anaerobic respiration, vitamin deficiencies, etc. is very far away from the 13th Century, but has practical implications that can still be implemented, like "train your troops at altitude and give your sailors citrus fruit".

A lot of contemporary ideas about workflows and division of labour are fairly recent developments as well, (there were no assembly lines in the 13th Century), but have been internalised by citizens of the 21st Century.

[-][anonymous]6y 2

(Pet peeve: mail#Etymology), not chain mail. While we are at that, the type of swords in fantasy that are called longswords should be called side-swords or arming swords, and bastard swords should be called longswords . Sorry for the nitpicking, it is not just about history but also about historical fencing practiced today.)

I primarily want to get an industrial revolution going.

I have worse than bachelor level knowledge of most sciences, but I definitely remember having learned in high school how steel is made today. And aluminium.

I think making a steam engine is not so difficult after you have the basic idea, Ancient Greece had it, just did not find it useful, having slaves. However steam ships that can sail without wind and probably eat less than 200 galley slaves would be interesting.

I remember the industrial revolution in Britain was started because a king wanted cannons made of cheap steel instead of expensive bronze so probably I need to work on the technique to refine steel quality, and I definitely remember we learned it in high school I just don't remember it myself much. But let's consider it part of the map. I think the basic idea is to heat iron with charcoal and use a lot of air blown in.

I would want gunpowder, I am highly suspicious whether going on conquests with modern arms would be at the end of the day as a total sum have positive or negative utilitarian consequences, but screw ethics: I just want to. I guess I would calm my conscience with forcing a Geneva convention type of thing on all countries and end painful methods of execution and things like that. At any rate, it is coal, sulfur and saltpetre, I just need to experiment with the ratio and once I have a basic idea of rifling it is probably not hard to implement so I can have far more accurate rifles than muskets and most importantly rifled cannons. On steam ships. Made of refined quality steel. Hm, this is starting to look good.

Also: https://www.topatoco.com/graphics/00000001/qw-cheatsheet.jpg

  • Start a cannery for longer-term food storage.
  • Start work on long-term sanitation/sewage solutions (even if it's a stone or lead-lined wooden trough fed from an aqueduct washing sewage into an old rock quarry that people dump their chamberpots into, it's still an improvement)
  • Spread mathematics knowledge, especially statistics, which have a huge range of potential purposes
  • Movable-type printing press for easy dissemination of information (have an early emphasis on new and useful ideas and inventions)
  • Chalkboards; reusable writing surfaces which require no unusual supplies, and are extraordinarily useful, and invented surprisingly late
  • Lightning rods; cheap, yet valuable.
  • Assembly lines
  • Prepaid postage for mail
  • Rocking chairs. Why? Why not.
  • Swamp coolers (fan over water). Prohibitively expensive with the lower classes (no electricity, so fans have to be manually powered), but will curry lots of favor with the upper classes.
  • Public transit, a la the omnibus.
  • Electroplating - cheap(er) ornamentation requiring only primitive electrical components
  • Canal construction. Historically a grossly underutilized method of mass transportation (with many additional benefits, such as irrigation potential)
  • Establish rewards (land, money, titles) for major innovations/innovators

Start work on long-term sanitation/sewage solutions

The Romans had sanitation. It collapsed when the Empire fell.

Things that spring to mind (assumes a few specific bits I'm not sure whether are taught at high school, because I was home ed and skipped most of school):

  • Cowpox vaccine - A safe, readily available, protection from a major threat. May be hard to convince people to use it, but if you spread the idea and take credit it'd catapult you into fame (particularly medical).
  • Penicillin (would need to test a load of different moulds to find the right one), germ theory, sterilization, hygiene, other medical basics. - Once you've got a name for yourself, start spreading other modern medical standards.
  • Depending on exact time-period, I may be able to preempt gunpowder. This may set me up nicely with whichever king is in charge.
  • Attempt to build basics of electricity. If you can find a magnet (magnetite?), making a basic dynamo is not too hard, and would be an awesome way to show off your knowledge (though may get you burned as a witch).
  • My everyday clothes would be really strange to someone from that era. Hide them until I find people who seem trustworthy enough/of the right charachter, build a secret society/cult with them as sacred objects, with top members knowing some of my actual story (avoid conflict with church/royals, perhaps claim I'd been sent back by god?). Find students, teach them everything I can remember (perhaps bar a few things like nuclear weapons), spend most of my life organization-building and laying plans for the future. Give them a mission, to take the knowledge around the world, and avoid some of the largest disasters coming.

