A time traveller wants to save medieval Europe from famines by introducing the potato. The plan is, on first sight, simple: Just bring potatoes back with a time machine, and convince people to cultivate them.

Now he can make only one time travel, and bring a limited number of potatoes with him (say, about 50 kg of them). He certainly wants his time travel to have the biggest possible effect. So when and where should he land, and whom should he convince to cultivate the potatoes, to have the best chance that they spread over all of Europe?

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    $\begingroup$ You mean between roughly 0500 and 1500? Definitions of “medieval” vary. $\endgroup$
    – Crissov
    Jan 2, 2016 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ And you do realize that you're setting up a large chunk of the medieval world for the Great Potato Famine (On Steroids), right? $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2016 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ That's a looming possibility, @WhatRoughBeast, but who knows what will result when you tinker with time. Introduce a reliable staple at the right moment and you might get an early industrial revolution in the deal. The decreased trade latency will enable increased diversity in diet and minimize the impact single-crop production disruptions like the potato famine. Of course, early proliferation of potato cultivation most likely means early spread of potato blight, and I'd rate intelligent, compassionate intercontinental food distribution unlikely to beat Phytophthora infestans in a race. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2016 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ Seriously, though, the Potato Famine was more a result of socio-economic conditions (absentee lords and over-subdivision of peasant land holdings), so even a widespread potato blight isn't guaranteed or even likely to cause mass starvation if people are simply allowed the resources to grow a variety of crops instead of being forced to rely on what provides the most calorie density per acre. (British enforcement of underclass reliance on the potato in their empire is a comedically macabre episode of history.) $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2016 at 21:12
  • $\begingroup$ One more blight-worry comment (I'd make an answer but it's technically tangential), the most popular potato of our time is the Russet Burbank potato, bred by Luther Burbank. It has achieved dominance in part because of the fact that it is resistant to potato blight (but probably mostly because of french fries.) The trade-off may make it an imperfect candidate for introduction, though, as it also requires more water and pest control efforts than other varieties. $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2016 at 18:11

4 Answers 4


About 600 or 700 AD, and convince some monks in Francia.

  • Monastries preserved and spread knowledge, not just on scripture but also on crafts and agricultural techniques.
  • Do it before the split of the Carolingian Empire in 877, early enough to have it firmly spread in all parts. The eastern part will influence Italy and central Europe, the western part will influence the Iberian peninsula.
  • $\begingroup$ Monasteries, definitely. I would have suggested 11th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen, because she’s a women for a change and she dealt with plants quite a bit (mostly medicinal herbs, though). $\endgroup$
    – Crissov
    Jan 2, 2016 at 16:50

One of your biggest problems will be convincing the population to eat them.

The family of plants that potatoes belong to also includes such delights as deadly nightshade. In fact, virtually all of the species in the family native to Europe are poisonous. The edible species (potatoes, tomatoes, and others) are all native to the Americas.

In the real world, tomatoes in particular were grown purely as an ornamental plant for decades after they were introduced to Europe; nobody was willing to eat them because the plant looked so similar to familiar plants that were poisonous.

Real world explorers were able to get past this with multiple expeditions, bringing back multiple species, and eye-witness accounts of them being edible, given by trusted individuals able to talk directly to the monarchy.

Your time traveler will have to work out a way to get over all that with just his single visit. It won't be easy.

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    $\begingroup$ "Was der Bauer nicht wiss, iss' er nicht." A good saying from german meaning "If the farmer doesn't know it, he doesn't eat it." It's used to point out the power of familiarity, which I guess is pretty powerful in Europe... $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Jan 4, 2016 at 4:22

The person who suggested monasteries in France may find it interesting that France was the most resistant to accepting the potato. Long after Central Europe, especially the Germanic states accepted the potato, French royalty was still trying to convince the populace that potatoes were safe. In the late 1700's, there was a little ice age in which grain crops failed and caused extensive hardship and starvation in France because of their continued reliance on grains versus root crops like the potato which fair better when there are late freezes. I have found it fascinating in recent years how the climatologists can date climate events and therefore demonstrate more literal and practical explanations for the up and down swings on economies and the respective civilizations.

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    $\begingroup$ this is more a comment than an answer. If you don't have enough reputation to comment, increase it by posting other answers. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 7, 2018 at 3:50
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks to those who were attempting to help me improve my responses by defining what is appropriate. $\endgroup$
    – BA Mitch
    Apr 11, 2018 at 16:38

Appear in what soon will be Poland, around 960s. The warlord family of Piasts is just starting their campaign to unite Western SLavic tribes into one identity, the "people of the fields" AKA Polish (from pole - farmfield).

Find the Piasts, preferably the young and ambitious Prince Dagoberth Mieszko.

Why them?

The Polish Kingdom is only now being established. The Piasts are going around the place, conquering new towns and keeps every day. The establish completely new rule, new taxes, new economy, etc. Creating administration, bureaucracy, coinage and law from scratch. They are also introducing Christianity (begrudgingly) and bringing in monks.

Show the Piasts the usefulness of the potato. They were exactly the kind of people who would have the charisma and conviction to just force the farmers to try a new crop, since they were already revolutionizing the place. They were also big showoffs, and loved to dazzle the Western dignitaries with their wealth and "worldliness" (When the German diplomats arrived for Boleslav's coronation, Boleslav brought camels from Arabia to impress them. "Exotic" potatoes could serve a similar purpose on the feast.)

Potatoes are hard to introduce, because Europeans distrust them. Early Poland was ruled by a ruthlessly dominant dynasty with a very progress-oriented attitude.

Besides, the area between the steppes of Ukraine on the East, and the German lowlands on the West is arguably the best in the world for growing potatoes. Medieval Polish Kingdom was smack-dab in the middle.

Third reason: if the potato revolution starts in Poland (possibly with a quick intro on the idea of crop rotation) you can have a second civilization center in the middle of the Europe, sufficiently away from Rome that they won't compete much, and sufficiently away from Vatican that they cannot meddle with progress too badly (but still could send monks back and forth to spread the Godly Tuber to the faithful).

Last reason, maybe minor but still; throughout the history, Poland always had cordial relations with Scotland, Ireland, Hungary and Bulgaria. All those places would also be ripe for Potato Revolution, while forming an economic counterpoint to the Saxon-dominated "imperial" Europe.


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