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A medieval person (say from around 1000 AD, and from a rural village) walks through the forest, and through some unspecified mechanism suddenly turns out to be in our time. He is still far away from any settlement or road, and there are currently no humans nearby. What would be the first signs for him that something is wrong? I assume that this happens during a sunny day (and there's no sudden weather change or change in day time that he would notice). Also, there's no sudden change in the forest (that is, it's not that he sees a sudden move of trees, or something; for him it looks as if he just normally walks through the forest). However, if there are significant differences between medieval and modern forests, he'll certainly experience them; just not as a sudden change, but as if it were a difference in space (i.e. as if he walked from a medieval forest into a modern one).

One thing I've come up with is that he'd probably be used to watch the sky for predicting the weather, and would therefore likely notice strange straight-line cloud formations he has never seen before, and which he cannot make sense of (those cloud formations being contrails).

What else would he notice?

Edit: In the mean time I've decided that the place should be somewhere in the Bavarian Forest National Park because I'd expect in a national park the forest should be closer to the past one than elsewhere.

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    $\begingroup$ I can't help pointing to the film: Les Visiteurs. Yes it's humour based and all, but nevertheless, I think the whole realisation of the weirdness of our times for the medieval knight is somehow realist. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Sep 14 '15 at 5:47
  • $\begingroup$ What country? In the Netherlands you can't really be far away from roads, and you'll hear traffic. $\endgroup$ – RemcoGerlich Sep 14 '15 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ No one else is critizing @Burki 's argument about the colors? I mean.... If he is seeing that bright coloured car the first thing that goes through his head is "damn, that bright colours, somethign over here is wrong" and not maybe something like "What is this highspeed thing rushing through the forest? Something isn't right, I'm in big danger!". Sounds odd to me that one would imagine this person would rather expierience the first than the latter. $\endgroup$ – Zaibis Sep 15 '15 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki: are you able to capture->notice->take a conclusion within the same time frame, your brain needs to capture a single frame of view? I doubt that you can take any conlusions about things faster, then it would take you to expirence motion. and even if it woudl be this way. it would be more the shape then the brightness of the car that would make me think theres something wrong. Also note the requirement is no instant cahnges, so an isntant change of the colour of the sorounding or an isntant apearing car is out of the rules. Both cases invalidate yoru argument. $\endgroup$ – Zaibis Sep 15 '15 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ @hiergiltdiestfu: I've edited it in now. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Sep 15 '15 at 19:01

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The smell. We don't notice it because it is everywhere but even low-level pollution would be noticed immediately -- the ability to smell low-level pollution would pass quickly though.

The noise. There is elevated noise levels in many rural areas and all populated areas. The noise of a jet may well be the reason our time-traveler looks up in the sky and sees the contrails.

The plants and animals. We have affected natural forests in a number of ways. Acid rain, increased CO2 levels, alteration of water level, reduction of disfavored predators, and species migration (accidental and intentional) means the no forest is really natural anymore. The forest could be suddenly drier or lusher than before. There could be species he has never seen before. I know you specified no sudden weather change, etc. But a dry or wet season, early or late spring, etc. could still impact vegetation, etc. Some climate changes are long term resulting in a different mix in trees and animals that would be familiar. E.g, where did all of ash trees go? The ash borer (imported pest) has killed off large numbers of ash tree.

Modern artifacts. Even in the woods you can find pipelines, electric lines and towers, etc. Sadly discarded cans, bottles and other trash are all too common too. At night, light pollution from the big city can be seen at a great distance esp. with a high altitude cloud cover.

Out in the forest it is unlikely that changes would be a reason to be concerned unless he actually sees a jet when he looks up at the noise. This is different if the jet happens to be close-by. My father (born 1934) tells that his first encounter with a jet was very exciting -- he thought is was the second coming of Christ. Clearly other modern artifacts could be upsetting too as they would be more clearly indicative of significant change.


In deer season you might hear gunshots. Near a military base I've heard artillery fire from 20 miles away (likely to be mistaken as thunder though). Cigarette butts. A old abandoned house with window glass. At night, light pollution reduces the number of visible stars. Maybe it is July 4th and there is a fireworks show in the nearest city. These and quite a few other low probability events could be the first thing the time-traveler notices.

Or just maybe he notices a jet contrail first, after all they are fairly common, distinct and visible from a great distance.


Smell Oil refineries can often be smelled 20 miles away

Noise Road noise calculator at a distance of 2.5 km from an active highway, I calculated about 30 dBA. For comparison a whisper is 20 dBA. ATVs are noisy and often found in rural areas -- obviously not in the forest itself unless there trails to drive upon.

