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In my story, the protagonist gets sucked almost a millennia into the past (unintentionally) and lands in medieval Europe. How does he take advantage of the situation and rise to power without getting branded a heretic/demon/devil by the Church and burned at the stake and either executed in some way or imprisoned and exploited? Every scenario I play over in my head where he tries to convince people that he's from the future, or demonstrate his superior knowledge of the universe, he winds up dead or imprisoned. I'm thinking that his best chances for survival are to strip out of his futuristic clothes, hide any tech he might have on him and try to blend in until he can get into a position to seize power somehow.

How does he do it? Does he approach the nobility and offer them promises of power and wealth? Does he win the hearts and minds of the poor, secretly empower them with knowledge and improved weapons technology then try to overthrow the church and nobility? What's his best chance of using what he knows of the future to take over the world?

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    $\begingroup$ For a cautionary look at the subject, if 998 AD is close enough, try Poul Anderson's classic "The Man Who Came Early" vvikipedia.co/images/c/c7/… $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 3 '15 at 4:12
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    $\begingroup$ just so you know, people weren't burned at the stake as hertics quite as often as you may think. Usually when it did happen it was more to do with their angering the church politically; meaning they messed with the churches power and money, with the heratic charges simply being the easiest way to dispose of someone that was a problem for them. There are ways to demonstrate impressive knowledge without immediately being hung as a witch; quite a few actually. People welcome new ideas that benefit their every day life. The real issue is to threaten existing power bases, then your dead... $\endgroup$ – dsollen Nov 30 '15 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen Well... trying to take over the world is the sort of thing that does threaten existing power bases... $\endgroup$ – Vakus Drake Dec 1 '15 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ @VakusDrake I second the advice in a question below, better to join up with a power base and play the man behind the thrown. Only way to get sufficient funding support to make use of your knowledge originally, and once your in a position of power with one faction why not keep running with it. So long as you have a big & powerful faction backing you it's okay to upset other factions a bit more ;) $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 1 '15 at 5:42
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    $\begingroup$ Europe is huge by medieval standards – where does your protagonist land? What’s their gender? How old are they? Do they look like local people (except for having better teeth, being taller etc. – looking noble)? Do they speak at least one Romance, Germanic or Slavic language? Are they an engineer, scientist or skilled crafter? What are their hobbies? Do they appear naked or with everything that was in their close proximity? What year do they come from? Have they been vaccinated as they should? Do they need glasses? Did they ever kill an animal or a human by themself? ⇒ Too many variables. $\endgroup$ – Crissov Dec 3 '15 at 16:12

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My advice to your protagonist and any Worldbuilding SE readers who unexpectedly get sucked back in time is (a) don't try to convince people you are from the future, not until you are rich and secure anyway, and (b) don't try to publicly take over the world - be content with influencing powerful people from an advisory position, rather than ruling yourself.

Another story you might look at was written in 1939 by L Sprague de Camp, Lest Darkness Fall. In it an American archeologist is transported from then-contemporary Mussolini's Italy to sixth century Rome. It's hinted that his mind being so fixed on the past is the reason that the time-slip happened, a neat way to explain why he conveniently speaks Latin and has some knowledge of the major military and political figures of 535 AD.

If I recall correctly, the first wondrous invention that the hero brings to sixth century Rome is... distillation of spirits. He correctly calculates that brandy is a product from which he can almost immediately start making good money. He keeps his mouth firmly shut on his temporal origins, saying only that he comes from an obscure and faraway country called "America". Later on he introduces Arabic numerals, and the semaphore, but fails to get several other inventions to work, and doesn't get the girl. He keeps from getting condemned as a heretic (much more of a danger in late Roman antiquity than in your scenario of this happening in the medieval era) by "smothering his enemies in cream" and giving the most hostile bishops lucrative church offices.

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The only thing that might be possible given the limitations would be to bring the Infantry Revolution early. In most places, fighting men were trained from early boyhood to use weapons, so revolts by the peasants was pretty dangerous (an untrained and unarmoured man with an agricultural tool in his hands can be dangerous, but against trained troops protected by even a small amount of armour, they are generally disadvantaged).

