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Basic Introduction (story background for anyone interested)

I have a character whose punishment for causing massive genocide was immortality for ten thousand years. To be more specific, after his death, his soul was imprisoned in a special container for ten thousand years. After his punishment, he sees the world once again and is surprised that technology hasn't developed much.


Question

So, the question is, how could have civilizations not have had any significant technological change? How could they have been stuck in medieval technology?

I'm asking this question because I'm planning to write about what happened in the past (ten thousand years ago) and what happens in the present (basically the protagonists trying to defeat the returned villain). I want them to both have medieval settings, as I did lots of research on a medieval setting, and I don't want the characters of the ten-thousand-years-before plot to be unorganized, primitive people.


Details

  1. The setting is fantasy, so the explanation can be magic-related.

  2. The technology of ten thousand years before and later are both medieval technologies (6th~7th century).

  3. "Civilizations" in this question refers to all the civilizations living on one big continent. Also, it doesn't have to be only one country that has been standing for ten thousand years; multiple countries must have fallen and have been established over the course of ten thousand years.

  4. No external forces impeding technology; there is no big force trying to prevent technological development.

  5. No major technological developments as in no society-changing inventions (guns, steam engines) were made.

  6. Religion: There could be multiple religions that developed, or just one unifying one.

  7. The continent these civilizations are living in is half the size of Africa.

  8. If technology staying stagnate isn't possible at all, a fall and then a rise would be okay.

The introduction is only an introduction. You don't have to worry about it when answering the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Oct 18 '21 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ Does this answer your question? How could I justify Medieval Stasis? $\endgroup$
    – kuhl
    Oct 18 '21 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ They have technology/magic advanced enough to imprison the soul of a person during whatever time needed and then take it out and put it on a body again; they don't seem to need much more technology advancement $\endgroup$
    – Josh Part
    Oct 18 '21 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ Replace medieval with stone age & you have Australia prior to the invasion by the British in 1788. Indigenous Australians lived with stone age technology for approximately 60,000 years. They didn't see a need to change. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Oct 19 '21 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ You may wish to read novel “Off Armageddon Reef” for a story of a society proactively designed to prevent development. Saddled with religious explanations for phenomena that are testable, a number system that makes math difficult, and other innovations. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Oct 19 '21 at 14:52

31 Answers 31

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Population decline leads to demographic tax

Let me offer a reason of more prosaic origin. Huge advances and progress come from the need to tackle complex problems. In turn, these complex problems arise most where there are huge, growing populations.

Think of small cities where the time appears to be freezed in comparison to another city in the same state where there is rapid progress.

If the world experiences population stagnation, even population decline, it may be possible that a long, world demographic tax is holding the progress.

The nice thing about the demographic dividend/tax is that they are long, effective and invisible forces that fuel progress or decline, only by change in population composition.

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    $\begingroup$ Funny to find the only credible answer so far at the very bottom. Jared Diamond has made very compelling arguments for the links between agriculture, population density, and technological advancement. (see Guns, Germs, and Steel.) Having insufficient population to maintain larger settlements could create a lack of stratification, which would suppress specialized jobs, which are main drivers of technological advancement and also necessary to maintain technology for future generations. A plausible cause here would be losing access to suitable agricultural plants and animals. $\endgroup$
    – Vandroiy
    Oct 16 '21 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ This is just plain wrong. You're confusing cause and effect: cities grow because of technology, for instance the sleepy, mostly rural San Francisco Bay area of the 1970s becoming today's Silicon Valley, or in an earlier time, Britain's industrial north compared to much larger London. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 16 '21 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ From the the Q we know a population die-off happened -- the character committed large-scale genocide. I suppose if it was bad enough, or was some lasting plague, or their followers kept it up for millennia; then the world is just now emerging from a dark age. $\endgroup$ Oct 16 '21 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ this won't lead to medieval technology for ten thousand years, it will lead to a regress in technology. so either tech need to advance past medieval or you get set back ot stages before medieval. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 17 '21 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - are you sure it is not the food supply? You seem to have the cart before the horse. $\endgroup$
    – Eric M
    Oct 19 '21 at 2:52
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Peter 3:8
But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing: that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

Ten thousand years of contemplation have passed for your mythical being. He has aged those years. He returns to the world he left, ten days after he left it. To him it seems similar but not the same world. Actually the only thing that is different is him.

I hope you can write. Coming back to your old neighborhood can be the foundation of a serious story.

