A person from the 15th century Europe, by way of an Assiti Shard, gets thrown forward in time to 21st century New York City. They are aware they're going someplace weird, because the shard manifests as a glowing door opening out of thin air.

Now, it is imperative that I be able to return the person to their original timespace location, or very close by. For that, the past visitor would have to be able to return to a specific location (in Chinatown, behind a stinky dumpster) a week after their arrival in NYC. You can assume that they are made aware of this somehow.

The person is a XVth century scholar, versed in Latin, some Greek and several local-time dialects of French and German. They have no money, no ID, do not speak the modern English language. Would they be able to survive and elude capture for a week?

My thinking so far:
a) It's New York, so not speaking the language and looking a bit disoriented should make them fit right in.
b) Cars and traffic lights - dead.
c) Police - unclear if they'd get arrested, as long as they don't get violent.
d) Food and water - unclear, since they have no money.

  • $\begingroup$ Capture by whom? Are they being pursued by anyone, or are you just talking about the modern-day mundane authorities? $\endgroup$
    – zeta
    Mar 18, 2016 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ In story, they are of course chased, but for the purpose of the question, let's assume it's just the authorities. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2016 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ Water shouldn't be a major problem if the person just realizes that you could drink from a lot of sources that are probably cleaner than what they are used to, assuming that they don't get sick from the bacterial culture shock. Food isn't critical in a one-week time frame; your protagonist might go hungry, but wouldn't starve to death if having eaten before making the trip into the future. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Mar 18, 2016 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ So basically, the plot of Encahnted (besides the language barrier). $\endgroup$
    – Plutoro
    Mar 18, 2016 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ I doubt it; it's hard for people from now to survive a week in NYC, let alone the 15th century! $\endgroup$
    – CHEESE
    Mar 21, 2016 at 13:19

6 Answers 6


Yes they could.

It is true that they wouldn't know how cars, traffic lights, etc work. However, it seems likely that they would realize "I probably shouldn't walk out in front of the big things that are moving really fast". Then other people who know how traffic lights work would start walking when the lights change, so they would learn to follow what other people are doing. Given time, they might figure out what the rules are, but if nothing else they could survive by following the crowd's behavior.

Police likely wouldn't arrest them unless they try to do something they shouldn't. They'll probably be rather unclean, wearing clothes that have seen better days... Basically, they'll look like any random homeless person. So unless they do something blatantly illegal (and the moral code hasn't really changed THAT much - no stealing, no killing, etc etc) they'll probably be more or less ignored by the police.

So the question then, is how can they get food and water, and get back to the Chinatown dumpster at the right time, when they have no money and don't speak the language.

Churches. They're a scholar from the 15th Century, so that means that they're probably from a religious background. They'll recognize a church, especially a bigger cathedral like St. Patrick's. If they find a church, they're set. They can get food, water, shelter, and, most importantly, help with getting back to where they need to be.

See, they can communicate with a preacher. They have a built-in translator: the Bible. There are Greek and Latin translations of the New Testament all over, and those will be (essentially) the same that they're used to (the languages haven't changed much). So if nothing else, they can communicate by pointing at words that the preacher can translate. Also, knowing Latin makes it really easy to fake communication in any of the Romance languages - French, Spanish, Italian. Coupled with their knowledge of (15th Century) French, communication shouldn't be too much of a problem once they can get a dialogue started.

The trick, of course, is that there are a LOT of new branches of Christianity that they won't know about; Martin Luther wasn't born until 1483, so the Reformation hadn't happened yet. Our protagonist won't know about the existence of Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc, and will therefore be in for some shock unless they happen to find a Catholic church - though they've just moved forward 500 years, so there's going to be culture shock anyway.

So long story short, unless they get hit by a bus or something before they figure out not to walk in the roads, I think they should be able to survive.

