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Inspired by this question about a time traveller.

So, I've travelled to the medieval age. Think 12th / 13th century Europe. Unlike the time traveller in the other question, I did bring batteries for my time machine, but I want to have some fun while I'm here.

So I need to impress the locals with some gifts to get them to do things I'd like to see them do. I thought about bringing bolts of silk and sacks of spices. Unfortunately, I spent all my money on my time machine. So I need some suggestions. Here are my criteria:

  • Must be interesting and valuable to medieval people, enough so that they'd at least give me free food and lodging in exchange, and maybe put on some shows and generally give me a good tourist experience.
  • Should not have a very large impact on medieval society. I'm not trying to cause a technological revolution here.
  • In our time, it should be within the means of the average person to afford - the cheaper and more common it is, the better!
  • Ideally should not leave lasting archaeological evidence. So, no plastic bags or running shoes.
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closed as primarily opinion-based by AndreiROM, SPavel, Aify, Anketam, James Mar 28 '17 at 16:05

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this might be rather opinion based. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Mar 23 '17 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ @KWeiss: I'd add another requirement: does not get you burned at the stake for dealing with the devil. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Mar 23 '17 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ @mindwin - the good ones will be backed by historical facts <- none of the answers so far as backed by much of anything. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Mar 23 '17 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ @andreirom then downvote the crappy answers. The question has nothing to do with it. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Mar 23 '17 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ They will be impressed enough that you have all your teeth. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Mar 23 '17 at 14:52

33 Answers 33

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Rubber No seriously a cheap waterproof rain slicker or pair of rubber boots will bribe the average person very easily, waterproof materials were nonexistent. It is also really easy to demonstrate and you can buy them at a dollar store. The best they had at the time were merely water resistant materials which tended to stain since they were soaked in oil. Plus there is no risk of accused of black magic like you might with medicine or any other active chemical. Plus it will rot away in a few decades so no evidence, as long as you don't pass out hundreds of them.

Nails Nails were valuable enough to be major market item becasue they were time consuming to make. But at the same time, they were common enough that anyone would recognize and want them. Small furniture nails were even more valuable. A box of nails both valuable AND easy to fraction out (20 nails for a piece of whatever I smell cooking), and would not draw that much attention, since they did exist. you can buy square/box nails at any large hardware store, The process is different but the finished project will be identical.

Salt is just easy its desirable and easy to come by, sea salt is considered more desirable, spices are more tricky. You could easily be accused of selling poison or being a smuggler or get your friends accused of the same.

Cotton Go buy a few bolts of cotton cloth from Walmart. You can trade each one for a month of food and shelter without much problem. Go with tan or off-white to reduce suspicion. Remember: you don't want to give out too much wealth because it just makes those people a target. Cotton was known at the time, but it was traded from India at a high cost. Just buy "all natural" or unbleached cotton.

Wooden dice Easy to carry, dice were common, boredom is universal and you can buy them at any craft store cheap.

Sewing needles Light, easy to carry, you can buy them at Walmart by the hundreds for pocket change and everyone in the medieval society will see their value. Go with big over small however, the cloth of the time was rough spun.

Combs Even metal combs are cheap, pretty, and combs are universal so that anyone with hair will see their value. Just get simple designs and any archaeological evidence will be too corroded to look out of place.

Mink oil made of mink oil and lanolin is used to waterproof leather. Waterproofing would always have been valuable at the time and both ingredients were available and used. They were just a pain in the ass to get in any quantity. Heck, you could just buy a tub of lanolin at any fabric store - years worth of work in one tub!

As Zwol mentioned many goods had monopolies or defacto monopolies (guilds, charters, patents, ect) in certain countries so you could get your friends in serious trouble, so far as I know none of these had monopolies at the time although some did develop ones several centuries later. This is also why I left things like purple dye off the list they were far more restricted and not something you want your friends to be caught with.

For more ideas, I recommend the video series "worst jobs in history" to get an idea of what was valuable at the time.

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    $\begingroup$ I wish I could upvote this answer twice :O :D. What a totally awesome history lesson I just got :D. $\endgroup$ – Teacher KSHuang Mar 24 '17 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ One thing to be careful of in medieval times, is that many goods were subject to monopolies. Be careful to check that providing nails, for example, won't tread on anyone's toes. $\endgroup$ – Jack Aidley Mar 24 '17 at 11:56
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    $\begingroup$ Salt would actually be the best option here - it was often used as currency - at least that's what I read on the Internet. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Mar 24 '17 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ Be careful not to bring synthetic rubber, which is a type of plastic and lasts a lot longer than natural rubber. $\endgroup$ – zwol Mar 24 '17 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like this answer is sponsored by Walmart. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Mia Edie Verheyen Mar 25 '17 at 15:19
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There are a few options:

