This began life as a much broader question on the site but I'm attempting to parcel it out as smaller topics to make it more digestible:

I am trying to find ways, as the title suggests, to combine modern low-tech ideas with the life of medieval serfs, peasants, commoners, etc. Specifically, modern innovations that would help improve their homes that can be replicated in their time/state without the need of most modern technology (computers, cell-phones, electricity, automobiles, etc.). The idea is to for them to give them ways to "work smarter" instead of necessarily "harder."

The examples I've been using are: imagine a group of modern people leaving society to start their own technologically-free one on a virgin world exactly like Earth, swearing off any modern methods that can't be reproduced without technology. Or, if it works better, imagine time-travelers going back into time to the Middle Ages and giving medieval serfs modern techniques, tools, and ideas they could use and replicate in their own time. Or, if you like, how foreign aid is helping to improve third-world countries improve their quality of life with these low-tech innovations. If any of those help, use them (I will divulge more if I need to).

I've been looking into a lot of different areas for this, but I am looking to see how a commoner's home - their house and the acre or so that home occupies - could be improved with these kinds of modern (but low tech) innovations. I've looked into areas like the modern homesteading movement, green and eco-friendly living, foreign aid efforts, survivalist and apocalypse training, etc.; and into specific innovations like rocket stoves, powerless refrigeration, rainwater capture, air wells, low-tech greenhouses, permaculture, etc. There are plenty of things...

Personally, I see a lot of villages being made of self-sustained acres of gardens and stables, on the same acre(s) the houses occupy. These gardens are filled with plants that grow well next to each other given whatever climate the village is in, and give the villagers both something to feed their families and sell for personal profit (if not going straight to the local lord). The houses themselves are made of something like cob or rammed earth, with some form of insulation (straw, or some extra layer of available material), with windows that have some sort of sealing to keep out the cold. They have cisterns to catch rainwater, and/or an alternative like an air well to catch condensation. They have primitive means of filtering water, if they need it, using charcoal and layers of sand, etc. They have something like a potted refrigerator, or maybe a below-ground cellar that offers powerless food storage for months at a time. They have something akin to composting toilets so that they aren't simply dumping their waste into the streets or nearby bodies of water, using it instead as fertilizer, etc. Meat is more readily available, in the form of animals and some larger livestock-types, which they can keep in stables that are themselves insulated from the elements and don't need to be brought into the house just to make it through the winter. I could go on and on...

...having said that, that's an ideal, pie-in-the-sky scenario I'm not married to. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. That's why I'm waiting on the discussion. If that gives you a better idea of what I'm aiming for, though, so be it.

EDIT BY BSIDESWIPED: Given that the question is still kind of broad historically (an oversight I always manage to forget, since it's a topic I'm not especially learned in yet), let me try to refine the question further.

I would say, if I had to choose, at the most I'd like to keep things somewhere between the post-medieval era and the Elizabethan era (if I've got my eras right). Much further than that and it starts muddling my narrative. I hope that helps.

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    $\begingroup$ You're going to have to establish some hard limits of what counts as 'technology.' Technically, the wheel is a form of technology. If you give Medieval serfs modern techniques and tools, you just advanced their technology significantly. You can make a steam engine out of Medieval-level materials...and all you need to produce small amounts of electricity is some silk and some glass...both of which are available (if you're in the right place) as early as 3,500 BC. Or, heck...introduce the idea of Bellows and Forging, and you can skip straight to the Iron Age without bothering with the bronze. $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2016 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ I think it will depend what your starting point is. For instance the time travellers can make life better for the Medieval folk by rocking up and saying "Hey guys, let us tell you about crop rotation, leguminous plants, a a better design of plough (you'll need to use horses not oxen), germ theory and what REALLY causes the Black Death." All those would make the medieval guys' lives better. But your high-tech people on the virgin earth already know all that stuff before they get there. Also 'technology' starts when you bang the rocks together. Do you mean 'post date XXX technology'? $\endgroup$
    – DrBob
    Jul 6, 2016 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you both for bringing that up. I have made an edit that hopefully clarifies. $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2016 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ Wind turbines or wind mills can be pretty low tech. As is energy storage via pumping water to higher levels (though it is pretty bulky...). $\endgroup$
    – Jiminion
    Jul 6, 2016 at 18:06

4 Answers 4


Some of the things they could do are modern takes on ancient techniques.