The Infantry Revolution was triggered by the appearance of weapons and tactics that could be used by large numbers of relatively poorly trained troops that gave them the advantage over armoured nobility. In Europe this was the introduction of the crossbow (the English Longbow and the Ottoman compound bows required a lifetime of training, while a crossbow could be used fairly effectively after about a day's training), pikes in dense squares and various specialized pole arms which allowed a man to go one on one with a mounted knight and pull him from his horse, skewer him or crack open the armour with the extra leverage (the halberd head allows the user to do all of the above).

Of course a rabble armed with these weapons would still be scattered like chaff; the other part of the revolution was to convince people to stay in close ranks (a pike square with a frontage of 10 and a depth of 10 can rapidly manoeuvre around a battlefield) and cooperate (having rows of crossbowmen between the pike squares gives long range protection, while the squares hold off cavalry charges and even oncoming infantry. Groups of halberd armed men between the squares or in reserve can trade off with the crossbows when needed for the close fight, while the crossbowmen fall behind the pikes).

How our hero could convince people to do this would be an interesting trick (perhaps the core of the story). I suspect the crossbow would be an easy "sell", since even merchants can see the benefit of being able to effectively arm everyone in the wagon train or merchant ship, and poor nobles can effectively defend their castles by arming the cooks and scullery maids in an emergency. Getting people to work in close ranks takes more time and energy, and was generally picked up by the people of walled cities as a means of preserving their freedoms against the nobility, but this implies a level of social organization which might not be there yet.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, Swiss Pikemen were one of the best early examples of this and a major reason why Switzerland was not incorporated into the Hapsburg empire $\endgroup$ – sdrawkcabdear Dec 3 '15 at 0:52
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I guess the single most valuable bit of knowledge your timetraveller has, which is also quite easy to use, is his knowledge about hygiene, even if it was only the most basic ideas. He need not be an apothecary to boil water before he drinks it, let alone before washing a wound, or wash your hands before touching a wound.

To cannibalize @SJuan76's answer a bit: he could even use holy water to avoid conflict with the church, and he might even boil the water secretly to avoid unwanted attention.

Practically everything else he knows requires some infrastructure and a lot of other people's acceptance.

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Since you can read and write I suggest enter a monastery. You can easily impress your colleagues with your fast and clean writing if you manage to insert a small ball into the tip of your quill (László Bíró sounds familiar to you?)... When you start to be a respected member of the community you could introduce a couple of nice innovations like the heavy plough (wether it already exists depends on the year and place you land in) and the three-field system: the increased productivity in you monastery-owned land will be a good basis to climb the ranks and become Prior! You may then introduce some more advanced technology, like the flying shuttle loom, and even open the first public school, so that your monastery will be the centre of innovation: compulsory school for age 5 to 8 and then buy the most promising children from their families to continue with more advanced studies! And of course always do it for the greater glory of God ;)

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There are several options:

  1. Steel: Good steel is not that hard to make once you know how to do it, but nobody in Europe knew how around the 10th century. Even if you can't do it cheap, you're going to do it better than anyone else, which means you can make better armour and weapons or just plain make more money
  2. Glass: Just like good steel, nobody in Europe, knows how to make transparent glass. Just like with steel, once you know how, the process is relatively simple. If you are the only one in the world who can make transparent glass you can make a lot of money of it.
  3. Alcohol: not just for drinking but for hygienics as well.
  4. Agriculture: There’s been some development in agricultural methods in the past few centuries that a protagonist could exploit; fertilization for example.
  5. Cooling: While a refrigeration system might be more than he can handle, a primitive cooling box is definitely possible. All it takes is a “house” with two sets of walls to provide some insulation from outside heat. Go to a place with ice, load the box and transport the ice to a hot place to sell.
  6. Basic math: Pretty much nobody in Europe could solve any real math problems. The advanced math in Europe in the middle ages was at the level of basic high school or maybe even lower.
  7. Reading and writing: Except the clergy, almost nobody were able to read or write in Europe (well, except Scandinavia before it was christened).
  8. Resource knowledge: The protagonist might know where some large resource sites lie, that haven’t been discovered yet (coal, steel, silver, gold, …).
  9. Knowledge of the west: Knowing that there’s a massive “unsettled” land to the west (the Americas) and what happened once Europeans got there (people started to drop like flies from all the diseases that where introduced) could also be exploited.
  10. Other “simple” technology: a basic grasp of some of contemporary simple technology could be used to recreate it in the past; a fully functional internal combustion engine is likely be out of the question, but a steam engine might not. A jet engine, which is surprisingly simple to make, might also be a possibility. Take care: a lot of the stuff we use today is only possible because of materials that have been gathered from all parts of the world! It would not be possible to make anything which uses rubber (or latex) in medieval Europe!