Acid rain Acid rain damage on 50% of trees in German Black Forest. Other articles note that acid rain damage is more noticeable at higher elevations and that conifers are more resistant the deciduous trees. Since acid rain has received attention, the sources have been cleaned up in many cases so the problem is not as bad as it was though evidence of damage will remain for some time.

Modern artifacts Search for "forest illegal dumping" and you can find many images and articles related to illegal dumps. Cigarette butts and soda cans are not that hard to find. Wild animals often consume cigarette butts mistaking them as food. Power lines, microwave towers, fire towers, etc. are all found in occasionally in the forest.

I did not pick on environmental problems because of bias, it is just that environmental pollution in various forms is more likely to have an noticeable impact on a forest area than non pollution factors. I.e., pollution affects are often widespread because they are dispersed in the environment. In fact dilution is still a pollution mitigation strategy - though less so over time.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm assuming the medieval person is from England or Europe. They'd be unlikely to come across a 4th of July fireworks display unless they were somehow transported across the Atlantic at the same time. $\endgroup$ – CJ Dennis Sep 14 '15 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ Not sure I agree with the first item (smell). I think that most modern first-world people vastly underestimate the likely strength of medieval smells. What is probably true is that there is a lot more gas/petrol type smells in our times and a lot less sewage/unwashed smells. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Sep 14 '15 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I was referring to the different smells associated mostly with industrial processes. I purposely omitted agricultural smells that though common in rural areas, I expect that most would be familiar or close enough to familiar smells. Ozone and many varieties of petrochemicals being the most common examples of non-medieval smells. Perhaps pesticides should have made the list. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Sep 14 '15 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ Consider that the body odor of a medieval person would be rather strong, and this person would be very used to airborne pollutants in the form of smoke which would be low to the ground in many cases. I doubt they would notice odd smells. They'd notice contrails, litter, huge hard flat roads, strange metallic painted signs, unbelievably massive fields with no farm houses, tree markers, sounds from jets, and "blinking moving stars" in the night sky. Electric towers, discarded water tanks, cigarette butts, lighters, cans, bullet casings, etc. $\endgroup$ – Gorchestopher H Sep 14 '15 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ Medieval forests weren't natural either - in fact, our wood usage has dropped considerably, despite the vastly increased population. Massive areas of forests were cut down for charcoal, for example. If you wanted a natural forest in Europe, you'd have to go all the way to Ancient Rome, really. It's hard to tell if there'd be more or less animals - we've hunted many animals to (near) extinction, but we also hunt a lot less than our ancestors did. Other than that, I think your answer is spot on - noise in particular would probably be very noticeable and unfamiliar (no blacksmith's hammer here). $\endgroup$ – Luaan Sep 15 '15 at 7:55
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It happens that a friend of mine who was in the Peace Corps brought a friend from rural Malawi out to San Diego. Mozezi wasn't unaware of the modern world, in fact he at one time had owned a moped to drive into the small town 25 miles away, but even so the trip was constant sensory overload for him. Some things that REALLY bowled him over were:

Pavement everywhere. Malawi's "major highways" are two-lane unpainted asphalt roads. There's a bit more asphalt in the biggest cities, but most towns have dirt roads only, and villages just have paths. In America, he saw very little GROUND anywhere. Even trees had to grow in little squares of ground cut in the concrete. Magical (synthetic) things everywhere. In a rural village, pretty much anything you look at, you can see what it's made of. Hut walls are mud, rope and twine are grass, tools are wood and forged metal, lanterns are made of metal and melted sand, paint is made of ground up rocks. But here and there are objects like toothbrushes and plastic tarps made of incomprehensible materials that simply do not exist in nature, and no one can imagine how they were made. In a modern setting, EVERYTHING is unnatural like that, and there's no guessing how ANY of this stuff was made. Even paint and asphalt don't look like simple rock mixtures. Abundance. Mozezi was used to seeing an occasional car or rarely an airplane. He had watched TV at a bar in a big town 25mi from his home a few times. That same town had a Coca-Cola billboard that was HUGE (to him) and BEAUTIFUL (because it was painted red). But in America, on a given day he'd see more of these things than he'd ever imagined existed or seen in the rest of his life.

So, you might get the idea that Mozezi never reacted to the things we THOUGHT he'd react to. It didn't matter if we took him to a friend's house, a movie theatre, or a strip club, he'd just be amazed by the colorful lights, the carpets, etc...

