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What would a medieval society without access to metal look like? How would things like wagons, weapons, coinage, and tools be different?

"Medieval" in this sense would mean something like feudal Japan, medieval Europe, or the Muslim/Arab nations during the Crusades period. Technology is different without metal, but they understand the basics of medicine (like disease) but not concepts like bacteria or genetics, they have roads, the wheel, tamed animals, boats capable of at least limited ocean voyages, farming, semi-accurate cartography, books written by hand on paper or paper-like materials, some form of carpentry or stone work that enables fortifications like castles, etc.

Other Conditions:

  • Metal still exists in the world (and in plants/animals/people). It just isn't used by this society for anything
  • No fantasy creatures like dragons or dwarves. Only real animals and plants
  • Topography, geography, and climate can be anything found on Earth
  • Magic exists, but I'm looking at how things would be without magic. Explaining the magic system would be unnecessarily involved for this question. I can take your ideas and add magic to it

(Related: Warfare without Metal)

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    $\begingroup$ What defines, to you, the idea of a "medieval society"? The idea is heavily entwined with the technology level and that requires a lot of metal. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jun 17, 2015 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ Some processes and tools that would be impeeded by not using metals, could be helped by using ceramic materials. $\endgroup$
    – Necessity
    Jun 17, 2015 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ What, society without METAL? You mean they all listen to Miley Cyrus? :D $\endgroup$
    – Maciej
    Jul 28, 2017 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ A harder question if figuring out how a human society could advance that far without discovering the usefulness of metals. Also consider cutting stone without metal takes a really long time, so they will not have much in the way of fortification. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 28, 2017 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because it's an off-topic High Concept Question. High concept questions have the form, "what are all the consequences of my little change?" They are always too broad, too opinion-based, open-ended, too hypothetical, and result in all answers having equal value (prohibited). Per the tour SE is not a discussion forum and this cannot have one best answer. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    yesterday

5 Answers 5

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Substitutes

You can make this work with substitutes. Armor can be made of items other than metal. For instance, Cuir Bouilli, which is speculated to be the origin of cuirasses, is boiled leather. It gives a "plastic-like" leather armor, which can be an effective defense. Padded armor was popular throughout the medieval period as well, especially for archers, as it retains mobility and is a cheaper alternative to other armors.

Obsidian have been used since time immemorial, at least before written records. This stone is used for knives, arrow heads, and other items. Obsidian is even used by modern surgeons, as the blade can be much more even (and therefore better at cutting) than metal blades. Durability is an issue with obsidian. Stone tools of other types are well documented, and can be used for many things.

Coinage and economy would be a little different. Metal coins were used because metal was valuable, and therefore the money had intrinsic value. In the absence of metal coins, other valuables could be traded. The natives of Aruba used round stones for their coinage. (I know this from their museum!) There are also other economies which do not rely on cash. They could use one of those systems. (My personal favorite are gift-economies!)

Wagons can be made almost entirely of wood. In the place of nails, you can use wooden pegs. Old furniture (antiques) can often be found with wooden pegs instead of nails. Joints can be made with rope lashings, or slots in the wood. No metal can be worked around. The fact that wood warps when wet can cause lots of problems. Wagon wheels would need to be sealed or treated often in order to avoid cracking and warping.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hadn't thought about the warping wood problem (and expansion/contraction based on weather, too). Good link for Cuir Bouilli as well. $\endgroup$
    – Taejang
    Jun 17, 2015 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ of course shaping wood is going to take much longer, and precision woodworking is right out. Wagons are going to be rare or small. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 28, 2017 at 14:44
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Well there are plenty of societies without metal out there, or at least traditionally had none. The Inuit, the Aborigine, many tribes in Borneo and South America.

One of the things about metal is that it is stronger than wood and is more shapable than stone, not as brittle as bone etc. So without metal you are left to make tools out of the other three options.

So bows are not going to change much, the metal arrow heads are more important to pierce heavy armor, but now they are limited to boiled leather, which while still tough doesn't need as much of a punch as steel, unless you have it in layers.

instead of swords, you will have clubs/maces. Lances/pikes can still have sharpened points or stone heads.

Bones make good weapons too.

Wood, Stone and bones all can make a multitude of tools, often one can be made that we normally see in metal, but will many times have a different weakness. It's hard to make wood sharp, but it can have great points and it works well as a frame. Bones are harder and stronger than wood, can be made sharp but don't hold an edge well and are difficult to sharpen. Stone is heavy, and easy to find. Practice can be used to make many different kinds of tools. Using sharp stones to shape the other materials.

So Many tools might never be made because the effort put into them might not be worth the value one gets out of them. A stone sword it fairly pointless, since one good swing at another stone sword, and both will shatter to nothing and weeks/months of effort gone. Why build a two story house when you will need to cut and shape much larger trees by hand, when you can just make another building nearby?