Organization goals:

  • Reach the Americas with the cowpox vaccine before smallpox (even if it takes 100s of years before ships go out, make sure my cult is leading them).
  • Intercept every super famous person I can remember as they come into adulthood, attempt to bring them into the group, give them a list of topics I remember them having made major progress on, give them all I remember of their results.
  • Be hyper-secretive about the core books on the future (especially historical events and non-medical technology), and the fact that this is what's happening, unless very large gains can be made.
  • Spread certain moral ideas, when possible. Have locked books which are only to be opened when specific criteria are met (e.g. to trigger dropping internal religious elements when it's safe). Maybe a very simple cipher which splits information across several books, so locked books can be copied without being read.

Set in motion plans for dealing with current issues

  • preempt global warming by introducing photo-voltaic early (even if I don't know details, I can point at roughly the things needed and someone will figure it out), may not be perfect or win out right away but hopefully sooner than the normal timeline with the right talent
  • attempt to shut down nuclear weapons, even if this requires major deception. Backup plan, gain a monopoly of them.
  • Set FAI work in motion much earlier, with the power of a ~700 year old conspiracy that's had foreknowledge of every major technological advance and captured a notable fraction of world-changing geniuses.

All a bit optimistic, but it seems like the vast majority of the good I could do would happen after my lifetime, so I'd need to take some shot at making a lasting organization. If it seems plausible, and I'm in a position by that time to direct people and live where I want, try to die somewhere near a place I could get natural cryo.

You are a walking biological weapon, try to sterilize yourself and your clothes as much as possible first, and quarantine yourself until any novel (to the 13th century) viruses are gone. Try to avoid getting smallpox and any other prevalent ancient disease you're not immune to.

Have you tried flying into a third world nation today and dragging them out of backwardness and poverty? What would make it easier in the 13th century?

If you can get past those hurdles the obvious benefits are mathematics (Arabic numerals, algebra, calculus) and standardized measures (bonus points if you can reconstruct the metric system fairly accurately), optics, physics, chemistry, metallurgy, electricity, and biology. For physics specifically the ability to do statics for construction and ballistics for cannons and thermodynamics for engines and other machines (and lubrication and hydraulics are important too). High carbon steel for machine tools, the assembly line and interchangeable parts. Steel reinforced concrete would be nice, but not a necessity. Rubber. High quality glass for optics; necessary for microscopes for biology to progress past "We don't believe tiny organisms make us sick". The scientific method (probably goes without saying) to keep things moving instead of turning back into alchemy and bloodletting.

Electricity and magnetism eventually; batteries won't cut it for industrial scale use of electricity (electrolysis, lighting for longer working hours, arc furnaces for better smelting) so building workable generators that can be connected to steam engines is vital.

Other people have mentioned medicine, which is pretty important from an ethical perspective, but difficult to reverse centuries of bad practice. Basic antibiotics and sterilization is probably the best you'd be able to do, but without the pharmaceutical industry there's a lot of stuff you can't do. If you know how to make ether, at least get anesthesia started.

"Have you tried flying into a third world nation today and dragging them out of backwardness and poverty? What would make it easier in the 13th century?"

I think this is an interesting angle. How comparable are 'backward' nations today with historical nations? Obvious differences in terms of technology existing in modern third world even if the infrastructure/skills to create and maintain it don't. In that way, I suppose they're more comparable to places in the very early middle ages, when people used Roman buildings etc. that they coudn't create themselves. But I also wonder how 13th century government compares to modern governments that we'd consider 'failed states'.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) addressed this question in his 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, albeit the historical setting of Clemens' novel was several hundred years prior to the 13 century.

I knew this t-shirt would come in handy (I own it and wear it around the place) (the disadvantage of this shirt is when people try to read it on you all the time) - http://www.topatoco.com/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=TO&Product_Code=QW-CHEATSHEET&Category_Code=ALLART

I think what is covered there is a pretty good map of modern science and how to get the most out of the low-hanging fruits.

Side note: It breaks the rules but - get a boat and discover Australia.

get a boat and discover Australia.

...and end up like Captain Cook...

Captain Cook did fine in Australia. It was Hawaii that got him.

I know -- but it's a general hazard of going off to discover places populated by people with... different cultural norms X-)