  1. Aluminum. Until modern times, it was essentially impossible to produce in any significant quantity, making it far, far, far more valuable than gold. It is also a useful metal in its own right, being strong and light. And it should break down within 500 years, so it won't leave any archeological evidence in the modern day. Price: free if you are willing to dig around in some trash cans.
  2. Candles. The candles affordable to medieval people were very smelly, and odorless candles were too expensive. Price: About 20 dollars for a box of 100 small candles or 12 big ones.
  3. Paper. Paper at the time was made from rags, and thus much more expensive. They probably wouldn't have much use for it themselves, but the nearest monastery would appreciate it, and the village would be eager to impress the Church. It won't last long, though, especially if you pick low-quality paper that degrades quickly. Early paper used cloth or animal skins that last much longer than modern wood pulp paper, especially cheap paper. It will seem good as long as you are there, but won't last a century not to mention 6-7 centuries. Price: About 20 dollars for a box of 5000 sheets.
  4. Salt. Salt was extremely important part of the diet that was hard to come by for most people for most of history. It was also critical for preserving food. Price: About 20 dollars for a 25 pound bag.
  5. Spices. Also critical for preserving food, but had to be imported from Asia and India. The crusades were largely fought over disruptions to the spice trade. Price: less than 5 dollars for a 5 ounce bag, probably good for dozens of meals.
  6. Dyes. The cheap synthetic clothing dyes didn't exist, and several colors (particularly blue, purple, and some shades of red) were extremely expensive to make. Price: about 20 dollars for a small kit with various colors.
  7. Silk. Although still more expensive today than other fabrics, it is much, much, much cheaper than it was due to modern western silk production. Price: Less than 15 dollars for a silk shirt.
  8. Fertilizer. You can buy it by the carloads and it would have helped their agriculture immensely, although getting them to recognize its advantages may take some time. Price: Less than 15 dollars for a decent-size bag.
  9. Pesticide (thanks Richard U). Would likely work much more quickly than fertilizer and is even more important. Price: Less than 40 dollars for a large bag of insecticide and less than 30 dollars for a large tub of rat/mouse poison.
  10. Perfume. Apparently at the time bathing was not popular in northern Europe, perfume was used instead. Price: You can easily get a probably several month supply for less than 15 dollars or air freshener for less than a dollar, although you would need to transfer it to some container than is appropriate for the era.
  11. Incense. Another thing that was used more in churches, but again pleasing the Church is always a good thing in medieval Europe. Price: less than 15 dollars for several months worth.
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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Mar 24 '17 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ ...getting them to recognize its advantages may take some time. Not a problem. Come back a year later. You have a time machine. $\endgroup$ – user2338816 Mar 27 '17 at 1:56
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    $\begingroup$ add Sugar or even delicacies don't exist in 12th Europe like Chocolate, Corn, Potatoes, etc $\endgroup$ – jean Mar 27 '17 at 14:20
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Peppercorns. Lots and lots of peppercorns. During the middle ages they were as valuable as (if not more so than) gold, whereas today they are one of the cheapest spices you can buy, giving them the highest yield on your investment. Similarly, salt was very valuable, though you would have more luck with that one if you went back to the Roman ages; during the late middle ages salt was still valuable, but much of the Roman empire's infrastructure was built to facilitate the transport of salt to Rome.

If you just wanted to mess with the natives, might I recommend a wrist-mounted fireball launcher? Convincing them you are a wizard who can incinerate them with a gesture could be a very effective method of getting them to do what you want.

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    $\begingroup$ It could also be a very good method of getting them to band together to run the wizard out of town. I'd only use that technique if I was sure I actually could stand up to them all. $\endgroup$ – Shane Mar 23 '17 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ I thought of that as well, but can you imagine a more entertaining way to die? $\endgroup$ – Cameron Mar 23 '17 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for Peppercorns. You can carry a lot of value with a small weight. $\endgroup$ – jknappen Mar 23 '17 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ Also good because they are a known commodity. No-one is going to wonder what they are or be suspicious as to their quality (as with paper). $\endgroup$ – Francis Davey Mar 23 '17 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ The value of pepper is often ridiculously overstated. It certainly was quite valuable per weight and is a good option here, but "more vaulable than gold" has never in history been true as far as any actual evidence is concerned. $\endgroup$ – Michael Borgwardt Mar 24 '17 at 8:48
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Deodorant

True story: my brother, on his second tour as an Infantry officer in Iraq, asked for a box of deodorant in the mail. Turns out, everybody wants it. Village elders want it, housewives want it, kids want it. This stuff is pretty amazing when you think about. Makes you smell nice all day. People paid a lot of money for perfumes in the Middle Ages. For dirt cheap you can give them some smellgood that really works.

You'll probably want to get the deodorant out of the plastic tubes and into something more biodegradable, but that doesn't make it any less useful.

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  • $\begingroup$ What is the link between your brother in Iraq and the middle ages? $\endgroup$ – gerrit Mar 23 '17 at 23:40
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    $\begingroup$ @gerrit Both my brother in Iraq and a time traveler in the middle ages deal with people who don't have any deodorant, but want to have deodorant. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 23 '17 at 23:41
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    $\begingroup$ I see the potential, but I doubt it can work as a bribe, when the concept is not known yet . Imagine going up to someone and saying "rub this under your armpit and you won't stink!" I don't imagine them being overjoyed and providing something valuable in return. I find known commodities that were expensive more believable. $\endgroup$ – Ludi Mar 24 '17 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Ludi Perfume was well known in the middle ages. This is just perfume that works really well. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 24 '17 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me of something that the US military used in Afghanistan: Viagra. Very popular with the tribal chiefs. $\endgroup$ – Hot Licks Mar 24 '17 at 22:19
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Sugar

People are nuts for the stuff.