There are quite a few problem he would have to overcome; most of the languages spoken would so dissimilar to what he would be able to understand, that he wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone else. Except if he’s Icelandic…

Your protagonist might get infected with something he wouldn’t be exposed to in modern times, simply because the infection has been, as good as, wiped out in the passing centuries. He might also bring a few nasty bugs with him and might cause a major plague to ravage the world…

EDIT: Forgot about paper; paper is much much much cheaper and faster to make than parchment and offers almost all of the advantages (except that it degrades a bit faster, I don't know of any disadvantage). If your protagonist is able to make paper he’s sure to be able to make a lot of cash very fast.

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    $\begingroup$ Point 6 is probably bad; While you might have better grasp of artithmetic than a common peasant you would come up short against anyone that needed the skill. As for algebra and other mathematics you would have a huge advantage over anyone, but this would be useless because you would not have the skill set to communicate your understanding. Abstract algebra in the sense that we understand it is a recent invention, meaning you would have difficulty even communicating that you where doing math. $\endgroup$ – Taemyr Nov 30 '15 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Taemyr you don't have to be able to communicate how you do things in order to exploit it. If you know how to solve differential equations, a bit about physics (forces, gravity and that sort of thing) you could exploit it to do some pretty neat stuff. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Jan 14 '16 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ Could you really do this on your own. Examples please. $\endgroup$ – Taemyr Jan 14 '16 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Taemyr Some of them you could do without any real assistance from others, most of them you only need minor assistance to do -- nothing that requires expert knowledge. Steel production requires a large amount of good coal and some iron, glass similarly just needs more heat compared to what the contemporary glass makers use. Coolingboxes are very easy to make -- you just need to know how they look and a bit of wood. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Mar 10 '16 at 9:40
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How about this. Become a medical doctor (in any manner that it is possible) and then apply simple cures to a few diseases where these would be both easy to implement and very rapidly successful. For instance, digitalis (foxglove) for heart failure, or vitamin c (fruit extract) for scurvy (and other vitamins for other vitamin deficiencies), seafood (iodine) for goiter, etc. They could either join the Benedictine Monks or become a traveling herbalist. Herbalists were apparently not condemned as witches, etc., until the late middle ages, so you'd be ok.

(Added...) The idea is to be like the patent medicine people. Once you get some rep, charge a lot for your 'miracle' cures. Get rich and move up in the local hierarchy. THEN you can have the resources to implement some of the more cost and time intensive approaches. For instance, have wires fabricated, build a primitive battery, then build a small demonstration telegraph. THAT would get attention. But you'd need credibility and money to even start with more complicated devices like that. You need a toehold in the society.

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  • $\begingroup$ But the hero wants to take over the world, not spend his life tending to sick (and probably filthy) medieval folk. $\endgroup$ – user8808 Nov 30 '15 at 14:59
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  1. Make sure to survive, which won’t be possible on your own – might require simple manual labor.
  2. Learn the local language and study Latin. For that, befriend the local priest or monks and disclose your ability to read (although 11th century calligraphy will require some time to get used to).
  3. Write down your school knowledge at least of math and hard sciences. Be careful with evolution and astronomy.
  4. Exploit your special expertise from job training and hobbies. This is very individual.