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    $\begingroup$ Sure, as soon as he sees the first paved road (probably even the first non-paved farm track), it will be unlike anything he knows. But the point is that I want to notice him while still being in what we'd usually consider pure unaltered nature. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Sep 13 '15 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, the vividness of our colors is a frequently overlooked, but likely very prominent difference. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Sep 14 '15 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ In the strip club: Wow, look at those amazing carpets! XD $\endgroup$ – HelloGoodbye Sep 14 '15 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @HelloGoodbye In Swaziland, he may have seen enough bare-breasted women to last for a lifetime, the only differences of a western strip club being architecture, interior and lighting. Dunno whether it's similar in Malawi. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Sep 15 '15 at 6:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander Yes perhaps, it's only we in the modern "civilized" world who need such kind of censorship. $\endgroup$ – HelloGoodbye Jan 20 '16 at 12:59
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I'm in the UK, and the majority of the landscape has massively changed over the last 1000 years due to intensive agriculture, even the trees in a vast amount of forests would be unfamiliar species (Norwegian conifers rather than native broadleafs).

However, for the sake of the story - say, our protagonist awakes in a protected forest, early on a Sunday morning in the summer (low traffic, so the drone from a distant motorway would be inaudible) - the first thing that would be noticed, even out there in the wild, would be vehicle tracks in the mud, possible from a forestry service inspection - would look completely unlike anything seen before.

Obviously though, being in an unfamiliar place, our hero (at least if he has any sense) will head for a high place to get a better view of the landscape to orient himself... He reaches the crest of a nearby hill, and as he surveys the scenery, he will be greeted with this sight:enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd definitely agree with this in the UK - I go walking in the lakes regularly, and unless you happen to see a car (and if we assume 6am on a Sunday, probably not), the first things you'll see are dry stone walls or power lines. Possibly a tarmac lane or road. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Sep 14 '15 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ ah, the old metal giants enslaved with ropes to keep them in line... $\endgroup$ – Michael Sep 14 '15 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ One does wonder, however, whether the low traffic which is imperceptible to our conditioned ears might be very noticeable to someone who has never heard it... $\endgroup$ – Luke Sep 15 '15 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Luke - thats one of the first things I thought about. $\endgroup$ – SeanR Sep 15 '15 at 9:03
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This depends much on WHERE that person belongs to. For example, if he belonged to some far flung African country, the immediate changes he would notice, would be very minute. However if he used to be an inhabitant of the areas which now happen to be suburbs of Manhattan, Tokyo, Beijing or any other megapolis then our character is in for a world of immediate shocks.

This also depends on the age and gender of the character, the age effect being more prominent than the gender effect. Young (18–35) people would perceive changes far more quickly and in more detail than aged characters. And if the character is a young female, she would probably detect things far quicker than a male, due to the on-the-guard psychology of women of most cultures during 1000 AD.

Let's assume Mr. Kagwa (age 25, gender male) belongs to some far flung African country and he walks out of the woods. It is winter season and the time is evening.

Mr. Kagwa Walks Out Of The Woods

He heaved a sigh as he walked out of the woods. Safe, finally! There was hardly a chance of finding a hyena or a lion in the woods, but wildcats and leopards were a deadly threat. He stretched and looked south. There was smoke far away, near the horizon. It was rather strange. There was no village in that direction! None that he knew of, at least. Rather surprised, he had no time to walk in that direction and investigate. Night was dangerous!

He took the trail leading to his village. After walking for a couple hundred yards - don't use meters here- the trail suddenly ended! He looked around and rubbed his eyes a few times and looked hard. Yes, there was no trail! He had walked that trail since his childhood but it was there no more. Quite perplexed, Kagwa shook his head and continued walking the path. Trail or no trail, he had to reach home.


As we see, Kagwa notices only two oddities: smoke in an unusual place and the absence of the trail leading to his home.

Now let's compare that to the case of Duddley, a 22 years old English boy (man by his standards) who happens to walk out of the woods some 30 miles from London. It is summer and the time is afternoon. The sky is clear.

Duddley's Adventure

He walked out of the woods and stopped. There was a strange object laying on the ground in front of him. It was shiny and appeared metallic. Prudently, he proceeded and picked it up. It was indeed metallic, its weight was a clear indication. He examined it closely. It was shiny and hollow inside. -Duddley has found a piece of metal pipe- He carefully placed it back. It could be dangerous! He then resumed his walk.