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    $\begingroup$ "They have a built-in translator: the Bible. There are Greek and Latin translations of the New Testament all over, and those will be (essentially) the same that they're used to (the languages haven't changed much). So if nothing else, they can communicate by pointing at words that the preacher can translate." How does this work exactly? They somehow find a side by side greek english comparison bible, or does the preacher need to know latin? $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2016 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ I like the Bible idea, but find it more likely that a reasonably fluent person in French or German would be close at hand in a place like NYC, if not already in the church. And I've known a couple priests who were conversant in Latin. $\endgroup$
    – user8827
    Mar 19, 2016 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ Side note: One person I know studied to be a preacher of Catholic church. To get to the position in Europe, you have to learn latin as latin is still one of languages used in Catholic church $\endgroup$ Mar 22, 2016 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ RE Bible: Possible. I have a Greek/Hebrew/English Bible. If I met someone who only spoke Greek or Hebrew, yes, we could communicate by taking that Bible, finding words or sentences that said what he wanted to say, and then I read the English translation. But that would be awkward. It would probably be easier to find a Greek-English dictionary at a bookstore, or use a translation service on the Internet. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Mar 22, 2016 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ our time-traveler can speak ancient french and german. $\endgroup$ Mar 22, 2016 at 15:14

There is a good chance he gets killed by disease in a week, since there are dozens of pathogens he has never encountered before. Even if he is not killed, he is quite likely to be at least somewhat debilitated by sickness.

Barring that, survival is quite likely. A key question to how it will go is whether he will establish communication.

Survival without communication would not be particularly difficult. Copying others would be the key survival strategy.

  • Barring a freak accident, he would not get killed by a vehicle. It is not particularly hard to avoid this once you see the danger and act cautiously. Following others across the street would work fine.
  • He would most likely avoid trouble with the police simply by observing and mimicking acceptable behavior. The police don't go around looking for medieval people with no ID to arrest them. You have to cause a disturbance (a pretty large one) for them to even notice you. This could be easily avoided.
  • Food could probably be obtained simply by body language like pointing. People would take pity on him and give him something to eat. Note that food wouldn't even be necessary to survive a week, and he might prefer not to beg. But it would be relatively easy to get some food if he was willing to ask for it.
  • Water, the main need for survival, is available freely from many sources (drinking fountains, sinks in bathrooms, etc.). He is likely to discover these readily, or he may be given some water when begging for food.

I see no problem with him surviving the entire week, even if he doesn't establish communication.

Survival with communication would be a lot easier, though. Whether anyone would believe his story is doubtful, but it is likely that if he comes in contact with the right people they will take a great interest in him, given the unusual dialects he speaks. This is probably enough to ensure all the free room and board he needs for a week.

Establishing communication may be possible. All kinds of languages are spoken in New York, and it is also a tourist city. He may hear someone speaking French or German, or he may see the ubiquitous tourist guides and maps that are available in many languages. Once he understands that there are people in the city who speak his language, he can go around making statements in his language in the hope that someone responds.

He will encounter plenty of French and German speakers, but it's not clear how intelligible the 15th century languages would be to them. I'm not an expert. However, if he spoke the language of northern France at the time, which was closest to modern French, it seems there is a good chance a modern French speaker would understand him. The German language did not begin to be standardized until the publication of Luther's Bible in 1522, so he may be unintelligible depending on what German dialect he speaks. Note that neither French nor German would be used by scholars in the 15th century. Latin would be his best bet for communication if he is able to encounter modern scholars, but obviously he is less likely to meet people on the street who speak Latin.

If he finds someone speaking his language, his hope would be to be directed to someone with specialist knowledge of his dialect for better communication. A tall order perhaps, but maybe even tourists can direct him to prominent Universities?

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    $\begingroup$ 15th century french is understandable for a native french speaker I remember having to read some texts from Chrétien de Troyes en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chr%C3%A9tien_de_Troyes back when I was in high school and it's 300 years older. lfa.uottawa.ca/activites/textes/perceval/mere.htm (major headache but readable AND IT'S GODDAMN POETRY so the construction of sentences is even more awkward than it should be) $\endgroup$
    – Nyashes
    Mar 22, 2016 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ Conclusion: education quality deteriorated as even less people speak Latin... $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Oct 16, 2019 at 8:28

Cars and traffic lights: I doubt this would be an issue. Sure, he doesn't know how an internal combustion engine works. Neither do 90% of the people in New York. But he's presumably quite familiar with horse-drawn wagons, and he knows not to jump in front of those. If he sees a large object moving at high speed, he doesn't have to understand how it works to know not to jump in front of it. I'd think he'd figure out traffic lights pretty quickly. He sees all these vehicles racing along and then they all stop. There are these big lights hanging above the street. How much genius does it take to notice, Hey, when the red light comes on, they all stop. Even if not, he waits until they stop before crossing the road. Even if he times it wrong and he's still in the middle of the street when the light changes, plenty of modern Americans cross streets when the light is against them. He might annoy drivers but he'd be in only slightly more danger than the average pedestrian.