Sugar was viewed in the Medieval period as a medicinal item. That it tasted good and could be turned into various forms such as syrups and pills was a great advantage and it also helped to counteract the bitterness of some of the medicines in which it was an ingredient. It wasn't until the 18th century that sugar ceased to be considered as a drug and a spice and became a basic staple of daily life.

It was also fairly expensive, with a small bag of it being equivalent to a day's wages.

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Nails -- These were hard to make -- A box of 5000 would be a good bribe for certain groups, especially smiths for shoeing horses (although this may require specialty nails)

Nail usage in the middle ages

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    $\begingroup$ 5000 nails are very heavy, and quite expensive in their own right. Furthermore, only a very narrow section of the population would find them valuable to be bribed with. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Mar 23 '17 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM where do you buy your nails? For me that will be €50 in the local store. If you buy them in large quantities I'm sure the price can be reduced by 30%. They are indeed heavy though. $\endgroup$ – Mixxiphoid Mar 23 '17 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM: You can get a box of 1000 nail gun nails for less than 10 dollars, and it isn't that heavy either. They are designed for nail guns, but for someone who doesn't have better options they certainly would work with a hammer $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Mar 23 '17 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings that's because they didn't have any or were saving them for other things. $\endgroup$ – user2727 Mar 23 '17 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ I think that finding archaeological evidence of nails that were (mass) produced via modern methods and from modern materials might be ... unsettling for some $\endgroup$ – A C Mar 23 '17 at 16:58
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Simple drugs, such as Ibuprofen.

Cheap presbyopia glasses. They are sold on the street for a couple of Euros in several Balkan countries and though not fitting the person exactly, would still be invaluable to them. It would be very hard to remake them, even if you get a pair. No need to fear causing a technical revolution (which rules out clocks, the dissembling of which would probably cause a lot of innovation). They were invented some time before 1286, but still very expensive.

EDIT: There is this painting by Conrad von Soest, from AD 1403 showing the use of spectacles. So the best method would probably be to just give them the lenses - which were the veeery expensive part - and let them fashion a contemporary frame. Alternatively, you could gift them monocles with metal frames.

enter image description here

Cheapest window glass. There was window glass, but it was not affordable.

Shaped glass objects, like a teapot. Glass was blown and thus valuable.

If in a Christian country: tiny printed pictures of saints. The Greek Orthodox Church gifts them to people. They are colourful and saintly and would surely impress them.

Edit: I see that pocket knives and lighters are excluded by the evidence-clause.

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    $\begingroup$ I would be worried that handing out small trinkets that when swallowed cure disease would be seen as witchcraft. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Mar 23 '17 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ @TheBlackCat Herbs and other medicines have been around forever. SO have snake oil salesmen. This wouldn't be viewed differently. $\endgroup$ – Shane Mar 23 '17 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Shane maybe we just powder it? The Chinese had all manner of pills including spices for taste. I have tasted some. $\endgroup$ – Ludi Mar 23 '17 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ This is the best answer. Ibuprofen would be a miracle. +1 $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 23 '17 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ witches chase did not ocur in medieval ages, but in early modern times, 16th, 17th Century. $\endgroup$ – Julian Egner Mar 24 '17 at 8:10
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  1. Colored glass marbles. Glass was a pretty expensive material in Middle Age, only the richest could afford having glass on their window. You could pretend they are like moneys for you. And the natives may use them as pearls.
  2. Pyrex Glass bottles. They might have bottles, but yours are heat resistant.
  3. Match boxes. For a society relying on fire for heat and light generation, having it at the snap of a finger would be a definite plus.
  4. Mirrors (both flat and curved).
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    $\begingroup$ "Ideally should not leave lasting archaeological evidence." <- glass marbles will last a very long time. They would also not be very valuable. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Mar 23 '17 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ A traditional name for matches was "Lucifer" (IOW, the devil).... $\endgroup$ – Clockwork-Muse Mar 23 '17 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ Sure .. in ancient Rome. This is not ancient Rome, it's the middle ages (about a thousand years after the fall of ancient Rome), and glass making has come a long way at that point. In fact, European settlers used glass marbles to bribe North American natives, so that would indicate that Europeans didn't value them that highly. I'd also like to point out that bribing an official with a handful of kid's toys is not going to get you very far. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Mar 23 '17 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ I'd be careful with matches. Conjuring fire from one's fingertips could make others think that he was in league with the devil. $\endgroup$ – Richard U Mar 23 '17 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ @JimGarrison Looks all-Latin to me. Lux is light, ferre is to bring. (Corresponding Greek words: phos is light, phorein is bring. So lucifer = phosphor, and it is not coincidental that phosphorus is used in making matches.) $\endgroup$ – Gareth McCaughan Mar 24 '17 at 12:21
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Soap.

Rich people had it, but it must have cost way more money than it does now, so just sell that, get gold and make the trip a few times.


To add some historical facts, see for example this price list:

http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/120D/Money.html

Soap isn't in there, but I think it might still provide a good source also for other answers. And searching for soap in the middle ages does provide sources saying it was a luxury good and used by rich people. No links there because I didn't find a single good source, but many secondary/tertiary/x-iary sources.