Economy? I suspect it will be primarily trade/barter. However, anything that is agreed upon can be used as currency. Sea Shells have been used in the past, and so have rocks. I also suspect precious gems could work well too.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting concept, that some tools/buildings would never occur do to difficulties in production. Any thoughts on transportation, coinage, or day-to-day life that would be different? $\endgroup$
    – Taejang
    Jun 17, 2015 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ There are also obsidian/glass based cutting tools, just to round out the set of materials for toolmaking. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Jun 17, 2015 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Dan I expect that most commerce would be trade/barter, and 'coinage' would be things that occurred naturally, sea shells, gem stones etc. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Jun 17, 2015 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ Cutting stone would be impeded by not having metal but you could still bake clay to make bricks and cook lime to make mortar. So making buildings would not be as hard as you imply. $\endgroup$
    – Necessity
    Jun 17, 2015 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ "one good swing at another stone sword, and both will shatter to nothing" - Well, edge-to-edge contact with metal swords will produce a major dent in both swords, and subsequent heavy impacts may well cause the damaged blade to break at the defect. That's why medieval knights carried shields, and why Hollywood movies are crap at history. $\endgroup$ Jul 28, 2017 at 11:16
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In reality the same but everything would take longer and cost more (in terms of absolute calorific cost, prices would be the same because it would all be relatively the same). For example a wagon is wagon shaped because it works, the tools are different but the products are going to be very similar, there are certain pieces of technology that are now "top end" that weren't, the double bow spring for suspension since leafsprings are out, bricks and mortar over steel frame, that kind of thing, but most of that only comes late in, or in fact entirely after, the time period you're interested in emulating. In terms of weapons and armour I'd look to the Aztec and Maya as a guide to the science of the possible in that arena. Coinage isn't a necessity of the time period you want to emulate but it helps, shells, beads, letters of credit in a sufficiently sophisticated society all work, so does a grain standard for setting prices against.

But I'm not actually sure you can get to the population densities you need for a Medieval/Renaissance society and technological base without metal, one of the biggest things about the Iron Age was the fact that humans started to be able to cultivate land that was previously inaccessible. Not a little bit of land, tens of thousands of square miles of land previously under impenetrable old-growth forest went under the plow in Europe and Asia. It changed the coastlines of whole continents, without those farms producing a surplus urbanisation would never have gotten started, specialisation and division of labour couldn't have progressed to any great degree because everyone would still be scrambling to eek out a living on the little pockets of good plow land around the edges. Unless you can break ground on the same kind of land another way, or have some super abundance of good farm land that the trees don't like you're a bit stuck.

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  • $\begingroup$ Magic was mentioned, though not explained. Even a low magic setting would change the game for things like clearing land, if some ritual could do it, like animating trees to walk somewhere else. $\endgroup$ yesterday
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelFoster That's a really cool idea, I'm stealing that. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    23 hours ago
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In our own world, the "medieval" societies of Iron Age and Early Medieval Age were near metal-less, despite the name.

Your average Viking Age village would have been built almost entirely out of wood and adobe, and nearly all equipment they used would be made of wood, hay, clay, stone and cloth.

The entire amount of iron such village had would fit on one bucket. The entire amount of copper/bronze/tin they had would fit in a hand. The entire amount of gold/silver would fit on a fingertip.

Metal was enormously expensive, and hard to produce. A knife-sized bit of iron would be worth about 3 weeks of labor from the villagers themselves.

So it is not all that hard to imagine a Viking Age / Dark Ages level civilization without any metal, it was ALMOST the case for most of the people back then.

Society completely without metal would need to substitute rock, likely obsidian or flint in its place. We know that big, urban societies could function that way, like the civilizations of Gobeli Tepe, Early Sumerians, or Aztecs.

I would thus envision something between Aztec and Viking societies, with rare centralized points of political power, and most people living in semi-independent rural settlements.

lack of metal would greatly hamper warfare, trade and technological innovation, making the societies stagnant, not just when it comes to progress, but also movement.

Not everything however would need to remain stagnant. Spinning, weaving, cloth-making, and other textile technologies could develop to near 18th century level with nothing but wooden tools. Pottery could develop to near 19th century level with very few setbacks. Farming could progress (invention of the crop-cycle, etc) but without iron plows and tools, it would remain very labor intensive and small scale.

Ships would develop weirdly. There would be huge pressure to build fishing vessels, to make up for the insufficiency of farming, but without metal tools it is very difficult to progress ship technology beyond rafts and dugout canoes. I would expect this to go the same route as Maori boat technology did.

Paper of all things would be difficult. Doable, but hard. Papermaking requires a wire mesh to sieve and dry paper fiber properly. You can replace it with cloth or maybe wicker mesh, but the resulting paper would then be very crude and uneven. This would be the limiting factor for book-making. Printing presses CAN be made entire out of wood, as long as the letters are big, simple and ALL CAPS. Not sure if they would have enough paper to use them though.

Masonry and construction would manage just fine, though I expect it would focus on using megalithic blocks for construction, rather than individual chiseled blocks like medieval castles did. It is easier to carve or break a giant big block of stone, using stone tools, than a 1000 individual blocks. I would imagine pyramids and giant longhouses would be the main defensive structures then.

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The only metals used by the Aztecs were gold, silver, and copper. Gold and silver were only used for decoration. Copper was used for some tools, needles, awls, axes, etc. (but not for weapons) but for those applications there are almost equally useful non-metallic substitutes - for example, bone needles, obsidian knives, greenstone (jade) axes.

Yet the Aztecs (and their neighbours) built large cities with paved roads, stone buildings, aquaducts. At least one these cities had a population of around 200,000 - comparable to that of large European cities at the time when Europeqans first arrived in the new world. The Aztecs also had considerable armies which, despite the lack of metallic weaponry, allowed them to invade, control, and dominate over a large empire. They didn't have wheels, but probably only because of the lack of draft animals in the region. So you could potentially model your society's technology on that of th eAztacs.

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