There was something strange but he could not tell exactly what. He looked around closely. Everything looked the same, but there was still a feeling of something amiss. His heartbeat increased slightly and he started walking carefully, watching his every step.

Suddenly he saw something above and in front of him. He stopped and gazed. It was very high in the air but he could still tell it was large! Far larger than any bird he had seen. He examined it closely and suddenly noticed something horrible: it was not flapping its wings! That, and there was a trail of white smoke behind it. He stopped in his tracks and stared in horror as the giant bird flew past him, never flapping its enormous wings.

He then realized what was amiss in his surroundings. It was the smell! There was a slight, but consistent smell of smoke in the air. And the noise. Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr... It was faint, but he could easily tell it was coming from above. It was coming from the bird!

His heart thumped in his chest as he ghastly looked around. He quickly perceived this was not the place he had known. It looked similar, but it was not the same!


One metal pipe. One airplane. The pollution and the background noise. Duddley known within 5 minutes something is severely wrong around him.

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    $\begingroup$ For the sake of retaining suspense, we can always introduce Duddley's entry into modern world where there are still some woods. Also, let's place Duddley in a place where he has never been before (in his timezone) so that he doesn't notice immediate geographical changes and rather has to know about our world bit by bit, piece by piece. II think that is what O.P. wants. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Sep 13 '15 at 5:38
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    $\begingroup$ Why would Mr. Kagwa use yards, actually? Maybe better something like "steps"? $\endgroup$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Sep 13 '15 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ @YoustayIgo Well, the roman used pes (foot) and passus (literally step, though it is a double-step) which is significantly longer than today's yard. At any rate, all those units originally derived from the human body varies with place and time. WP tells me that earliest recods of "yard" in England are from 10th century, so I would prefer Paulo's idea of saying steps for the African scenario $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 13 '15 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ Mr. Kagwa notices that the trail is missing. He would reallize he was lost much earlier. People of that age only travelled in areas they knew well. VERY well. As in, every tree, every rock, every source of water. All of these have changed. $\endgroup$ – Stig Hemmer Sep 14 '15 at 8:11
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    $\begingroup$ They can't know their area with prenatal, genetic information. They have to expand their knowledge one time or the other by going into places they didn't go before. Else, a person living in a village would never venture further than a radius of 10 miles (which is still quite vast a place, if you ask me). There is always a first time to everything. Also, what if there was a storm the previous day which broke and uprooted several trees and changed the outlook of the terrain? $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Sep 14 '15 at 8:20
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The first thing our visitor is likely to notice is that the forest is shockingly neglected. Mediaeval forests were not wild areas; they were productive economic assets. They are no longer maintained as they once were. The trees will not be pollarded and coppiced. There will be no sign of charcoal-burners at work. There will be no one harvesting any fruits or nuts that are in season. And so on.

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    $\begingroup$ If your story occurs in Europa, I totally agree with this answer. In fact there were fewer forests than today (for France i'm sure, but not for the rest of europa). Lords owned small forest and even the fallen wood was their property, only a few (widows) had the right to pick it and sell it. For the other, it was strictly forbidden. Larger forests with wild life were hunting places for the lords. Peasants had no right to be there either. Of course there were hidden criminals, robbers and dropouts, but walking in the forest was not a very popular spare time. $\endgroup$ – Tyrabel Sep 15 '15 at 13:45
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Litter definitely litter, from crisp packets in bushes to 'poo berries' (collected dog waste hung in small black plastic bag on a tree)

Try and go for a walk anywhere natural in the UK for more than 5 minutes and you will find a discarded colourful piece of plastic somewhere.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ha. +1 Poo berries. If the woods he is walking in are used much for hiking/camping, then litter probably will be one of the first things he encounters. $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica iamnotmaynard Sep 14 '15 at 19:02
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In Europe (or at least in the UK) modern forests are different from medieval forests in many ways we are mostly unaware of but which a medieval person would notice immediately.

In a lot of Western Europe, the forests where a medieval person might have walked would be very different, either containing a much higher proportion of mature trees of a height and an age rarely found now or in forests near villages there might be coppiced trees or trees managed in other ways that are no longer used. There would probably be very noticeable effects of pollution and acid rain on tree bark, moss and other forest plants. There would likely be some litter, hikers plastic bottle caps are brightly coloured and take centuries to break down, plastic from bags blows far.

The birds in the trees might be different, many raptors have been hunted to extinction. Other vivid and loud species have been introduced

Some animals would be startlingly alien. Asian deer and even Australian wallabies can be found in some UK forests and woodlands.