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    $\begingroup$ Different perceptions of the passage of time have been a solution in other stories - consider Black Mirror's "White Christmas" episode (and the concept of "cookies" recurred in several other episodes) for a "slow down time for the character as punishment" instance, and the different passage of time in Narnia for a much earlier example of differences in perceptions of time, or indeed the "stasis field" in Red Dwarf which has the exact opposite to the effect desired for this story (time passes for everyone else, but not for the character). $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Oct 18 '21 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ A couple of problems with this solution: 1. if the outside world is tracking the progress of time, the character would soon discover that their "ten thousand years" was nothing of the sort; 2. mortals who remember the character and their actions would still be around. $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Oct 18 '21 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Steve - I thought about this too. Perhaps after aging 10,000 years the character is unrecognizably different. As regards the character recognizing things, it might not be like visiting your home town and being able to find the old A&W. 10,000 years is a long time. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Oct 18 '21 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ Could make it 100 years. Long enough that everyone who knew the character to have died, short enough that their great grandchildren might've heard of them, and not much changes in a medieval society in 100 years. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Oct 19 '21 at 6:53
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Lack of need to

The funny thing about magic is that it removes a lot of the need to progress technologically and makes the common folk much more reliant on esoteric magical practices or traditional rituals to solve bigger problems. And if your setting has gods that interact with your people or give blessings/boons or grants prayers this goes double, further lessening the need to advance.

  • Why increase the efficiency of travel by inventing better vehicles than the mounted animals and their drawn carts that is available to the peasantry when a wizard can just open a portal to where you want to go? Even if spatial magic isn't a thing in your setting, you most likely have elemental magic, which means wind magic, which you can use it in combination with a sail on essentially any vehicle and have an excruciatingly low-tech engine that runs on wizard wind power. For that matter, a wizard can just enchant a cart to pull itself. Boom. You basically have a car with no tech involved other than woodwork.
  • Why find a technological way to fly when you can go and tame a dragon or gryphon and soar the skies with that instead, or for that matter grab yourself a scroll of levitation and cast it on yourself?
  • Why make a bomb when a wizard can just throw a fireball?
  • Why make a gun when a wand of fire or lightning bolt can be bought at your local wizardry shop?
  • Why make electricity when a wizard can enchant a candle with everflame, or an oven that lights itself?
  • Why advance in medicine when a magically universal healing or remove disease potion is available on the market?
  • Why learn better smithing/smelting methods when a transmuter can just refine the raw ore into pure iron with a wave of a hand, or a pyromancer holding and shaping the metal with their bare hands?
  • Why try to improve agricultural methods when you can just pray to the god of bounty for a plentiful harvest or perform a rain dance to summon the rain?
  • Why invent long-range communication when a magic mirror or scrying sphere will do the trick?
  • Why try to invent methods of accurately predicting the weather when you can go to a fortune teller and have them draw the cards of fate?

Magic, as much as it is useful, also is a detriment to the technological development of a civilization. Especially if they follow the general psychology of people that they will try to find the easiest and fastest way to do things. You don't have the time nor the patience to wait for someone to invent safe surgery, so you go get the local healer/cleric.

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  • $\begingroup$ Boredom. Your characters have a lot of leisure time in the scenario you describe, and someone will invent recreationally. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Oct 16 '21 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ Magic is, in essence, extra physics. Advancing understanding of its usage, or combining it with technology, will yield more results, not less. If magic makes the world more habitable, thousands of years of deveoping civilization with it will be like living on a larger, more abundant world, leading to gigantic populations and even more competition. If summoning food can sustain the exponential population growth of our past, your planet would drown in people after so many millennia. $\endgroup$
    – Vandroiy
    Oct 16 '21 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Vandroiy The negative things that can and will be done with magic will undoubtedly impede population growth and overall prosperity despite the boons that magic provides. $\endgroup$
    – Commoner
    Oct 16 '21 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ For this answer to work, Magic is basically another form of technology, and it will get studied like any other branch, with any discoveries being woven into the existing technological landscape and enabling more discoveries in other things. We didn't stop studying biology just because we got good at physics. $\endgroup$
    – Kyyshak
    Oct 16 '21 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Kyyshak I see this as a fine hand-wavy answer: "they use a lot of magic, and, you know how magic is". Readers won't notice how this answer makes no sense unless it's a major plot point. Of course people would get better at magic and also invent mundane ways to make it work better $\endgroup$ Oct 16 '21 at 16:54
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Lack of Coal.

Without it, the distance you can get from the middle ages is limited. There is a renaissance/enlightenment, but the way humanity hit an industrial revolution was via Coal.

Almost all of the world's Coal was produced in one geological era; the period where trees developed, and ended when white rot developed. For millions of years, trees couldn't rot; at the end of the period, life figured out how to efficiently rot trees. In that window, wood piled up and got buried, and eventually formed Coal.

That layer being inaccessible or not existing would prevent an industrial revolution. The industrial revolution fueled the ability for higher technology states to completely dominate lower technology states.

While gunpowder and water power doesn't rely on an industrial revolution, the advantage early use of such technology isn't large enough to prevent being overrun by lower technology states.

