The question about a self-sufficient medieval city got me wondering about what modern facilities and functions one could build into a city with technology available in medieval times.

The Romans had quite a bit of technology that Europe just forgot for about a thousand years, including rudimentary concrete. Frankly, many technologies had been previously developed (B.C. even), but not used, including steel and glass. Given a small focus (50 years or so) to advance concrete, they could have been building modern skyscrapers if they weren't so busy waging war.

So, what sort of city might "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" devise if given free range to do so?

Some starter ideas include porcelain fixtures, copper piping, and concrete waste lines to implement indoor toilet facilities; plaster sandwiched between sheets of paper to create wallboard; and sheets of glass formed by floating on molten tin. I've also considered lodestones and copper wire to make generators and an electrical grid. But what else is there? And are these ideas practical?

Edit: To be clear, my question of "...are these ideas practical?" stems not from whether or not anyone would care, or whether or not there's enough money in some Lord's pocket to do so, but whether or not it could reasonably be done. Take the idea of a porcelain toilet: if they knew they wanted such a thing, there were factories in China (even back then) that could have produced them in volume. Porcelain technology existed, and the porcelain was good enough to be used in a toilet.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you're downplaying how much material science has come along in the past century when you say that medieval era peasants could built a sky scrapper. Could they have done more? Sure. But look at Gorilla glass. Now used in every cell phone, it was actually invented in the 50's. However it was very expensive to make, and no one really needed a lot of it, thus it became a neat little idea with no immediate application. Que the demand for millions of thin, fragile, expensive mobile devices, and suddenly Gorilla glass makes sense. In other words you need a demand for a certain "product" $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Mar 24 '16 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ Rudimentary concrete? It was FAR better than the average non-reinforced concrete today. How many of today's concrete structures do you expect to be standing - and in some cases, still used - 2000 years from now? And why the heck would the Romans &c WANT modern skyscrapers? They're only a consequence of overpopulation, trying to squeeze too many people in a congested urban area. In fact, several Roman emperors imposed height limits on apartment buildings. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 25 '16 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Roman concrete actually wasn't that much stronger than our own. We just have rebar and other metals in our concrete structures that limit their lifespans. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Mar 25 '16 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon: Not necessarily stronger, but Roman concrete certainly seems to have been more durable. For instance, Roman-era building foundations that look as sound as if they'd been poured last month, vs my driveway (no rebar) which is disintegrating after at most 50 years. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 26 '16 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I agree with that, it definitely proves itself. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Mar 27 '16 at 4:21

When you ask this question I think there's a bunch of things you're not taking into consideration. Sure, some technologies were lost, then rediscovered, however you need to take the historic, technological, and cultural setting in which they were used into consideration.

Cultural Setting

Your common medieval peasant is extremely illiterate. In fact, so are most lords and nobles, with many not being able to do much more than sign their name, and requiring the services of some kind of scribe to write letters for them, etc.

This would be especially applicable in the times of King Arthur.

Furthermore, you have to realize that these people often lived hand to mouth. Disease would claim them - or their children - often. Famines were a very real threat. Plagues as well. Raiders? War? Oh, yes.

They lived in a world full of dangers and insecurity. Life was a heck of a lot more difficult for them - which really serves to mess with your priorities when you have to choose between putting food on the table or taking a bath.


And so, you've got a whole bunch of illiterate people scraping a living in the dirt. Only very, very rich people can afford big houses, or castles, because it's very difficult to maintain the things.

You build them because you want people to recognize your status, or because you need to defend yourself. However, keeping them in a state of repair is indecently expensive. Heating them, in particular, is a pain in the behind! Someone needs to cut the wood, stockpile it, keep it dry, etc. It's a lot of hard work, and that's expensive. There's only so many trees nearby, and everyone needs wood to survive the winter. Additionally, they're also the easiert material for people to build their houses out of, many of their tools, etc. There's a lot of competition for lumber. Running a fire in every room of your castle is an expense even lords could not afford.

The Situation

And so, your American travels to the past, and meets King Arthur. He proposes a whole lot of incredible upgrades to his medieval castle. Brilliant!