Communication: Where in Europe is he from? If he speaks English, sure, the English he speaks will be very outdated, but people will understand him. He's from the age of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Modern Americans struggle with Shakespeare and Jimmy, but they can understand them. If he speaks Spanish, there are lots of people in New York who speak Spanish. I don't know how much Spanish has changed since 1500, but if it hasn't changed more than English has, same situation. Failing that, a big city like New York is used to having tourists who don't speak the language. No one would be shocked by his speech, and people are used to trying to communicate with foreigners by pointing at things, pantomiming actions, etc. If he doesn't find someone who speaks his language he's going to have a hard time engaging in a serious philosophical discussion or getting any sort of abstract information. But he should have no problem communicating simple things like "I need food": I think pointing into your open mouth and rubbing your stomach would work in many cultures. If he runs into the authorities, they'll search for an interpreter, and finding someone who speaks German, French, or Greek wouldn't be all that hard.

Police: Assuming he's just trying to survive and get back to the exit point, I don't see why the police would bother him. He has no reason to murder or assault anybody. He's probably not selling cocaine or engaging in insider trading or operating a coal mine in violation of environmental regulations. He might look and act weird, but in a big city, there are lots of weird people wandering around. I don't see that he'd have an issue with "avoiding capture". New York police are not normally on the lookout for time travelers from the 15th century, and while New York has a lot of bizarre laws, I don't think they have one against time travel. Oh, if he's carrying a sword or some other medieval weapon, that could get him into trouble. Besides that, the only likely source of trouble I see would be if he steals food to live or breaks into a building to get shelter from the weather.

Which brings us to, food and shelter: As others have pointed out, water wouldn't be much of a problem: there are plenty of decorative fountains and public water fountains in New York. It wouldn't take long to figure them out. Food is harder. He could try begging. There are plenty of homeless beggars in New York: no one would find this startling. Someone mentioned that he would surely recognize cathedrals, maybe other churches if they have a prominent cross. Someone at a church would surely try to help him. Churches in big American cities routinely expect to help poor and homeless people.

Beyond that, we're back to communication. If he is able to communicate, if he speaks English or Spanish or manages to find people who speak his language, he might learn that some random object he is carrying is a valuable antique that can be pawned. Any coins he is carrying would surely have value. If he asked around he might find an odd job to earn some money. He might run into difficulty that he can't legally work in the U.S. because he doesn't have a social security card, but plenty of businesses hire people under the table to avoid taxes and regulations. If he can't communicate, getting any sort of work would be hard.

With no identification, he might get into trouble as an illegal alien. But American police don't lock someone up just for being an illegal alien. He'd be told he has to appear in court on such-and-such a date, and he'd be gone long before then.

He might have the strange problem that if people tried to help I'm by giving him money, he wouldn't know what it was. Paper money was not introduced in Europe until the 17th century. If he can communicate, no problem: He says, "Huh, what's this?" and they say, "That's money. Don't you recognize American money?" He might struggle with the concept but, etc. But if he can't communicate, it's just an odd-looking piece of paper. Why are people he asks for help giving him pieces of paper?

If he tells people that he's a time traveler from the past, they might think he's nuts, but other than telling each other, "Hey, this guy's nuts", I don't see any more coming of it. It's illegal in the United States to lock someone in a mental hospital unless you can prove that he is a "danger to himself or others". If he's not threatening to kill himself or attacking other people, no one's going to lock him up. There are plenty of people in New York who think they've been kidnapped by aliens or are the rightful heir of some fortune. No one worries about them much.