So you could have age of exploration level technology, collapses, barbarian hordes, plagues, famines, little ice ages, greenhouse eras, all in the 10,000 years between the two points. Technology requires a consumer base to be effective often, so much of the local technology level would be related to the local population density and transport network; a recent-ish collapse (last few 100 years) could keep population levels low enough.

Books and relics of past "age of exploration" technology would exist. There would even be (relatively primitive) guns, but maybe limited supplies of gunpowder. Even other raw materials would be hard to find, as the easily accessible ores where mined out over the last 10,000 years. Ship building may not be advanced enough to reproduce the huge ships of the past.

So you could have a kind of post-apocalyptic middle ages in the future.

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    $\begingroup$ nationalgeographic.com/science/article/… $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Oct 18 '21 at 5:00
  • $\begingroup$ You could also apply this idea to a lot of other discoveries that spawned other discoveries - paper, scientific method, transistors. Passing down knowledge would be very difficult if you're limited to clay tablets. Steel required coal too, and I'd bet they were prerequisite for some things like agriculture. $\endgroup$
    – Muz
    Oct 18 '21 at 5:31
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    $\begingroup$ I like this concept, and it's not actually far outside the realms of possibility. More real-world, there is the serious possibility that if our civilisation collapses then whatever arises to take the mantle will not have the easy access to fossil-fuels that enabled our use of plastics and polymers. They will also probably not have ready access to nuclear material since we've mined most of the easy stuff out too. Our successor-civ may well never reach our technological heights because the steps we stride up are too tall for them. What you describe sounds like an extreme version of the same. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Oct 18 '21 at 10:00
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Consider that there was very little technological change in ancient Egypt (and surrounding cultures) from the early dynastic period up until the Greeks & Romans took over. Say about 3000 years, if not more. And then we have another 1000-1500 years before the Renaissance. Contrast that to the couple of centuries* of major technological change. From a historical perspective, rapid technological change is an aberration, not the norm.

*Which seems likely to be brought to a halt by environmental destruction.

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    $\begingroup$ That ancient Egypt which failed to keep pace with the rest of the "surrounding cultures" was taken over by the Persians who did. This is the risk of failing to keep pace: the rest of the world comes visiting. Happened to India, happened to China, happened to Japan, happened to the Ottomans and so on. And when the rest of the world comes visiting, they rapidly educate the locals. Japan was so out date technologically that they were defeated by commodore Matthew Perry without no actual fighting; 150 years later, Japan is a scientific and technical power. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 16 '21 at 8:32
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Remind me, when was Egypt taken over by Persians? Are you thinking of the Hyksos, who weren't Persians, and were no more advanced than the Egyptians were? Same with other invasions: not notably better technology, just bigger armies, pretty much all the way to Napoleon. Perry did not DEFEAT the Japanese: the intent was always to start diplomatic & trade relations. The Japanese had had perfectly serviceable firearms for centuries: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firearms_of_Japan $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 16 '21 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ The Persians conquered Egypt three times, the first time in the 6th century BCE, the second time in the 4th century BCE. (Fun factoid to remember: when Alexander conquered Egypt, it was a Persian province and not an independent state.) And saying that commodore Perry didn't defeat Japan is a play on words; the Japanese simply skipped over the a war which they were obviously going to lose, and moved directly to negotiating a treaty from the position that they had lost the war. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 16 '21 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP: The Persians didn't stay in Egypt all that long, though. Nor do I see any indication that they had more advanced technology. Nor could the US possibly have fielded sufficient force to conquer Japan. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 17 '21 at 4:38
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf : those "perfectly serviceable firearms" the Japanese had, were matchlocks, which were already obsolete in Europe by the late 17th century. They were no match against late 19th century breech-loaders and machineguns. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Oct 18 '21 at 4:23
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You can't without buckets of handwavium

You have two insurmountable problems

  1. medieval technology is not sustainable. It is highly dependent on lumber for fuel, charcoal, building material, and animal grazing (forest grazing is extremely detrimental to forests in the long run) and over thousands of years will deplete all forests. The medieval world became increasingly dependent on imported wood over only a few hundred years. Medieval tech also destroys soil, its not as bad as some earlier forms but it is not sustainable over thousands of years, you need knowledge of chemistry to keep soils from being depleted.

  2. medieval society is to fractured to stagnate. Medieval tech can advance or it can collapse but it is too advanced and yet fractured to stagnate, and medieval society can't support a single world-wide empire to stagnate technological growth. Worse because such fractured zero-sum driven societies encourage war there is a direct drive preventing stagnation. It also gives large amounts of power and leisure activities to some classes, meaning even accidental advancement will happen.

10,000 years is a long time, for scale 10,000 years ago humans may just have invented agriculture, mammoths were still around, and you could walk from Ireland to France. Almost no point in human technological history (post hunter gatherer) is sustainable on that time scale.