For instance crop rotation and allowing the land to rest once in a while.
We know that if you plant the same crop year after year you deplete the soil of nutrients and the plants don't do as well. So you rotate the crops, planting something that puts nutrients back into the soil.

Another problem was plow pan, where after a period of plowing the field year after year, the soil below a certain depth would get compacted, keeping the roots from going deep.

plow pan

I remember reading that it wasn't until the 1800's when they figured this out and how to break it up.

For the time traveler back to the middle ages, germ theory would be a huge breakthrough, and that just boiling your water, washing your hands, and keeping wounds clean would save lives.

Depending on the time period, a lot of our more modern metallurgy technology could be usable back then, especially some of the really difficult stuff like aluminum.
Aluminum is very plentiful on earth, but does not exist in a pure elemental state like iron and so has to be extracted from aluminum salts which was a very difficult process for a long time. For a while aluminum was worth a lot more than gold.
(side note, when traveling back to the middle ages, take aluminum ingots)

Quite a lot of our modern chemistry could be duplicated with very simple equipment, allowing for much earlier development of plastics, explosives, medicines, etc.

The ideas are the hard part; the inspiration to mix this with that. Once you have the knowledge, you can bootstrap the technology by making tools to make the tools you need to make the technology.
And a lot of times you can fudge that with fairly simple things. Watch a couple episodes of MacGyver to see what I mean.

Edit: Other simple things that mostly weren't thought of until later, or at least were not common:

  • Insulation (keeping the warm air where you want it)
  • Something like the Franklin Stove or Potbelly stove, to help heat homes with less smoke.
  • Biology and basic medicine (expanding on germ theory), since a lot of the workings of the human body was super mysterious for a long time.

Edit 2:

This is more for a time traveler than for a colony on a new world, but one simple thing that would be very useful is a map. Especially a geological survey map where the various minerals are located. Knowing where to find deposits of copper, iron, nickle, chromite, oil, etc. would be really useful for metallurgy since some of the harder forms of steel need various mixtures of minerals to make.

Even mines that are played out in the present would still exist in the past, and could be used. (at this point history has been changed so much you might as well go all in).

  • $\begingroup$ You have put into words exactly what I was having trouble expressing. This is the kind of answer I'm looking for. Thank you. Seriously, from the bottom of my heart, this answer was so helpful. Everyone else take note: this is the kind of thing I'm looking for! :) $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2016 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ A very useful little book is Ploughs & Ploughing by Roy Brigden (shire books) amazon.co.uk/Ploughs-Ploughing-Shire-Album-Brigden/dp/… which runs thru the history of plough technology so you can work out what bits are 'a good idea which can be done by anyone' and which are 'requires mass production' or 'requires 18th century agriculture to feed big enough plough horses'. $\endgroup$
    – DrBob
    Jul 6, 2016 at 18:28

One of the largest problems in the pre industrial era was the ability to grow and preserve enough crops to ensure survival in the "lean years". Pre modern agriculture was horribly inefficient, and even in good harvest years, it was difficult to store enough food to ensurer that everyone would have enough to eat through the winter, much less the "seven lean years".

So the first improvement would be to teach more efficient agricultural techniques to increase the amount of food that could be raised per hectare. This would include ideas like multi cropping (growing multiple types of plants in the same field at the same time), using mutually beneficial crops (legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil for the next year's crop, planting species of plants which deter pests in the fields are two common examples), proper water and soil management to prevent topsoil from eroding away and going to a more vegetarian diet to get more bang for your buck (plants typically take 1/10 of the available solar energy, while cows, goats etc take 1/10 of the energy that the plants absorb. Being a carnivore is an exercise in diminishing returns).

The next huge step would be efficient food storage. Sealed containers that can keep pests out of the stored food is perhaps the best possible solution given the available technology, although iceboxes could be introduced on a limited basis as well. More modern techniques to dry foodstuffs for longterm storage would also be a great improvement to ensure long term storage of food.

Ensuring people have enough to eat, and can store food for long periods of time will provide a solid foundation to jumpstart any social or economic improvements.

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    $\begingroup$ Storing food was a problem that occupied the pre-industrial era since Moses and probably before. Saying "sealed containers that can keep pests out" is easy, actually making them is hard, especially with techniques "replicated in their time/state without the need of most modern technology". Any ideas on that? $\endgroup$ Sep 28, 2017 at 19:41

Lots of good answers from other people, so I'll add: reducing child mortality and providing reliable contraception.