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    $\begingroup$ I suspect this is the key observation. Also, the sheer numbers of wildlife may have been a lot higher in most forests, so the traveler might notice the absence of wildlife. $\endgroup$ – Keith Sep 15 '15 at 3:30
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If he's even remotely close to a large city and you wanted a landmark for your story, I'd suggest going with skyglow. I live about 20 miles outside of Wichita, and am surprised occasionally just how pronounced it is. Smaller suburbs have reduced, but still visible sky glows as well.

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He will hear a sudden silence. He won't hear the sounds of the birds. The birdsongs he does hear may be very strange to him. Invasive bird species (example: starlings in north america) have had an absolutely devastating impact on native songbirds. Even invasive earthworms can cause a decline in ground-nesting songbirds. This answer would apply best to the western usa, which I am most familiar with.

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  • $\begingroup$ It depends also if he's familiar with fauna. I think a lot of people would not realise, would they? $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Sep 14 '15 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ As even a casual hiker, I do notice the change in birdsong both when travelling to different regions and over the years in the same place. I'm not a birder: I couldn't say which birds are making the sounds. Also, when the local animals suddenly go silent, that is a sign to pay attention. A predator may be nearby. He would definitely notice that. $\endgroup$ – Lydia B. Sep 14 '15 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ My point is that even in medieval times, not all were seasoned hikers. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Sep 14 '15 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ @bilbo_pingouin they would have spent significantly more time within dozens of yards of woods than most people today, and would have an idea of what "normal" sounds like which includes local fauna, much like we have a background of autos and electrical devices. $\endgroup$ – Josiah Sep 15 '15 at 16:28
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On September 11, 2001, following the WTC attacks, all U.S. air traffic was grounded for about 24 hours. During that period, while in a rural location, I distinctly recall noticing how incredibly quiet it was - while the sounds of wildlife, wind and water were still there, it turns out that even if you're nowhere near an airport, the sheer number of flights in the air, at any point in time on any other day, guarantees that no matter where you are, the ambient background noise outside will include white noise from jet engines overhead - even flights above 20,000 feet contribute to this. We just don't notice it because it's always there; the same mechanism in our brains that allows us to ignore the sensation of our clothes on our skin after wearing them for a few minutes also filters this background noise from our conscious perception.

So, the first thing our medieval visitor would notice would be a very faint, constant shhhhhhhhhhhhh coming, seemingly, from everywhere and nowhere.

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If your time traveller was awake at night, they could spot (in addition to planes) also an artificial satellite, or perhaps even a flare from the Iridium constellation.

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    $\begingroup$ Would they necessarily notice these though? Satellites look like stars, if very slightly brighter. Planes are usually very high and although the straight line from a contrail is unusual, it is unlikely to grab the attention of anyone not looking at the sky at the right time. They may see the flashing lights of a plane, but again they will typically blur in with the stars unless you look for it. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Sep 14 '15 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory If you're not used to looking at stars to navigate, then I guess you might miss them. Someone from 1000 years ago who is suddenly lost will most likely turn to the sky and look for familiar stars. It would be really hard to miss blinking red/green navigation lights, even from very high aircraft. They look like nothing else in the sky, and don't (IMO) blur in with the stars at all. $\endgroup$ – Geobits Sep 14 '15 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ I highly doubt a typical medieval person would navigate via the stars - back then most people ventured no more than a few miles from home, and were home by nightfall! $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Sep 14 '15 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ @JonStory: How many natural stars move with a visible speed? Note that shooting starts look different. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Sep 14 '15 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ Related: astrology was considered a legitimate science in those days, so familiarity with the zodiac constellations was probably higher with the average person than today. He might notice some constellations being not quite the right shape, since the stars that make them up are actually at vastly different ranges from one another; the closest stars' angular positions will have drifted over the centuries, moreso than those of the most distant stars. $\endgroup$ – Dan Henderson Sep 16 '15 at 12:26
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A medieval time-traveler would notice the abundance of inanimate objects moving without the intervention of a human, a beast-of-burden, an actual fire, etc. The medieval person would be frozen stiff at the sights and sounds of shiny metal cars racing around with no horses or other animals to move them. He would see "fiery" streetlights and signages with no sign for fire or smoke.

The main rule of medieval technologies was: A cart will move if you have a horse to pull it, a fire will happen if someone physically starts one. In the modern world, this rule is shattered.

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protected by Community Nov 26 '15 at 3:16

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