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  • $\begingroup$ This actually sounds like an argument for staying at (or below) the medieval level. Without easy access to extra resources (coal, colonies, weak neighbours), the society never reaches the critical progress to go beyond medieval... and periodically collapses and redevelops. Our main character is just lucky to return to the same part of the cycle. $\endgroup$ Oct 20 '21 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinGrey but they won't stay medieval they will either collapse into something close to stone age, like a repeat of the bronze age collapse or progress away from wood to coal. there is no tech level past stone age that is sustainable for 10000 years $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 20 '21 at 20:19
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Undo spell

One of your wizards was afraid he was going to make a mistake. So he devised an Undo spell to put everything back the way it was if he did. He tested the spell out for the first time, and it worked! Then he continued finishing up the spell and tested it out for the first time again... and again...

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  • $\begingroup$ But then the time also went backwards so it's not 10000 years later $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Oct 19 '21 at 9:27
  • $\begingroup$ @user253751 I was thinking either the soul or the special container had the time delay put on in a very special way. So it's 10000 years later to the prisoner. Of course, once out of the container, the immunity ends, so the prisoner will get sent back to how he was again on the next Undo. You can postulate varying rules when making up the specifics - maybe that gives him one attempt, two attempts (because he gets out of the prison earlier when his time is done at the start of the loop), or infinite Groundhog Day attempts to break the loop. $\endgroup$ Oct 19 '21 at 18:05
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It doesn't have to have stayed static that whole time, it just has to wind up at the same level. It is much more typical to see increases and then decreases. So, what could cause the decreases? What could wipe out a civilization so that people start over?

The planet has a wobble in space so that every 1000 years, it goes through a freeze cycle wiping out all crops and reducing the population to a minimum. (In our case, it does that every 20,000 years which is why we could develop for the last 10,000.)

Animals have many diseases that both mutate rapidly and can be transmitted to humans. Pandemics come through every 100 years with a 50-80% kill rate. To contrast that, the 1918 Flu pandemic is estimated to have killed less than 2% of the European population. A much higher death rate would radically change culture for a while making it far more conservative, willing to kill off anyone who wants to try to make new technology, etc.

Outside of the major civilizations are a number of different places where only nomadic tribes can live. Periodically, they come through on horseback and wipe out the major civilization. Their magic is stronger, but since they are fewer, they can only come through periodically.

The weather is highly variable and severe droughts happen regularly. When a "dust bowl" or a drought like that we have today in California happens, people get up and move. That causes serious warfare and population drops.

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Technological advancement is not a must. It appears to be more like a random spark that only is some conditions ignites a fire and propagates like in the opening song of The Big Bang Theory, but very often dies instantly.

Look at mankind: 10000 years ago some civilization started farming and all the rest of development leading us here today, where I am typing this very text on device located in A and you are reading it on another device located in B thanks to the skillful application of a bunch of physical theories. Nevertheless there are pockets of humanities which still live in basically the same conditions as 10000 years and 1 day ago, like hunter gatherers.

If those few places where the rush to technology started were to be absent from the planet, or wiped out at the right time, we would still be in those times, maybe singing this story by beating sticks on a hollowed trunk to be heard as far as possible.

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    $\begingroup$ Technology progressed so similarly in Mexico and in Egypt that some people try to claim the same aliens made both types of pyramids, which overlooked farms and domesticated animals. In ancient North America and Rome, people used beaver testes for their toothaches. The Amazon and Europe were both crossed by roads. Africans and Vikings both smelted iron. China and Europe both launched great voyages of exploration. Of course, there were differences, but they were relatively minor until everything came down to a fight for dominance. $\endgroup$ Oct 16 '21 at 12:08
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    $\begingroup$ the op's world is already in the middle ages, though. i'd say from this point on, progress was inevitable. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Oct 16 '21 at 19:10
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Radically lengthened lifespan.

The first thing that popped into my head is simply that the civilization can't be made up of normal human beings. If the people were incredibly long-lived, with generally slower rates of maturity and aging, then the rate of progress would be dampened. Most people have their core personalities and motivations developed around adolescence, and remain largely fixed after that. So the "people" involved could be fantastically long-lived, like elves or dwarves; or an alien race from a planet with much longer seasons or years; or have magic which causes them to not age or die naturally (c.f. Idunn's apples); etc.

The Nobel-winning physicist Max Plank, originator of quantum mechanics, is famous for the following quote from his autobiography (1950):

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it... An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.

This is often paraphrased as, "Science progresses one funeral at a time".

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  • $\begingroup$ @Toddleson: You may be confusing my answer with someone else's? My boldfaced answer is, "Radically lengthened lifespan [will result in no major technological development even after ten thousand years]". $\endgroup$ Oct 19 '21 at 1:28
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Radically shortened lifespan and long-sightedness.

