So, in the year 3241 AD, 1,200 years after the “Big One”, a nuclear war, there is about to be a huge crusade. Pope Paul XLIII wants to claim the holy city, New Denver from the Kodiakist Church. Emperor Alexander Komm, of the West Midwestern Empire, also supports the movement.

Peasants from the Midwest rally to crusade, trying to receive salvation, but their “crusade” ends up being a mess of pillaging and looting, and quickly got destroyed. In April, 3241, the real crusades start.

A group of noblemen, including the likes of Jeffrey, Lord of Milwaukee, mutant Bob of Detroit, and Henry, count of Minneapolis, journey to the crusade to conquer Denver. Also joining is Œlly of Fort Wayne.

I plan for the technology to be medieval, but my question is, could nuclear war push our civilization back to medieval times?

  • $\begingroup$ In medieval Europe communication was a struggle due to the distances. Are you sure that across North America would be the same or even worse? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jul 8, 2018 at 6:35
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ When people think about technology, they tend to think about things, e.g. a factory, a machine. But those are just the result of a way of thinking about how to produce, how to do commerce, how to do politics and so on. Let's ignore that going back to the complicated time called the middle ages seems quite random, the apolcalpyse might destroy factories, but how does it destroy the idea of a factory? Could you perhaps elaborate on how you think the society is reverted? Who survives? What survives? How and why the middle ages? As so often, the question isn't if it can, but why it should. $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Jul 8, 2018 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ What does "medieval" even mean in this question? A feudal social structure? Pre-industrial technology? What is a "Pope", because they surely cannot be the head of the Catholic Church? (Hint: the Catholic Pope is the Bishop of Rome. His entire power derives from being Bishop of very specifically Rome.) Why do you think that a nuclear war will make people forget about the separation of powers, rule of law, steam engines, rayon and viscose, ferro-cerium, electromagnetic induction, vacuum tubes, railroads and so on? Because as Raditz_35 said, technology is fundamentally know-how. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 8, 2018 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Godfrey! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Have fun! $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2018 at 16:55

5 Answers 5



Before the explanation, let's remember that the Middle Ages were not an era of absolute darkness and ignorance; knowledge was restricted but it existed. The first universities started during the Middle Ages; many of the inventions and structures that allowed the development of the Modern Age began in the Middle Ages. Text books like clear cuts and divisions, but those are difficult when dealing with people and nature.

The Middle Ages did not start because suddenly everybody lost 30 IQ points and became too dumb to keep the Roman Empire in place. The Middle Ages started because the structure of the Roman Empire collapsed -that structure was very inefficient way before the collapse, in no small part due to the lack of a mechanism for legitimazing rulers-; the nature of the collapse (decentralization of power, losing of government institutions, constant wars and raids) shaped the feudal society as the most efficient answer to it.

In your post-industrial apocalypse, you have:

  • low productivity because society has broken; no fertilizers or agricultural machinery means that feeding the population requires a lot of hands.

  • There are books, yes, but... so what? What good is for the population to know how to build an EM engine, if you have no access to copper wiring? The "Programming Java for Dummies" may be available, but that does not make it useful.

  • The above two points explain why education level will lower. You need the children to tend to the crops, not to learn things that are unrelated to them. Of course, probably they won't drop to pre-Industrial Revolution level; it would be reasonable to expect some degree of literacy of most of the population.

  • low population due to war, lack of medical care, hunger. Which means that the small % of population who is not dedicated to grow food will be a small absolute number, which means that improvements will be slower.

  • the collapse of the transportation network means that feeding cities is complicated, what is left are smaller towns. Those smaller towns do necessarily have less hands available, so they cannot organize into big and efficient factories. Even if a town had the workforce needed for a textile factory; how would they get their furniture or pottery? Because trade with the town who had the furniture factory would be very complicated, due to the above mentioned collapse of the transport.

In this setting, the people organizing themselves in small semi-independent regions is pretty much a given (why obey orders from the Capital when they cannot reach us neither to help us nor to punish us?) A more open question would be if those regions would end being ruled by an aristocratic system or would retain some degree of democracy.