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    $\begingroup$ Depends on where he goes. Apparently bathing was not popular in Northern Europe: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hygiene#Hygiene_in_medieval_Europe $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Mar 23 '17 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ You can't bring nearly as much soap as to be valuable. A bar of soap will not be worth much in and of itself. A few hundred bars would take up a lot of volume, and would weight a lot. It would also be viewed as a luxury which is not particularly necessary for the common person, as people didn't wash nearly as much as we do today. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Mar 23 '17 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't luxury like the definition of valuable? $\endgroup$ – DonQuiKong Mar 23 '17 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ @DonQuiKong no, luxury is the definition of a type of demand. The goods that would be very valuable to a villager or a craftsman have little overlap with luxury goods; especially in a highly stratified society, the market for luxury goods is very limited and highly illiquid. E.g. in modern times, a \$ 100 000 bottle of luxury perfume isn't worth much more than a \$ 100 bottle of perfume when used as a barter item in most of the world. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Mar 24 '17 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Peteris I actually studied the price/demand curve of those, my point was that soap beeing a luxury good would suffice to sell it to some merchant or blue blood $\endgroup$ – DonQuiKong Mar 24 '17 at 22:48
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Fabric was extremely time intensive to manufacture. Pure white was almost impossible to get in fabric.

You can get six pairs of white athletic socks for $9.99 from Costco. Everybody needs clothes and a clean pair of white socks would be seen as a luxury.

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    $\begingroup$ "time-traveling chavs..." $\endgroup$ – smci Mar 23 '17 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM You've never experienced the sublime joy of putting on a dry pair of socks after a day spent out in the rain. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Mar 23 '17 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings - I have, however I grew up with socks. Those people will, many of them, be used to going around barefoot. They won't even know what socks are, or they will find the white fabric far too "fancy" for putting on their dirty feet, and instead use it for some other purpose. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Mar 23 '17 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM Everyone wants a little luxury. Or they know someone who does. Point is they're fungible. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Mar 23 '17 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ Purple/blue, or even neon fabrics would probably be valuable $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Mar 24 '17 at 15:59
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Blue colored fabric would be a very expensive commodity.

Blue was considered a royal color, not because of law, but simply because it was very hard (and thus expensive) to make a good quality dyes. Poor-quality blue dyes where typically made from the woad plant, but this gave a rather pale blue color that has bad resistance to sunlight. A better quality pigment was made from ultramarine, but this needed to be imported from Asia.

Show up with dress like this (not nesecarrily this model, but this color)
dress

and you should be able to catch the attention of the rich quite quickly (because you would be the only person with a fabric this blue).

Any fabric of course nicely fits the requirement that it should not leave lasting archaeological evidence.


Alternatively, you could opt for a bottle of Eau de parfume, an item that could be in the same price range as a nice blue dress, but considerably easier to carry around. It would be harder to simply show off in order to attract the attention of potential buyers

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    $\begingroup$ Here is a 500 year old woad-blue dyed tapestry. Doesn't look too faded to me. Woad was just fine. Crimson-purple-indigo is where the money is at. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 23 '17 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ be careful of wearing clothes TOO expensive. You might be seen as infringing on social class boundaries (e.g. by wearing better clothes than the ruling monarch) which would land you in trouble, possibly even get you executed $\endgroup$ – C. R. Yasuo Mar 23 '17 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Calllack If you can afford expensive clothes, why not just pretend you are noble. No one will ask questions if you have money, and no one wants to pretend to be a peasant $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 23 '17 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ That's a really nice looking gold dress :-P $\endgroup$ – Brian Risk Mar 24 '17 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianRisk I was looking for this comment. $\endgroup$ – Feathercrown Mar 27 '17 at 12:14
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Safety matches

Cheap, small, lightweight, easy to use, obviously useful and they get destroyed as you use them!

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    $\begingroup$ They also are very impressive to demonstrate! $\endgroup$ – Brian Risk Mar 27 '17 at 18:12
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Instant ramen noodles. So incredibly cheap: you can get it in most convenience or grocery stores for less than $1.00 per serving, but you would need to transfer the packaging (perhaps place the noodles in a cloth sack, and the flavoring/seasoning oil in a jar). Food is biodegradable so no traces of it will be left behind, and it is valuable as a quicker, cheaper, (and possibly more delicious depending on individual preferences) alternative to pasta/noodles made in the medieval times. This would also have the advantage of being a novelty item, compared to other items that might be cheaper to produce in today's society but aren't necessarily new inventions.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, I hope you will enjoy your stay. If you have any questions regarding rules or need tips on how to write good questions and answers, then please check out the help center. A though on your answer: It is true that finding food is incredibly rare due to, as you say, it degrades. However, I couldn't help but to link to this article as we have been lucky to find noodles from 4000 years ago. So, one never knows what might survive the time travel ;) $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Mar 24 '17 at 6:35
  • $\begingroup$ Just get the spicing it will be the most exciting thing for them and weight efficient for you. I had an idea of a story about an interdimentional cartel smuggling natrii glutamas in pre industrial worlds making it more desireable than spices and salt since any inkeep may claim their food is the tastiest in town with just a pinch with miracle powder. $\endgroup$ – Nick Dzink Sep 26 '17 at 23:25
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Antibiotics. Not just in the medieval ages, but up to the early XXth century was extremely easy to die of all kind of bacterial diseases and common infections. You can sold a 3$ box for 30000 pieces of silver to your local noble. Once you are famous enough, you can get to treat the king's daughter and maybe you can tourist your own earl or county.