The demon ensure its own immortality by stealing the lifespan of humans, they work hard on the land for all their lives, die young.

Coupled with long-site and no spectacles, writing is never invented beyond a few crude pictorial symbols found on signs over public houses, stores etc..

This means that knowledge is never accumulated over time, scientific understanding never develops, invention never occurs of anything requiring precision engineering - except by touch, and plans of these devices can never spread as no-one can hardly see the detail on the page (if paper even gets around to existing in the first place). Knowledge is barely passed from generation to generation before death if everyone dies only a decade after puberty. Result - society developmentally frozen.

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  • $\begingroup$ Their lifespan would have to be less than 18. Plenty of inventions are created by young adults, and poor vision would be overcome as soon as it is recognized as an obstacle. I think humanities drive towards invention and innovation is not so easily slowed. $\endgroup$
    – Toddleson
    Oct 18 '21 at 17:34
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Culture, Religion, Philosophy, something like that...

1 - They don't want to evolve: people may have thought that the medieval lifestyle was ideal with at most some improvements in areas such as medicine, cooking, architecture, agriculture, politics, etc., but with magic supplying the needs of the people, people see no reason to want to evolve civilization into something very different from the Medieval Era. Perhaps there may be groups of people who want evolution, but that minority would be too weak to the point where the changes are not so significant.

2 - The gods do not want progress: with magic, religion may have become stronger with spells that facilitate communication with the gods, allowing the priests (or even the common people) to know the intentions and wishes of gods and if the gods don't want advances in technology to the point of creating cars, planes and computers, then people will follow their will not to infuriate the gods.

3 - The world wanted to regress: magic may have stunted so much for a few millennia that humanity evolved until it was like our real-life civilization, but then magic returned and people realized they could replace technology modern by magic and with influencers adhering to medievalism fascinated by medieval fantasy, people have descended to regress until civilization appears pseudo medieval, preserving only knowledge but abandoning technology.

4 - Wars and apocalypses: events hindered evolution, such as someone opening a portal from hell allowing the passage of all creatures from there to here, causing a world war against demons that may have lasted a long time. It was only after a few centuries or millennia that humanity managed to evolve magic enough to close the portal and kill the rest of the demons. Or maybe a war between kingdoms where everyone wants to rule the world. Things like that can delay the development of technology, especially if there is magic involved, then what evolves will be magic, not technology.

Well, that's what I can think of to justify this stagnation.

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They were given reason not to try, repeatedly. Someone/thing objects, forcefully, to any attempt to advance technology along certain lines. If every time someone invents gunpowder the great god Balketh wakes from his slumber and flattens their laboratory, and everything else within a day's walk, then pretty soon people are going to work out that that is a BAD PLANTM.

It need not be quite so selective, immediate, or brutally obvious; civilisations that push the boundaries may just collapse in plague, famine, and infighting as the gods turn on them.

Alternately but in the same vein with a fantasy world with real gods that really do make the world go around inventions that alter society may cause those gods to lose their power to make life possible for people in that society.

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Stability valued over anything else

This culture values social stability.

There might be different reasons how this came to be - horrendous war times, ecological catastrophes, or just religious belief.

It has been reinforced by the "organisational" professions: Judges, teachers, planners ("bureaucrats" is one typical label you stick on these, but they can also be "chiefs", "bosses", "leaders" - the people who have some measure of oversight). These have a natural preference to stability because change means they can't do their jobs they way they learned it.

Technological change means disruption - that's instability.

The organizers will find ways to discourage technology.
They will suggests laws, or merely declare (and enforce) that that new unheard-of weaving pattern is not allowed to be sold on the market.
You can't do technology if all organizational structures are impeding you - your progress will be slow, full of obstacles, you'll die poor and your works will be forgotten, either because the heirs never had interest in change or because they don't want to follow your road to poverty.

Such societies did exist. The typical cliché is the Chinese Empire.
These died when the more technologically-minded and innovating societies came into contact with them, but the scenario as described in the question does preclude that, so this would work for 10,000 years.
(It also requires that the society be resourceful enough to deal with changing climate patterns, new pests, and such. They need to be resilient against hunger catastrophes, essentially.)

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Addiction.

There's a remarkable plant that the ancestors discovered (some say they made it, but just another tall story). It is a fully complete food source, providing all the people's nutritional needs, it's easy to harvest, can be harvested all year round, grows anywhere and makes you as high as Ozzy in the 1980s.

Basically everyone's too busy chilling to bother inventing stuff or changing anything as everything's just fine as it is.

So, people keep dying from time to time, but they're going to an even better place, wow. Quite a few interesting looking piles of bones around, lovely weather.

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What era is your antagonist imprisoned during? If it was the stone age, well, the stone age lasted a long, long, long time. The bronze age lasted at least 2200 years.

But to your question. Entrenched political power can impede progress. So can entrenched economic power. Certainly religious power can do it.