If you explain to the medieval/Elizabethan people:

  1. What germs and viruses are.
  2. How particular diseases are transmitted (cholera is fecal contaminated water, measles is coughing and sneezing)
  3. Simple hygiene techniques like boiling drinking water, sterilising surgical instruments, washing your hands after you go to the loo, sane quarantine procedures (i.e. NOT walling people up in their homes), and decent sewage systems.
  4. Treatments for some of the diseases (not sure if you want the tech level for vaccination or production of antibiotics).

Then more of their children will survive to adulthood. This will make them happy, and provide more manpower for agriculture, for various crafts and trades, etc.

Downside... it will also cause a population explosion. So in tandem with that healthcare improvement, introduce them to contraception. The lowest tech method which is reliable is probably the IUD. Obviously plastic, hormone impregnated ones are out, but you could make copper ones (IIRC the Romans used copper rings as IUDs). And you'd know to sterilise the IUD before insertion, and could give the women a list of the side effects (or get your doctors to watch out for them).

Meanwhile, you have the ethical dilemma of whether or not to tell them where the Americas are and let Eurasian epidemic diseases wreak havoc, or to nip across there yourself and say "Hi Native Americans - I'll swap you a vaccination programme for your potatoes, maize, chilis, tomatoes and turkeys".

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    $\begingroup$ I read one theory that the plague decimating Europe was the beginning of the end of feudalism, since without enough people to work the land the system couldn't sustain itself, wages increased, and this eventually led to the industrial revolution in England. If the plague and other diseases were stopped earlier, feudalism may have survived much longer. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Jul 6, 2016 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ @AndyD273 - I've heard that theory too, plus the 'deserted medieval village' phenomenon was folk abandoning the rubbish, marginal farmland to grab the better land whose owners had died of plague. If my contraception and low child mortality takes off, it will kick off cultural changes as big as the collapse of feudalism, since the demographics will shift from 33-45% of the population being children to the current first world level of 25% kids to 75% adults. $\endgroup$
    – DrBob
    Jul 6, 2016 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know how hard it is to produce full blown antibiotics but if I remember my school biology, penicillin was first grown off moldy bread! I know there are various strains of mold so you don't want to tell your population to eat moldy bread but it is something you could get your medical community involved in identifying with a simple microscope! $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2016 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps You don't even need a microscope. Make up a few petri dishes out of clay plates and a simple agar, then start some cultures in each one. Once the bacteria has taken off, place samples of the various molds into each one (leaving a control), then monitor to see which ones kill off the bacteria best. Then you just need chemistry know how to make an antibiotic. I don't know, but I'd be curious to see if you could use the mold in a poultice to place on open wounds to keep them from getting infected. It's possible the raw mold would be bad for the wound though. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Jul 7, 2016 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps I remember it from a really interesting documentary. The good stuff came from cantaloupe. It's an interesting short read, along with some details on how to culture it to produce the antibiotic. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Jul 7, 2016 at 16:48

This is a broad ranging question, I will try to be brief; that said, I would hope that the question of time-travel colonization, or of a 'virgin Earth' would not be a goal, as our own history shows when two civilizations meet, the technologically inferior one usually suffers greatly. May of the questions you've asked, and technologies suggested are in place and working well, in one of Earth's little known secrets, called Arcosanti. Paolo Soleri conceived of things much as you did, with the benefits of modern and antiquity living together, in what he described as an 'Arcology' ( See HTTP://arcosanti.org). His concepts included a self-sustenance and environmentally neutral presence with groups of families maintaining and working the project. Arcosanti is located in the desert, north of Phoenix, Arizona.
This may or may not supply you with the answers you need, but I feel Soleri's models and ideas may be an eye-opening moment for the imagination.

Good Luck !!

"... If you believe that the human spirit deserves and is capable of better than it has gotten environmentally ... if you believe in the human spirit at all, go to the Corcoran ... 'The Architectural Vision of Paolo Soleri' is an important and beautiful show ... His philosophical and environmental perceptions offer a sudden, stunning pertinence for today. He does not need the current bandwagon of despair. He has been preaching environment and ecology for a long time ... He has been the prophet in the desert and we have not been listening." —Ada Louise Huxtable, New York Times,1970


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