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I'm writing a story about a man from modern-day Liverpool, UK, who can travel 800 years in the past with a machine. He wants to become a nobleman in the past before going on adventures. He wants to quickly acquire wealth and buy lots of land in medieval England.

The time machine only has enough space for him, one other person, and a large suitcase full of stuff. The man is filling his suitcase with an ideal item to take back to the past.

The ideal item would have the following criteria:

  • Lightweight
  • individually takes up little volume
  • very valuable in the past
  • is cheap by modern standards
  • can reasonably be acquired no-questions-asked by your average middle-class UK citizen (no military hardware or chemical substances).
  • Is usable with medieval infrastructure (no advanced electronics)
  • Doesn't require advanced knowledge in order to explain how it works (no computers)
  • Is immediately useful (no documents on post-industrial discoveries or technology).

So, what items in the present meet all or at least most of that criteria? All I have conceived of so far are spices, maybe aluminum and steel, and potentially history books. Although I'm not sure if modern history books were readable to 13th Century clergy and nobility.

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    $\begingroup$ You may find some of the answers on this old question helpful. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Mar 16, 2023 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence I spent time reviewing that question and I'm convinced this is a duplicate of that. In fact, I'm impressed by the quality and quantity of answers it received. I agree with the decision to close it as opinion-based (the list of potential answers is too long to meet SE's expectations), but I also believe it's very thorough. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 16, 2023 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH I considered that it might be a duplicate, but I'm not sure on the etiquette of duping to a closed question. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Mar 16, 2023 at 6:21
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    $\begingroup$ I do not think this is a duplicate. Bribing people is a far diffferent result than "acquiring wealth". Bribery is easy, you offer things people want for them to utilize their discretionary powers of authority. Wealth is hard, medieval Europe had very little. You can't trade for what they don't have to give. Jumping to "vote duplicate" is lame. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Mar 16, 2023 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ This entire SE is opinion-based. There are no objective standards for any of it, this is and has always been purely subjective. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Mar 16, 2023 at 15:07

12 Answers 12

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Dyes might be the best option. Go for reds and purples, but any modern dyes will fetch a very good sum. Especially if he can bring the tools to make more.

In current year, blacks whites and earth times are very popular, but for most of history, people wanted to wear as bright colors as they could. Modern dyes are stronger, last more washes, and many are more vivid.

Spices might be a good option as well, or just information. Maps are that are as accurate as modern ones will be hard to find, but easy to carry.

The recipe to make porcelain when it was first discovered in Europe was as dramatic as being able to turn lead into gold.

Methods for making carbon steel as opposed to lower quality alloys.

Books, especially the classics. Copies of Plato, Aristotle and any other important philosophers you can find. Bibles (though any bible you can get will look like junk compared to an illuminated copy, they are still very expensive. Be Sure to get a Latin one though, you don't want to get involved in that drama) Modern history books would be a pain, but the clergy and scribes could probably figure them out. 800 years ago, most important stuff was written in Latin, and written English a complete mess, but they could probably work it out. Just make sure you don't sell them anything heretical.

Lists of details about how trades are performed. Any guild will be excited to learn secrets they don't already know, but make sure you don't get caught trying to sell something the guild already considers "their own" secret.

Stainless steel stuff, or things made of other sorts of modern alloys might fetch a high price, though you would need to find the proper context to sell those.

Most of the benefits of modern technology are a matter of scale, or are the a side effect of infrastructure. There is also the important fact that 1200s Britain is not a capitalist culture. They will actively resist and resent you trying to get rich off their backs. If you want to have a profitable business, it will be much less about selling to eager consumers, and much more about creating and maintaining a relationship with your contacts. Concepts like "it's just business" and "let's keep this professional not personal" will be seen as acts of hostility, or even betrayal. You'd frankly be better of trading with the victorians, many of whom (though #notall) would sell orphans for a box of cigarettes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Black dye may fetch very good sums because it's hard to make with pre-modern chemistry. $\endgroup$
    – alamar
    Mar 16, 2023 at 9:27
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    $\begingroup$ I think the last paragraph might be the most important one. In a feudal society you generally can't just walz in and buy a ton of land. You'd first have to find some impoverished lord to sell you that land, and even then you would likely need the approval of your liege. You know who your liege is, and what your duties are toward them, right? $\endgroup$
    – fgysin
    Mar 16, 2023 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ @fgysin it's shocking how many people think all humans to ever live were just neo liberal Americans with a different fashion sense. Lol $\endgroup$
    – user102593
    Mar 17, 2023 at 0:40
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Seeds

If you brought back seeds for many spices not found, you could grow and sell for a lot.

Even modern equivalents of existing plants. They would be larger and more efficient than ancient varieties.

Corn and potatoes would change the world in medieval England.