I think you should research. There are long lived systems in human history, though maybe not 10K years:

  • Ancient Egypt was fairly economically autarchic, melded political and religious power in one figurehead, and it stood for about 4000 years before change was forced on it.

  • Assyria in various stages of up and down lasted several thousand years and was militarily dominant in it's - rather competitive - part of the world for omst of that time.

  • You could investigate the Byzantine Empire as well. It stood for a bit over 1000 years, and I think a case could be made that the Ottoman Empire was built in significant part on the Byzantine foundation, in which case you have a well documented recent empire-system that lasted a bit over 1500 years.

Frank Herbert addresses this in the Dune universe. The Padishah Empire stood for thousands of years in a situation where technical innovation was seen as a threat by all the major power brokers - the economics of the empire were highly regulated to control change and preserve the status quo. Leto II governs for 3500 years mostly by force or threat of force and for his peculiar reasons he actively forces technical advances underground.

Also, what do you mean by change? Even in the stone age, 2.5M years or so, we see advances in manufacture of stone tools. The Bronze Age lasted until iron smelting became somewhat widespread, but it was not static - there were innovations in the design and use of bronze weapons and military tactics using those weapons. Same the Iron Age.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent and thought-provoking first answer Eric. Welcome to Worldbuilding, enjoy the site. $\endgroup$ Oct 18 '21 at 8:51
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Magic is personal and insights do not transfer easily.

Look at Xianxia stories: Everybody who can cultivate does so because cultivators become superhuman and non-cultivators are treated like trash. However at the same time, a lot of "cultivation insights" are personal, linked to the soul, or whatever . Thus while you can give hints to other people you cannot provide them the answers directly. In fact, giving too many hints may hinder them in the long run, as they try to force things that are actually incompatible with their personal way.

Transfer that to your magic system (Xianxia cultivation is basically magic, just with more punching and arrogant posturing involved).

What does that do to your world?

The development of magic is inhibited:

  • Since becoming a better mage is not something you can be taught, there will not be a big library of works that build on itself. You cannot go: A learned lightning magic, B learned silicon magic, C combined the two to make magic transistors, and I took that further and made a magic computer!
  • Those that have magic are superior, thus everybody wants to become a mage. Remember if YOU show signs of being really talented with magic, report at once to the local mage family for congratulations and pats on the back (no knife, promise!).
  • Ensuring that your children becomes mages can be reliably achieved with enough help, but they can only become strong on their own. This means that if you are super strong and want to set your children up for life, then you can either sit back and hope for the best - or go out to sabotage or enslave those that would become stronger.
  • If your parents are strong mages, then you get to develop your talents in safety. But if you are a peasant with magic talent, then you are hunted prey. You can either sign a magic contract with a strong mage for protection (enslavement) or you can hide and hope nobody spots you and decides that you are on route to become stronger than their children.

Technological development is also inhibited:

  • When most scholars spend their time looking inward, instead of studying the world around them, formal science goes slower and scientific libraries are more of a curiosity or hobby.
  • Sure there are smaller advances here and there, but then there are also powerful magic families with frequent snits and proxy fights (and occasional big ones). So small technological advances also regularly die in the collateral damage.
  • Anything that may allow a peasant to kill a mage is STRICTLY PROHIBITED! So the inventor of the crossbow had a sad sad fireball accident (as did the second and third inventor of the crossbow - but not the fourth; he was killed by lightning in a thunderstorm... In his bed, in a room without windows... Crazy how natural lightning can do that. :)).
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  • $\begingroup$ "Xianxia cultivation is basically magic, just with more punching and arrogant posturing involved" I love that formulation $\endgroup$
    – Nephanth
    Oct 19 '21 at 6:29
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Ultra Plague, Super Inquisition, No printing Press

Reading through all the comments I see some common themes. There is something in your premise that prevents the population from splitting into multiple competing or co-operating societies, as was noted, a population growth inhibitor. The second thing you want is something that prevents people from asking questions, forming hypothesis, and experimenting; in other words, a rigidly conservative society that relies on old ways, certainly in your world, respecting magical belief more than scientific. I think studying the causes for the scientific revolution and seeing how they could have been stopped might be key inspiration.

Of course the problem you have is that conservative societies also preserve knowledge; institutions and libraries eventually inevitably lead to more discovery.Hierarchical societies developed math as a way of keeping track of crop yields and giving taxes back to a centralized government, as in the case of the ancient Sumerians. How do you prevent your conservative society, which is authoritarian and controls the population from asking questions, from also developing scientific methods? If it controls the population, it also logically has a bureaucracy, and has, specialized jobs that lead to innovation.

Jared Diamond and Yuval Harrari have interesting ideas about the phases of human history and the exact sequence.