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    $\begingroup$ Pretend you're running a tavern and someone walks up to you and says "they'll give you this strange white pebble that cures infection if you give them room and board for the night." $\endgroup$ – sphennings Mar 23 '17 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ In addition, the local bacteria haven't evolved any antibiotic resistance at all, so your antibiotics will work really well. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Mar 23 '17 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ The hard part of this is convincing the locals that your antibiotics actually work. Otherwise you're just one out of a legions of quack doctors and nobody will pay you that much more than the going rate for quack medicine. In the middle ages, they didn't even have good infrastructure for disseminating new scientific information. Most technological communication was through guilds and such so you might be able to raise interest in a new smithing technique but certainly not new medicinal quackery. $\endgroup$ – DepressedDaniel Mar 24 '17 at 2:49
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    $\begingroup$ the effects are permanent on the evolution of bacteria!!! you could end making the antibiotic useless in your own time $\endgroup$ – Ewan Mar 24 '17 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Ewan Antibiotic-resistant bacteria would not perform better than non-resistant strains if there was no antibiotic. A few hundred years later, completely different strains could well be dominant. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Mar 24 '17 at 17:49
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The other answers are great, but tend to focus on luxury items, and items that are valuable because they are scarce at the time.

Hand tools, quality made hand tools would be quite valuable. They will be instantly recognizable and testable by most people you are willing to trade with. Additionally, your potential buyers will actually benefit from these items materially (their work will be made easier), and thus may be more willing to trade. These tools, being useful and only slightly different in design than they alread had, will be worn out and discarded or melted down when they reach the end of their life.

My particular choices

  • Estwing Metal Hafted Hammer They come in Many varieties, but this particular one will be tremendously useful to most laborers. The metal haft means they will get many years out of work before it fails. They will love not having to replace the handles.
  • Retractable utility knife and blades These blades will be sharper and last longer than any knives that they have. Additionally They can be sharpened, although we never do, and your customers will already know how to do that. Make sure to select a tough body, and one that doesn't require tools that they won't have to change the blades.
  • Bow Saw and Blades This one will blow their minds. It is a bow saw that packs down nice and compact. Otherwise, it is valuable for the same reasons as the utility knife. Bring a few extra blades.
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    $\begingroup$ These are all things that would leave archeological evidence. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Mar 23 '17 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ You overestimate the suitability of things like this. There are very few surviving examples because they were common, so people didn't preserve them, wear out, and rust. $\endgroup$ – Mauser Mar 23 '17 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ @TheBlackCat, they'll leave evidence, but it won't be good evidence. After something's been rusting for a millennium, you'll have a hard time telling that it was made from modern tool steel and not cheap medieval steel. $\endgroup$ – Mark Mar 24 '17 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ Things like this will get preserved in a workshop, not left to rust in the mud in some battlefield. And we get a lot of information even from the things that were left to rust. I need more data to be convinced that these tools would not become "archaeological" evidence later. $\endgroup$ – David K Mar 24 '17 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ Based off my experience visiting museums, and what I can tell searching online, we don't have many surviving examples of hand tools from the past. These types of things are generally consumed through use, and not preserved, as they are not rare or valuable after they have failed. Most of what we know of their tools is from accounts and drawings. books.google.com/… $\endgroup$ – Mauser Mar 27 '17 at 19:43
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Many good answers (spices, fabric, soap, etc) but I have to add a few excellent options

  1. Sugar, Chocolate, or any type of candy - 50lbs bag of sugar sells for ~ \$20. Chocolate is more expensive - maybe \$100 - \$150 for 50lbs bag. When sweets became available in Europe, there was a huge craze about them so that would sell for sure.
  2. Coffee, tea - again became hugely popular in Europe when they became available
  3. Opium - more sinister but could be sold as pain reliever?
  4. High quality steel - ulfberht swords were made of high quality Damascus steel and were super sought after so if you are going in to the early middle ages, you are golden.
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    $\begingroup$ 1, 2, 3 My thoughts on something exotic like these — not known in europe of the 13th century A.D. — would be that you'd need to sell the idea of the thing prior to the people having any demand for it. Rather than simply advertising your wares, you'd need to first convince the people that it was pleasant for them and muster up a market which desired to purchase the goods. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Mar 24 '17 at 3:22
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    $\begingroup$ 3 Back in the days when opium was traded freely, there was no black market for opium: opium was sold and obtained with no oppression, because opium addicts were of an entirely different type then than now. I mean, at the turn of the 20th century, you could yet buy the stuff in streetcorner pharmacies. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Mar 24 '17 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ This answer mentions an interesting item - Damascus steel. If I had a time machine, I would consider going back in time to when true Damascus steel was still being made and record the procedure and the source materials. We can make imitation Damascus steel today, but not true historical Damascus steel. $\endgroup$ – TylerH Mar 27 '17 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ @TylerH, do we need to? I.e. was it better at anything than today's steel? $\endgroup$ – Oleg V. Volkov Mar 28 '17 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ @OlegV.Volkov While modern methods and alternatives produce stronger steel or competing metals, Damascus steel produced a very distinct pattern in the metal (kind of like Valyrian steel, which was based almost entirely on [pre-]18th century Damascus steel); it was also legendary in its day; it's capable of slicing through modern steel rifle barrels without much effort. It's more the historical value of knowing exactly how they produced such an advanced metal and used it to forge these weapons in a pre-industrial civilization. $\endgroup$ – TylerH Mar 28 '17 at 13:22
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Potentially Glass Mirrors, you can obtain glass mirrors relatively cheap these days along with a good reflection.