Seeds are a very space efficient currency

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  • $\begingroup$ Of course, this would be incredibly destructive and runs a serious risk of causing an ecological catastrophe by introducing possibly invasive species. Not necessarily a bad thing in terms of plot development, but probably something to bear in mind. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Mar 16, 2023 at 10:26
  • $\begingroup$ Opiates would be able to be sold for quite a sum, while also ensuring return customers. As long as you ignore the pesky morality issue. $\endgroup$
    – vinzzz001
    Mar 16, 2023 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ Plants which have been optimized for todays agriculture are heavily reliant on fertilizing, weeding, and bug killing, all of which can't be done with medieval agriculture (no, throwing a pile of manure on your field is not the kind of nutrient analysis and precise fertilizing that's done today). Don't expect your modern plants to thrive 800 years ago. $\endgroup$ Mar 16, 2023 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Guntram Blohm Yes maybe but also modern plants are being made with built in pest resistance, less reliance on fertilizer/water and poor growing conditions for third world countries. If they can make rice that grows in sea water, they can make something that grows in medieval England. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Mar 17, 2023 at 0:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Thorne I can't really think of any major spices that would grow medieval England. Pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and pretty much most famous spices grew primarily in India or South East Asia, a difference in climates that's practically day and night. You would need a rather long period of selective breeding, possible genetic modifications, and hard to get expertise to be able to cultivate such spices. $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2023 at 22:15
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I presume you are writing about the trials and tribulations of a stranger showing up with a suitcase of valuable goods, and no history or explanation where they came from. As to the goods:

  • Mass-produced tableware with printed decoration. What you can find in a normal supermarket should be good for the table of a king.
  • A small/model printing press with movable type.
  • A book on double-entry accounting.
  • A map of finds of Roman-era treasures which had not been rediscovered by the target date.
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Clear glass. Doesn't matter if its cups, bowls, decor, it'll sell well in any market. Certain colors will also be quite lucrative, like red glass.

Sugar, pepper and cinnamon are a definite must and are easily the most lucrative items you can sell in comparison to their price in the here and now.

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Maps and ores

According to the Wikipedia article on English medieval economy:

(...) the 12th and 13th centuries saw an increased demand for metals in the country, thanks to the considerable population growth and building construction, including the great cathedrals and churches. Four metals were mined commercially in England during the period, namely iron, tin, lead and silver; coal was also mined from the 13th century onwards, using a variety of refining techniques.

If you have maps to where those could be found, you'd save people a fortune in prospecting. Bring in some ore to back your claim and you may have an easy sale.

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His sister

There was not much in the way of social mobility in 13th-century England. "Becoming a nobleman" would be simply impossible. You could set yourself up as a rich foreigner (although whether you can fit all the accoutrements of such a role in a suitcase is questionable), but you will never be accepted into English society, and be very unlikely to be able to buy land (most of which would be in the gift of the King to various layers of existing nobles, not something you could just 'buy' for any amount of money).

A rich foreign woman, on the other hand, would be hot property (literally property, unfortunately, but you did choose the time period). Marrying into the nobility would be perfectly possible, and a large dowry amassed from sugar, nails, spices, whatever, would be an easy ticket of entry. Once established (and secured by at least one, preferably several, male children), a mysterious illness of the noble husband would leave your protagonist(s) as guardians of the noble estate with an infant heir.

Plausible? Sure. Palatable as a story for a modern audience? Your call.

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I don't think they sold nobility in year 1223. His best chance to become a baron would be through military achievements. Purchase a horse, armor, weapons, become a knight. After a few military campaigns, if he is lucky, a king can grant him his land to control.

A baron in 1223 wouldn't exactly "go on adventures", he would have to control and defend his territory and provide military resources to his king, e.g. 20 knights for 40 days per year. Very expensive stuff. And he would have to manage bunch of rather dangerous people.

Sometimes barons were fighting between each other and even the king. Magna Carta was signed in 1215. The First Barons' War happened in 1215–1217.

Unless war is his idea of fun, the traveler should stay clear of nobility.

Selling any 21st century novelties would be very difficult, time consuming and dangerous quest in 1223. It would involve lots of traveling and negotiations with rich people who have almost unlimited power in their manors. The traveler is nobody. He speaks funny, clearly an outsider without roots, has an interesting suitcase. Robbing him is just an obviously good idea.

Spices were expensive, but it is a bulk product. http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/120D/Money.html: Spices (cinnamon, cloves, mace, pepper, sugar, etc). 1-3s/lb That's why they used ships to deliver them. In boatloads, not in suitcases.

Let's say the traveler has humongous suitcase, 750 liters (0.5 x 1 x 1.5 m). Spices tend to have density around 0.5 kg/l, so it's 375 kg or 827 pounds of spices. 2481 shilling, or 124 silver pounds. It is a good chunk of money but he is not a baron.