It suddenly occurs to me that you didn't specify whether he knew he was going to travel to the future and had time to prepare, or if this happened to him unexpectedly. If he had time to prepare he could bring along a week's worth of food, make sure he had clothing suitable to the season, have some gold or silver for trade, maybe even bring a tent. Then he just camps out in Central Park or wherever for the week and it's no trouble at all.


No utterly unfamiliar with technology or the Customs of modern-day New York. assuming he didn't go insane, he'd probably be hit by a car or have some other accident happened to him. Not to mention the guy would have no way of getting food and water without any modern currency. I don't think he would be arrested unless he did something really stupid, most that saw him would assume he was just another homeless person. He might be put in an asylum if he told people where he was from but I don't think he would live long enough for that to happen. The only way he would survive is if he got someone from the future to help him but anyone kind enough to help him from our time would probably just put him in the psych ward. If he had the skills to survive in the wilderness then maybe he could take shelter in New York Central Park at least for a time.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think he would go insane. Culture shock sure, but he would likely stay rational. Put Yourself 600 years in the future: stuff is going to be strange and some of it might be very upsetting, but its not likely to make you go crazy. $\endgroup$
    – Marky
    Mar 21, 2016 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Marky, but what about the fact of travelling 600 years through time? That would be seriously unexpected to most of us, and it's unclear how we would respond. If it happened to me I might assume that I was suffering from some kind of massive delusion. $\endgroup$
    – user16107
    Mar 22, 2016 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ Insane? The difference in culture between 15th century Europe and 21st century America isn't notably greater than the difference between 21st century America and 21st century Nigeria, and lots of people travel back and forth without going insane. I saw a video a few years ago where a missionary brought someone from a stone-age tribe in South America that had previously had no contact with the outside world to New York. A far greater gap than here. He didn't understand many things, but he didn't go insane. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Mar 22, 2016 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Jay he didn't go insane because he knew what was happening and had people their who could explain what he saw. This man dose not. $\endgroup$ Mar 22, 2016 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you assume the time traveler would have no one to explain what he saw? Even if he can't tell people he's a time traveler or they won't believe him, he could just say he's from another country and ask them to explain -- just like the stone age fellow I describe. Or even if not, it's quite a leap from "he sees something he doesn't understand" to "so obviously he will go insane". I've often been in places where things were going on that I didn't understand. I've seen gadgets I don't understand. I've met women, who I don't understand at all. None of that drove me literally insane. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Mar 23, 2016 at 5:20

A week shouldn't be a problem. His biggest problem would just be convincing people that he isn't crazy or an illegal alien that is crazy. You could just also have him befriend some other guy from behind the dumpster who shows him the ropes of living behind a dumpster, soup kitchens and all - he could live like a king for a week like that.

If the person has seen different cultures already then it becomes just easier. If he can get hold of a dictionary then it becomes much easier. Also he could just see some shop with text that he can recognize.

Surely he would be familiar with the concept of money and begging already as well, which could go a long way.

I would think the tactics for survival would differ if he knew he was getting out in a week though - if he didn't know it, he would need to start making some more long term choices. If the police did catch him he would probably end up in a custody for a while though, as they would figure out he only speaks old dialects, has no papers and no identity.

  • $\begingroup$ Unless he tries to murder someone or sell cocaine, I don't see why the police would bother him. There's no law against not speaking (modern) English or wearing funny clothes. Especially in big cities where weird people are common. Yeah, he wouldn't have any ID. But there's no law requiring one to carry an ID in America. As long as he's not trying to drive a car without a license, or apply for a job without a social security card, the police have no grounds to arrest him over it. Well, in 2022, they could arrest him if he tries to enter a restaurant with a vaccination card. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Jan 19, 2022 at 5:19

There are quite a few movies exploring similar scenarios:

Kate & Leopold 19th century gentleman arriving in new york.

Just Visiting (and sequels) 12th century knights arriving in different modern times and areas (including new york).

Black Adder: Back & Forth The beloved black adder travels to different times and places. A bit sketchy and strickly speaking not new york.

Needless to say back to the future might also hold some valuable insights.

Maybe you can get a few inspirations from them.


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