Back in Medieval times Mirrors would not of been too plentiful with only the rich having access to them and certainly not being as big or giving the crisp images as they do these days.

Glass was around in some form or another, and polished metal mirrors have been around since the Bronze Age.

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  • $\begingroup$ Forget glass - get unbreakable mirrors. Though I suppose those would leave evidence, whoops! $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Mar 24 '17 at 16:00
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Alcohol and tobacco can be good for bribing.

It can be different kinds of alcohol, for example some strong staff and also some vines and beer. Of course, they had some alcohol drinks, but it's always interesting to try some foreign beverages.

And regarding tobacco, I think they will be interesting in cigarettes, which didn't exist in this time yet.

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    $\begingroup$ Great idea. Distillation was only beginning to be practiced during the middle ages. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Mar 23 '17 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ I think it would be quite hard to get people to breathe in smelly, burning smoke. Even harder to get them to pay for it. Once they're addicted this would work, but it's hard to get someone addicted to something - that nobody else uses - quickly enough to get them to give you something in return. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Mar 24 '17 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ @wizzwizz4, you can give them to try for free, soon they will ask you for more. They will be addicted soon. $\endgroup$ – Alexan Mar 24 '17 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Alex Until you're used to it, it's horrible stuff. Have you ever walked past a smoker? (Assuming that you don't smoke yourself.) People would see it as as sensible as sticking your head over a bonfire. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Mar 24 '17 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Alex *speculating* Social pressure, being told by somebody you trust that "the first time is hard, but after that it's nice", that it was considered medicinal for generations and so is socially acceptable (and only just becoming not so) so parents will be doing it and being a role-model? It's going to be hard to convince a total stranger to pay you to let them sniff the smoke of an unknown object that could well be poisonous or evil. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Mar 24 '17 at 18:27
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GOLD

So for some stupid reason this question got stuck in my mind all damn day.. There is an obvious answer that nobody seems to have mentioned mainly due to the pricing however for a couple grams of gold you could have a blast for a while: current prices http://www.apmex.com/spotprices/gold-price/

Also since you're in a time machine you could prolly jump back to before reported findings of gold in some locations and pan for a few days prior to your middle ages trip (unless of course the time machine is limited to only 1 return trip)

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    $\begingroup$ Would not make more sense to hide some rare gold coins in a known location and retrieve them in the present? $\endgroup$ – Rui F Ribeiro Mar 25 '17 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ You have to have a way to get the gold coins. Plus gold is difficult to date, so it would be harder to prove they weren't forgeries. Of course, it's difficult to date because it's one of the easiest things to preserve, so you'd have to be prepared to make sure that other things didn't decay. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Mar 28 '17 at 16:58
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Condoms.

Seriously :D They are cheap, you can pack lots of them and it is plausible they was desired goods. Also, latex comdoms should be biodegradable in 50 years (source, source 2) so no surprise for Indiana Jones.

I have no idea whether the medieval church was against limiting reproduction or not, but i doubt it: simply put, they can not be against something that does not yet exist... Anyways, you can just keep yourself under radar or exactly the opposite: you can stick with somebody powerful who does not care much about church & care about not having illegitimate children ;) )

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  • $\begingroup$ Sheepskin would also be biodegradable, and less surprising if they found them in the record. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Mar 24 '17 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ Eh, this guy Onan was literally slain by God because "he withdrew before his orgasm" (well, it's in a book, so it must be literally, right?). Pretty sure the medieval church didn't like anything that limited reproduction. :) $\endgroup$ – pipe Mar 25 '17 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ @pipe Well... thats... true... :D $\endgroup$ – Jan 'splite' K. Mar 25 '17 at 9:06
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    $\begingroup$ Onan was judged for refusing to give his brother an heir. The implication is that his own sons would not inherit if he did. So it was the reason, not the technique that was sinful. (That said, there have always been those in the church who didn't understand this, so the risk is still valid.) $\endgroup$ – papidave Mar 25 '17 at 11:52
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    $\begingroup$ While I totally agree with you, the fact is the Church has always had a very pharisaic approach to this: they follow strictly the letter while violating the spirit. The Catholic Church approves natural methods of reproductive controls, such as controlling ovulation times, but it forbids specifically condoms and any methods using any kind of device. Which is, as you say, a complete reversal of the reasons why Onan was punished. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Mar 27 '17 at 6:43
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Pretty picture books. Or paper notebooks. Paper degrades.

Jewelry made from rare and exotic materials (i.e. cheap and small plastic beads that will break in a few decades).

Explosives, like dynamite. You can even hide a 10 year timed fuse inside.

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    $\begingroup$ Plastic jewelry will break, the plastic will remain. $\endgroup$ – pipe Mar 25 '17 at 0:21
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How about glass beads and silver beading wire? Neither are expensive, nor weigh much. They would take very little room and you could sell beads individually or as jewelry.

