14
$\begingroup$

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?

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You mean between roughly 0500 and 1500? Definitions of “medieval” vary. $\endgroup$ – Crissov Jan 2 '16 at 15:52
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ And you do realize that you're setting up a large chunk of the medieval world for the Great Potato Famine (On Steroids), right? $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jan 2 '16 at 16:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – SudoSedWinifred Jan 2 '16 at 20:24
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ 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.) $\endgroup$ – SudoSedWinifred Jan 2 '16 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. $\endgroup$ – SudoSedWinifred Jan 3 '16 at 18:11
22
$\begingroup$

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.
$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ 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 '16 at 16:50
8
$\begingroup$

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.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "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 '16 at 4:22
0
$\begingroup$

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.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ 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 '18 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks to those who were attempting to help me improve my responses by defining what is appropriate. $\endgroup$ – BA Mitch Apr 11 '18 at 16:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.