"Money" pound in 1223 was 323.7g of silver. 124 pounds at current 0.7 USD per gram would cost ~28k USD, weight about 40 kilo and have volume less then 4 liters. Easy to bury on arrival to avoid robbing, almost immediately useful.

28k is a noticeable sum, but if the traveler leaves for good, he probably can sell everything he owns. And get a short term loan from mafia.

Gold is way less profitable, it was many times cheaper relative to silver then now. And selling aluminum in year 1223 is a very complex and dangerous quest. No one knows what this stuff is and why they need it. You can't really make a good sword with it. The traveler would have to be a marketing genius to sell it with profit.

I'd say, forget spices, metals and trade goods in general. Get silver, as much as money allow, use the rest of space for stuff necessary in the past, like drugs and weapons. Don't bother with land and earning money in general, go on adventures right away.

Edit: For some reason I assumed the traveler is leaving for good, it appears the idea is to make multiple trips.

Noble metals are still the way to go. Gold was much cheaper relative to silver back then. Buy silver, go back in time, exchange silver to gold, back to the future, sell gold, repeat. High value density and ~800% profit per round trip.

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Depending on what you mean by 'No Questions asked' - a Firearm Certificate isn't unreasonable to obtain for a Middle Class person with a clean criminal record.

A Straight-pull AR, a 9 mm handgun (IIRC once the Barrel length is over a certain length it is legally considered a rifle and not a handgun) and a modern hunting rifle and a suitcase full of Ammo. These are all affordable.

He is now a literal one-man Army. He can snipe a general or Nobleman from a distance of around 600 metres (comfortably), a Straight-pull AR against medieval Soldiers can comfortably outrange archers and if they get close enough and are still charging, a semi-auto handgun will be a great deterrent.

From there - all he needs to do is say 'This is mine now' and when the current Nobles try to use force to move him, he assassinates them - job done.

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    $\begingroup$ Any gun would eventually run out of bullets, and you can't use medieval tech to manufacture more bullets that won't jam your weapon. So while initially this power would be great, eventually it'll expire and your time traveller would be killed. Goal failed. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Mar 16, 2023 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ A gun doesn't automatically turn someone into a trained assassin. I doubt your average middle class person would survive long after adopting this attitude, even if they manage to survive sneaking in to kill your general or nobleman (and can actually hit them from 600 meters), they'll just get stabbed in the back by someone looking to get revenge or take the gun. $\endgroup$ Mar 16, 2023 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ It would work if he never approached other people closer then 100m and never had to eat or sleep. His goal is to have fun, not to terrorize medieval England into submission. It is impossible for single person, no matter what weapon he has. What use is the deterrent against arrow from the dark alley? $\endgroup$
    – D'Monlord
    Mar 16, 2023 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ You only need enough ammunition to gain Lands and Serfs - once people believe you have a fantastical weapon that can kill someone from further than they can see, the rest falls into place. Do you think a 1200s peasant is going to know what Ammunition is? All they know is that if they try and overthrow you, their head will explode. Whereas if they support you anyone who tries to harm them will have their head explode - After that, it's a confidence trick - You have the power because people believe you have the power. $\endgroup$ Mar 16, 2023 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ @TheDemonLord ammunition is the least of your problem. Unless you can be alert and ready to shoot 24x365 you are dead. It is impossible to fight with the whole word. "try and overthrow you" - will your gun also help you to detect poison? Make you back impenetrable for arrows? Skull resistant to blunt trauma? "Gain land and serfs" - you are talking about never ending war with the king of England. No matter what marvel of a gun you have, you gonna lose. $\endgroup$
    – D'Monlord
    Mar 17, 2023 at 4:58
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Matches.

Not really a recent invention, but 13th century Europe (islands included) pretty much did not have them.

You will earn money and enemies. Be sure to think in advance about the self-defence. A pepper spray is a good start.

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He wants to become a nobleman in the past

-- in which case, he would really need to bring his noble parents, so that they could birth him into a noble family. Yes it is kind of a long-term plan, but the chances of becoming a noble in any other way in early 13th-century England were slim at best.

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Any kind of man-made gemstones. Even good glass fakes. There is always someone who wants sparkle.

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Thinking along the same lines as the person who suggested dye, another good suggestion would be a wooden weaving or spinning loom. Something that can be manufactured from local resources and easily replicated, and which the time traveler can use to generate an income from using unskilled local labor.

A loom is also something that people of the time would recognize as being a man made mechanism that wouldn't create problems in terms of local beliefs or religion.

Unlike dye, you need nothing special to make a loom except carpentry skills and a little blacksmithing. So you can make more of them or repair the one that you have quite easily. You can also upgrade or improve it over the years without it seeming too out of place so as to not seem supernatural or other wordily, and it could be used as a vessel for introducing other technologies such as water power.

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