The scientific revolution is actually a different stage from the earlier one of agriculture and the emergence of a caste or nobility. Harrari in particular talks about the importance of questions as a predicate to the scientific revolution. I sometimes think the printing press, which lead to more people reading books which had been entirely hand fabricated before that, must have also lead to the proliferation of scientific knowledge. The Gutenberg press was invented in 1440, and the scientific revolution starts in a hundred more years. Books also foster diverse opinions and world views, and you need more questions and critical responses to answers for science. Capitalism also, inconveniently lead to scientific discovery, because people could form companies with shares to fund exploration and lead to the whole earth being mapped. You want to stop history right before the printing press and limited liability companies.

What could block the proliferation of knowledge? Many others have pointed out that it would be intuitive to say the elite, or magician elite is in charge.

Is it possible that something like the historical Black Death plague and the inquisition could be amped up in your world? Could you take the idea of an opposing religious force and some sort of contagion together? Perhaps some reason why a ruling elite would oppose books and libraries more effectively than any historical elite?

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They've already peaked and taken technology as far as it can go.

They have achieved access to virtually unlimited energy via fusion or whatever and refined it as far as is practicable. All members of society have access to the accumulated knowledge of their civilization at will via electronic devices be they implants or just wearable. Any physical item can be reproduced cheaply and in exact detail, used, studied and then recycled when no longer required. Rejuvenation therapies let people virtually live as long as they want until life is no longer worth living. The solar system has been explored and anything worth extracting from it is done via machine. Finally astronomers have scanned all the stars for light years around and found no life and nothing else worth traveling to that can't be found locally. Any extra solar exploration is unmanned and regarded as no more than a passing distraction since decades or centuries have to pass before the results get back.

They live in a nirvana - and the population is stable or declining as a result . There is no sickness or disease, no hunger or war. And nothing to strive for. They have become a civilization of lotus eaters. And as they see it the law of diminishing returns means the time and effort required to improve the performance of any machine or technology by the couple of percentage points that could reasonably be achieved simply isn't worth the effort involved.

Finally? The 'special container' your character is imprisoned in is a computer.

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    $\begingroup$ that doesn't sound like middle ages to me. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Oct 16 '21 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ No but 10,000 years of history are also meant to have passed. After that length of time and in a basically static society terms like 'the middle ages' would be meaningless. At best there would only be the 'dark ages' and 'modern' with a dividing line somewhere around the birth of computing. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Oct 16 '21 at 22:51
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Your standard medieval setup is a walled castle or town with peasants in the lands around it, some inside the wall, some in the countryside around. If you've got 10,000 year prisons, I'm going to assume there's also monsters and magic for some of this; if so, they provide a compelling reason to stick to areas under the control of someone with enough sharp things to keep them at bay.

If you fast-forward that scenario a few thousand years, assuming the lords are smart enough to never require revolting against, you'd see a lot of subtle societal evolution. Distant farmsteads would take a long time to die out, but they would; or they'd form their own towns and start the growth process anew. A system that stable would see the importance of the local lord wane, until they became a branch of the local government with a proud quasi-royal heritage.

If you've got magic, you've got the means to provide a near-unlimited quantity of the things that generally forestall rebellion. To maintain the same level of technology for so long the region would have to be poor in copper, iron, and natural resources such as coal, and for whatever reason it "doesn't work like that" if you try to perform experiments using magical lightning.

If not, I think emphasising the ease with which stability in the region can be maintained would be paramount: everyone has enough food, nobody freezes in the winter, nobody really wants for anything. Expansionism would be a discouraged cultural meme. Living in complete harmony with nature would have to be a very strongly encouraged meme, to a

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! It seems you've posted your answer before finishing it; please edit it. $\endgroup$
    – Glorfindel
    Oct 17 '21 at 16:50
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They developed towards easy pleasure instead.

The magic of the time was advanced enough to ensure all people's needs were met. Famine was non existent, water was easy to summon with spells, minor wounds could be healed.

In addition, mind control magic was advanced enough that a king could impose oaths of office that were absolutely binding on their subordinates, and treaties that couldn't be broken.

This led to 10000 years of peace and luxury. Their pleasure magic is far more advanced, and they know all sorts of way to make life easy and comfortable for people. The guilds are strong, and harshly punish anyone who seeks to disrupt this paradise. Innovation is often lost to the extremely well made orgy and drunkneness spells that are easy to acquire.

These magics are subtle though, and really suck at handling war. When the dark lord returns they'll need to toughen up to defeat him.

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A combination of geography and climate which produces the same amount of food all year round.

Take a look where complex societies formed:

  • in temperate regions (like Europe and China), where there is winter for several months every year, therefore people have to organize to store food for the time of the year they cannot grow it, and to protect that food from those who try to take it from them.
  • in arid regions (like the Middle East) where you need irrigation to survive the dry period

However, in tropical regions of the world, where there aren't big yearly fluctuations in the availability of food, society stayed at the level of small stone-age tribes until fairly recently (when explorers from more developed civilizations started visiting them), at some places even until today.