How about sewing needles? They'd need a larger eye to accommodate the thread of the time. You could also being plans for making simple machines like a treadle sewing machine -- the kind used before electricity. Knowing how to make all those sorts of machines would be useful. How about knowing how to make wooden matches? They were not invented until 1826. Windmills may not have been where your character is at that time.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know about glass beads. How much would they really be worth? $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 23 '17 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ I have no real idea, but imagine their shape would make them interesting. $\endgroup$ – WRX Mar 23 '17 at 19:35
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A Catholic Bible or Quran.

Religious books are relatively cheap in present times but in the middle ages, the majority of Bibles were only owned by Churches. Having one in the palm of your hand in would instantly elevate your status to a "Man of God" and grant you the ability to have the "fun" you desire. Trading or selling the Bible to a noble would be very profitable, but conversely, you could potentially overplay the Bible and use it to influence others, depending on your level of morality. (Think "messenger from God")

Now this comes with some risks, due to the church being very curious and powerful, so this would be something you could do for a short time, but might be dangerous to overplay this role too long. Since paper breaks down relatively quickly, I wouldn't expect that a modern Bible would stay intact longer than a few hundred years.

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    $\begingroup$ At the time having a Bible in anything other than Latin, or in fact anything other than the specific Vulgate Latin version, was a crime. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Mar 23 '17 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ @TheBlackCat: the claim that it was a crime is a bit too strong. The idea itself might land the OP in hot water, though. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Kolassa Mar 23 '17 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ A Bible wouldn't be very good: a modern printing of the Vulgate would look boring (if somewhat exotic) in comparison to the lavishly illustrated works of art in common use at the time; any other edition of the Bible would risk getting you branded a heretic. $\endgroup$ – Mark Mar 24 '17 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed. I don't think the question was “How do I precede Martin Luther by a few centuries?” ;-) $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Mar 24 '17 at 3:35
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    $\begingroup$ The times and places where a non-Latin translation was illegal varied over time. $\endgroup$ – EvilSnack Mar 25 '17 at 20:19
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A bucket of "Kernel Sanders" Special recipe

Bet it would go down a treat with some mead.

(Although they might have a bit of an upset tummy for a few days after)

Just an observation I've made when I ate it last....

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  • $\begingroup$ I like it, thinking outside the box. I for one know if I was a starving serf and a guy showed up with a big ol' bucket of chicken and bread, I'd probably do just about anything he asked. $\endgroup$ – Sidney Mar 23 '17 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ You wouldn't get far on a bucket of chicken. Sure it'll get you a night of two with the locals, but after that it's gone. $\endgroup$ – apaul Mar 24 '17 at 4:21
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    $\begingroup$ That is true. But looking at the authors criteria length of stay hasn't been specified. So I assume a couple days in the middle ages would be long enough.. $\endgroup$ – JIMMY Mar 24 '17 at 4:53
  • $\begingroup$ Is that an intentional pun on Colonel? $\endgroup$ – David Conrad Mar 25 '17 at 3:00
  • $\begingroup$ This is the plot of the next Harry Turtledove book! ;) $\endgroup$ – Nanban Jim Mar 27 '17 at 17:53
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I would bring back Bic lighters.

Sure, they would leave some archeological traces, but they would never be able to recreate them. You could explain EXACTLY how they worked, so that you wouldn't be seen as a witch and most users would likely try to take it apart to attempt to recreate it, but fail miserably due to the fact that the lighter is made of plastic, held together by a gluing and melting process that could not be mimicked at the time and they wouldn't be able to refill it as they have no access to compressed gas.

Each one would be worth a fortune so you wouldn't have to bring much. I would imagine you could do a grand tour with the value of only 1 lighter.

The metal components of these lighters break down quite fast. I found one in my garden in my backyard and only the plastic remained. The item, when finally disposed of, would likely be a broken pile of plastic bits that archeologists wouldn't even know what it was.

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    $\begingroup$ I think maybe you're underestimating the impact of finding broken piles of plastic bits in archaeological dig sites dating back hundreds of years. I mean, the first time it happened it might get written off as a prank, but if it happened in multiple sites it would definitely arouse suspicion. $\endgroup$ – delinear Mar 24 '17 at 8:51
  • $\begingroup$ @delinear, Such a prank once happened on an episode of Time Team (a highly popular and long-running archeology series in the UK). If memory serves, some scallywag buried a plastic comb (with a false date written on it e.g. 1132 or something) in a place that was of great interest to historians. I'll try to find a link to the episode, it was pretty funny. $\endgroup$ – Wossname Mar 24 '17 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ The average cheap lighter breaks in a week/month for literally no reason. They will pay big money. They will break them quick. They will feel ripped off. They will find you and show your their disappointment. And your entrails. $\endgroup$ – xDaizu Mar 24 '17 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Wossname I used to be a big fan of Time Team a while ago, but I've never heard of this, that's so funny :D $\endgroup$ – delinear Mar 24 '17 at 13:11
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Ballpoint pens. Although not many medieval people could write, the (mostly rich) people who did would certainly be willing to trade for something as usefull as a simple pen. You can get cheap plastic ones for around 10 cents a piece, or biodegradable ones for around $1.50.