Realistically? No Way

The legacy books in tens of thousands of small town libraries and schools are enough to guide experimenters in most technologies before 1900 (and many after), including biology and health care, industry and mass production, chemistry and physics, instant and mass communication, and powered transportation.

There are enough mechanics and tinkerers and rural industry to prevent permanent collapse of food production and processing. (I know that's a blow to lots of budding apocalyptic authors) Google steam adaptations of of all kinds of vehicles, and you will see that somebody has welded one together and tried it and got it to work. Survivors won't be tending oxen in the fields - clumsily-modified steam-powered tractors will be doing the work in short order...and they will get better with time. All those mechanics and tinkerers also, by the way, keep those skills alive and thriving.

There won't be much oil/gas available, so energy will be expensive and carbon-belching substitutes like steam will be popular. There won't be much flight, and there won't be much internet. Banking and finance will be greatly diminished. Global supply chains for cars and trucks and major appliances are likely to be uneconomic to repair, and local substitution will take years to develop.

There are hundreds of proper, degree-granting colleges and universities in rural america, far from any bomb targets, with many thousands of learned professors and all their materials. That's in addition to hundreds of thousands of math and science and other secondary school teachers in rural america. A complete infrastructure of learning and re-learning for the survivors is already in place.

Nobody is saying that an apocalypse will be easy to survive, or that it won't (by definition) be the worst, most horrifying and tragic event to happen to a society. But the utter devastation of an apocalypse still won't permanently throw most North American standards of living back whole centuries for the survivors and refugees. Many communities could recover most of a 1960s-era lifestyle within a decade.


Let's start from the consideration that all, or most of all, the easily accessible mines of fossil fuels have been already used. With easily accessible I mean something shallow and that can be reached with elementary digging, like what is available to a middle age tech level.

Available and cheap energy is the prerequisite to advance technology. People might have memories of what technology was before the war, but if you have to rely on just horses and chopped wood there is no way you can sustain any modern scale industry.

Therefore I am afraid that any civilization wouldn't go past middle age level in any case.


From a social standpoint, yes. It would be possible for a post-nuclear apocalyptic world to descend into a neo-medieval social structure, since with a severely reduced population, and a potentially crippled communication system, it would be difficult to hold a modern country like the United States together. The balance of power would inevitably shift away from the likely non-existent central government to regional leaders who can control the surrounding terrotory more effectively. Within a few generations, a feudal system could evolve, born from the increased power that a small, regional leader would have over his 'subjects.'

However, from a technological standpoint, it is unlikely that humanity would regress back towards medieval technology. Although if all or most of the major cities were destroyed in the war, manufacturing and transportation would be severely limited, and certain aspects of technology may be nearly impossible to use, humanity will not just forget about cars, trains, gunpowder, or electricity. Although the impact of technology might be severely limited in the short term, it seems likely that enough specialists would survive the war to begin at least the limited manufacture of certain items back underway.

And, finally, one important note, this scenario would only work if the entire world was effected equally by the nuclear war. If only the main, nuclear powers were involved, then countries that remained relatively untouched by the war would step in to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the world powers. Although we might see a period of civil war and violence in the aftermath of the nuclear apocalypse, unaffected countries would continue to manufacture products, and a modern society would continue on in most parts of the world. Even the nuclear wasteland of the United States would likely be aided by the surviving countries, basically making the possibility of a medieval level society impossible.


Only Temporarily - Knowledge is the Key

For a few years we'd be scavengers. But thanks to accumulated knowledge that would only be for a little while. It might be impossible with limited human resources to build 747s and integrated circuits and many other advanced technologies. But by starting with knowledge of the industrial revolution we would easily get back to 19th century technology - steam engines, telegraph, dynamos, etc. Add physics and chemistry and the advancement to mid-20th century won't take long as the survivors won't have to reinvent the wheel - just build it.

  • $\begingroup$ But is their a way to stall progress $\endgroup$
    – Godfrey
    Jul 8, 2018 at 6:09

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