Now then, how does one manufacture porcelain in the 6th century A.D.? More importantly, even if you've got the ability, how expensive is it?

Now that we're discussing porcelain thrones, we need piping to go with it. Unless your yank is an accomplished plumber you're out of luck anyway, as few people understand how the whole system works off the top of their minds. However, let's assume that our hero does know.

Well, you need metal to make those pipes. You need blacksmiths, and other craftsmen. However, these people are also needed to fix the tools and weapons your people require to survive on a day to day basis. Are you going to take them away from those vital responsibilities in order to build you plumbing? You could, but it'll cost you (for example when your enemy invades and your weapons/defenses are in a state of disrepair).

So now you've got this super fancy, expensive as heck, toilet installed. Congratulations, you may now do your business in style. However, was it worth it? Is this system feasible to be implemented in more than one glorious case? Probably not, because your average farmer has much bigger problems than that.

The problem with implementing many other large scale changes is the same: priorities.

The Romans had sewer system, complex baths, etc., however they were a very large and powerful civilization. They could afford those luxuries. Even then, you can imagine that not just anyone had a large, heated bath with water being pumped in and out of it, like some have been discovered. No, my friend, only the super-rich had those!

The reason we later embraced all these inventions is because it became economically viable.

For example, when we got better at farming, and our techniques allowed us to manufacture more food, we could spare more people to advance our societies in other ways.

When our cities grew, and the lack of hygiene spawned disease after disease, we once again figured out why Romans implemented a sewage system.

Sometimes these technologies simply need to wait for their time to come.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, most if not all free Romans had access to public baths, not a whole lot different from gyms today: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Roman_bathing $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 25 '16 at 5:49
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - public baths, yes, but how many Romans had fancy baths in their homes? The rich. My point was that a population needs to reach a certain point of wealth, security, and power before luxuries start being available to average citizen. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Mar 25 '16 at 7:56
  • $\begingroup$ So who has fancy baths - ones with facilities equivalent to a Roman public bath - in their homes today? The rich. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 26 '16 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Jamesqf - fancy baths, yes, but we all have at least a shower. The average roman had nothing at all. Can you really not see the difference between the modern day and medieval times? Really? $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Mar 26 '16 at 19:29

This is a bit of a stretch, but it is hard to define "medieval technology". A lot of principles we know today were known in the medieval era, but no one practiced them, either caused by a lack of interest (i.e. A merchant would be able to earn money and not starve, but physicist that creates useless rolling ball would starve) or a lack of resources (literacy rates were very very low).

If people had the time and energy, really the cities wouldn't be that different from now, since humans created very large and complex architecture since a long time BC (i.e. pyramids, stonehenge, cathedrals, Colosseum, etc). One of the factors preventing or rather inhibiting the medieval times from building skyscrapers were the lack of population. Why build higher when you can easily build further?

So basically, anything is possible, except structures based on modern technology (plastics, aluminium, reinforced steel, tempered glass, carbon composites, etc)


I remember a book with double-entry bookkeeping and bicycles being introduced to the Romans [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lest_Darkness_Fall]. I agree with AndreiROM that the economics have to work as well; it isn't enough that something is technologically possible, it has to also be useful to someone (preferably someone with money) before it will become widespread. The Greeks had simple steam engines, but they not very efficient and so they were never used as other than toys. Concrete, in contrast, was very useful for Roman construction.

I personally would look at introducing methods of thinking before introducing specific inventions, such as the germ theory of disease or the scientific approach to discovery. A different view of the universe doesn't require any technological precursors. If you are able to improve the efficiency of a society in this way, any economic surplus generated can then be applied to your inventions.


Ancient electricity is an interesting concept - there is no particular reason why it couldn't have been discovered in antiquity. Basic batteries and perhaps even a rudimentary generator (magnets were known and understood, and Heron created a simple steam engine) - but the question is really what would they do with it? High voltage AC to drive motors seems very unlikely (and very dangerous), so usefully driving motors or powering a heating element wouldn't be an option; electric lights need inert gasses and most other uses for electricity involve high-tech electronics.

It would be very interesting to see where things could have gone with more development of the steam engine in those days though...


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