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Spices - dirt cheap in the UK in large bags from a Chinese supermarket (much cheaper than Tescos/etc.!). Won't arouse suspicion as being an odd item - especially if you pick ones known to them - and would fit with an "I'm a traveller, I picked these up in lands afar" image. Easily portioned out for smaller values. You're unlikely to step on anyone's toes unless you encounter a major merchant. Don't go for salt - one wet day and you risk losing it all if your bag isn't water-tight!

Paper - very valuable in olden times, very cheap now. However, it might arouse some suspicion as to how high quality a modern ream of 80gsm paper is by their standards. You'll need to find the right people to sell it to though, but it could get you quick access to higher society.

Light - once prohibitively expensive, now unnoticeably cheap (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-38650976). I suggest reasonable-quality hand-crank torches; they'll last a long time as long as you give them vague guidance not to kick them. Might raise some suspicion as 'magic', but hand-cranked seems safest - people can see that cranking is the energy source, there's no magic demon (lipo cell!) keeping it lit the whole time. Would be an extreme luxury item.

Pins - compared to nails, very cheap and light, but very expensive in the past. Easily portioned out. No risk of being seen as magical/etc. Slight risk of being lynched by the blacksmith!

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  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't hand-crank torches risk leaving archaeological evidence, or risk a technological revolution if someone got a hold of it and could study how it works? $\endgroup$ – Thunderforge Mar 24 '17 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ They can generate electricity. They can make sparks. All they need to do is find a way of making a constant glow, which they know is possible. Wiring two "turn-lights" together makes one turn the other; the potential of this would be obvious, even if only as a magic trick. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Mar 24 '17 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ The metal parts from a hand-crank torch are pretty tiny, and should rust and disappear - or at least become unrecognisable. For the plastic, something like PLA would biodegrade in as little as 6m once composted; something more long-lasting might be better. $\endgroup$ – Dan W Mar 26 '17 at 20:16
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Fireworks!

go for plain brown paper if possible Light them off, give a great show. Let the local alchemist look at a sample before lighting it off to avoid accusations of witchcraft.

You could entertain the king with a good mortar show, or scare off the kings enemies with stories of a tame dragon and so on. Just make sure you light them all off. Evidence would be burnt and any leftover paper would get scattered and degrade in a pretty short period of time.

Then you could at least let the newly enlightened king in on the concept of bathing regularly and not to dig the privy too close to the well.

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  • $\begingroup$ Many modern fireworks have plastic components and almost all have plastic packaging. Also, in Asia at this time they already had fireworks and in the late Middle Ages, the Europeans had gun powder. $\endgroup$ – Cameron Leary Mar 26 '17 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ @CameronLeary Sure they had the materials, but were actual fireworks in common widespread use? $\endgroup$ – Feathercrown Mar 27 '17 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ That's why I specifically mentioned Mortars. Fairly inexpensive, and the shots are usually brown paper wrapped, all the plastic and decoration is on the tube, which is easily replaceable. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Mar 27 '17 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Feathercrown, the Chinese had them in the early 7th century (open the history tab in the Wikipedia link) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fireworks $\endgroup$ – Cameron Leary Mar 27 '17 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ @CameronLeary Yes, but this is Europe, not China. $\endgroup$ – Feathercrown Mar 27 '17 at 14:01
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Antibiotics. Granted, the Black Death will not be at its peak by then but people will understand the benefits of it...

Must be interesting and valuable to medieval people

Well, you will have to play this right since you have to prove its worth first. This is a major drawback of this technique as you cannot instantly trade it in for the favours. The other issue is (as John's answer suggests) potential trouble with the clergy and other superstitious people. So, yeah, there is a certain risk involved here.

Should not have a very large impact on medieval society. I'm not trying to cause a technological revolution here.

Given the limited supply you will provide and no way to learn the secret of how to make it make it from the mere posession of a few samples, a techological revolution is unlikely. What will happen to the course of history if people survive who would have died otherwise is of course a very different question. Depending on what you think of the butterfly effect the time traveler being there might be trouble enough.

Ideally should not leave lasting archaeological evidence. So, no plastic bags or running shoes

Pick a dosage form and re-package to avoid plastics - sounds doable.

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Honestly, in order to make any impression on the archaeological record, you would need to both be very lucky and hand out hundreds of whatever it is you are giving out. Couple that with the fact that archaeologists are very particular with documenting everything so as to avoid site contamination, and you've got an interesting situation: they might find modern items, but those items would be unlikely to spark much archaeological interest, especially if the markings on said items included the date of manufacture. Finding such an object in a drawer of an ancient dresser would likely result in no more than a frantic search through the camp for the idiot who put it there. The only way they would discover anything is weird is if they actually looked close enough at the items to figure out that they have actually aged enough to have been placed there a long time ago.

So, if you ask me, you've got three options for the types of things you could bring: 1) items that already existed at the time, were rare, but which are abundant, cheap, or easy to come by in modern times. 2) items that degrade completely in a short amount of time, like paper, food, etc. and 3) items that degrade very little with time so as to make it difficult for an archaeologist to actually notice degradation without procedures that are too expensive to justify running on, say, a smartphone.

Note that delivering high-tech devices to someone from ancient history is not necessarily likely to kick of a technology revolution. Why? Well, understanding how a computer works takes a lot of complex mathematics and science that simply didn't exist in early human history. A person from that time period could spend their entire life examining the internals of a broken smartphone and never be able to figure out anything useful from the exercise.

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