Some things to invent if you got the expertise, in no particular order:

  • Steel
  • Metal-enforced plough and direct sower
  • Fertilizer
  • Pasta
  • Distilled alcohol
  • Gun powder
  • Paper and printing
  • Windmills (good gears etc.)
  • Concrete
  • Manufactories
  • Mechanical looms
  • Bikes or trikes with pedals
  • Porcelain, glass, mirrors
  • Perspective drawing
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Technologically, maybe the most profitable invention could be the steam machine. You only need a closed vessel with an aperture, and something for the steam to push on to see it in action. If someone has issues with how satanic it is, just allow them to use the steam machine with holy water so they see it is not affected at all. For example, a short steam train allowing to easily move troops/merchandise along a nobleman territory could be something very interesting to such nobleman.

Tactically, your protagonist does not want to go into the town main square and shout that he comes from the future; he probably wants to directly approach the local feudal lord and stage a private demonstration to pique his interest (not that it is without dangers, as you always risk running into someone who thinks you are a liar or who does not see how practical science may be).

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    $\begingroup$ Steam engines were known in at least as far back as the first century AD; the Middle-Ages are far too late to invent them. It only really took off when metal working progressed to withstand the combination of heavy pressure and hot temperature. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jun 3 '15 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ Using holy water to prove its holiness is not always going to work. Witches and heretics were not always condemned because of a genuine Christian fear of Satan, but often either because of the church's fear of losing power, or they were used as scapegoats to appease the masses who were angry about crops failing or something. Using holy water isn't going to convince them in these cases and might even be used against him ("He added to his blasphemy, by having the audacity to put our Lord's own blessed water into his infernal contraption!") $\endgroup$ – colmde Nov 30 '15 at 14:13
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A late answer, but as most other replies that essentially rely on devices, I would put emphasis on more knowledge-based elements.

What about banking ? In the past, Jews were not forbidden by their religion to manipulate money, and they made great profit at it. Same goes for for the Knights of the Temple, who had the trust and a network that enabled the lending of money on a large scale. Understanding some fundamentals of economics may really help to make money. Note that in both cases, some powerful people desperate for gold may try to grab, like the king of France Philippe IV le Bel did.

Cryptography may also provide help to powerful leaders, both to help confidentiality and break some (usually basic) codes used at that time.

Labor division and organization would allow for proto-industrial development, event with the local energy (water mills).

Medicine and basic understanding of the body may really help to give advice. Remember that sterilization is a relatively recent discovery.

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The printing press ... Invent the printing press and allow the passage of knowledge. To avoid suspension print something nonthreatening like the bible in a small Germanic state, with and unassuming name like Gutenberg

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Well, you've got to plan it out. You need to be calm and deal with the situation as it is.

  1. Survive - dead man tells no tales. Don't tell outrageous things or you might find yourself burnt at the stake.

  2. Rise in ranks - Be the very best. If by any chance your caught by a slaver: be the best slave. Regardless of what situation you find yourself in, you need to rise from the bottom.

  3. Take risks - Take calculated risks. Regardless of past present or future you will need to take risks.

  4. Use everything - I mean everything. From your very first sweat to your marriage. Everything can be used to achieve your goals. Use of other people will go a long way.

  5. Throw away the useless - If they are useless, they are a burden, if they are a burden, you throw them away.

  6. Cold heart- You live in the medieval Europe, cold heartedness will allow you to survive.

  7. Exploit the weakness - You find a chink in their armor? break it! they are down on their backs, kick them screaming till you not hear their screams anymore. Don't hesitate to do so since they won't hesitate to do so.

  8. Women - Women are the biggest weakness a man can have. Keep them within arms reach.

  9. Priorities - Know what you want and what you are willing to risk for it.

  10. Time - you won't live forever. Finish everything in timely manner and evade siege as much as possible.

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The problematic bits is "rise on power" not being burned by the church.

So, others have answered about knowledge and tools it can exploit, but now how rise on power.

How do that?

EXACTLY AS EVERYONE ELSE.

Is that simple. Pick any successfully power-player (Alexander the Great, Caesar, Spartacus, Napoleon, Sun Tzu) and look at what was their path.

You will probably note is hard without a proper blod-line (how about apply your knowledge on how treat a lady of influence!) or a sucesfully take-over, but eventually you need a army or be backed by one somehow (like being the power-behind-the-power).

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