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Magical Biological War

Although war usually leads to the most rapid tech advancements I'd like to propose a faction of mages created a magical biological weapon to use against their enemies which wasn't containable. Some kind of Black Death/Covid19 cross perhaps. With such a large infection factor and mortality rate this resulted in many countries, governments, civilisations failing to the plague. Cities, castles, villages etc. went to ruin for thousands of years and in the last 100 - 500 years the remaining isolated and primitive mountain/cave/forest tribes began spreading out, encountering and reviving some of these older settlements. Perhaps also rediscovering magic in the process. Obviously little would be known about this downfall of society (given that to survive it they had to be isolated) so it would be vaguely referred to as the ruin/downfall/reckoning/etc.

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Only 150 years have actually passed

The prisoner needs to think he has been imprisonned 10.000 years and it has to feel like it (could be magic), but in fact only 150 years have passed.

I would suggest that he is moved to a location unfamiliar to him (maybe an island?) where he wakes up. For all he knows, 10.000 years have passed and is amazed that when he reaches civilization it hasn't developed a lot. Which is true, 150 years isn't much.

It might be a nice plot twist: Turns out he was released by accident, or they never knew how to do it 10.000 years, or the current generation though it was unfair, someone couldn't be that bad. Or maybe a son of a son of a son freed him as the original follower made it its life goal.

I choose 150 years as the whole world now has new people. You could make it 250 if you want it a bit more into the past so that no-one really knows who he is anymore.

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1: Lack of need

You explicitly state that your setting has magic. As a result, citizens can literally handwave away problems. This lack of insoluble problems unfortunately means that there is no need to develop better tech.

2: Lack of care

Like the Roman Empire, your civilization has not run out of problems to solve. However, decadence and political infighting prevent the citizenry from coming up with solutions to these problems.

3: Mercantilism

The government has seized the means of production, giving monopoly control over entire industries to (technically) private companies (e.g. CHOAM Corp.) While the Mercantilist system is conducive to smooth operation, it also means that there is no real pressure on the companies to improve. A good real life example of this is the East German automaker Trabant. While their cars where decent in the beginning, they never improved on the design.

Really, you don't even need to make the companies government-controlled; all you need is for the companies/guilds to be able to suppress competition.

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A bit clichéd, but you could also use some obscurantism or fanatiscism.

Perhaps the gods are in the powers and nature, and trying to control nature is heresy? Perhaps the society reveres magicians, and technology that replaces magic is seen as profane.

Perhaps magicians are aware that technologic advance would reduce their power over the rest of humanity, and try everything to prevent it. It could even only be one nigh-immortal tyrant magician, stronger than all the others, that deters every attempts of muggles to try to get stronger. (or a society of magicians)

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It depends on your definition of "technology."

We associate technology with the availability of gadgets, but what's more interesting from a societal point of view is food security -- and technology would certainly progress in that field, although largely invisible to anyone not tasked with farming.

Your society could be planting genetically modified crops, but to the layman, it's still a field full of green stuff. They might have improved water distribution to be a lot more efficient, but the layman still turns a handle on a tap.

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What you are describing is a less advanced version of the Amish who have a lifestyle and culture based on a particular religious doctrine.

Those who abide by the doctrine are comfortable with the lifestyle and culture and perpetuate it.

The same could apply to a group of people from the medieval period.

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So, I have two ideas… A series of cataclysmic events within that time span could prevent them from advancing significantly. Another possibility is they don’t want to advance their technology very far due to superstition, maybe they regard their technology as somehow sacred or perfected. Many ancient civilizations were superstitious about their weapons.

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People are overthinking this. Homo Sapiens, Sapiens (us) lived for 250,000 years with little advancement. Ice ages were probably the biggest reason for that lack of advancement in human history. It's only been the last 10,000 years of stable climate that allowed people to set up with stable resources. After that... war, plague, religion, all those things kept civilization stagnant for long periods. The dark ages dragged on and on well after the Greeks and Romans had been far more advanced. The Greeks ended in BC. Pax Romana ended around 125 AD. The dark ages lasted largely until just before the Industrial Revolution, nearly 2,000 years later. There was no reason why we had to advance. Once it happens it can tend to self-perpetuate, but it doesn't have to start at all, and there are plenty of things to knock it off its path. Trump for instance…

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  • $\begingroup$ humans can fail ot advance as hunter gathers as it is roughly sustainable, also the climate was anything but stable during the medieval era. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 17 '21 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ Just want to point out that while Europe was in a dark age during the period you mention, the middle east was rocking, India was dynamic, and China had was using paper currency and gunpowder weapons. $\endgroup$
    – Eric M
    Oct 18 '21 at 7:47

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