Why You'd Never Survive Life During The Middle Ages

If you believe Hollywood, life during the Middle Ages was romantic and glamorous, full of noble knights on noble steeds, beautiful ladies with pointy hats, chivalry, honor, and occasional dragons. It's enough to make you want to hop in a T.A.R.D.I.S. and travel back through time. And you might be shocked to hear that Hollywood has it all backward. "No!" you shout, "Not Hollywood, bastion of honesty and purveyor of historical truths! Say it ain't so." Well, it's so.

The Middle Ages of Europe were really nothing like the Middle Ages of Hollywood. For almost everyone, life was difficult, dirty, and dangerous. People died young, and they often died from things that almost never kill people in the modern world. So if you did have a chance to time travel back to those days of olde you might be surprised by how long you'd actually last there, which is not very long. Here's a short list of reasons why you — and to be honest, everyone else — wouldn't survive long in the Middle Ages.

You might not make it past childhood in the Middle Ages

Grief is awful no matter what form it takes, but in the West we are less likely to experience the worst version of it. In America, infant mortality is only around .54 percent, and it gets better once kids pass infancy. Mortality for children between the ages of 1 and 4 is around .02 percent, and for kids aged 5 to 14 it's around .01 percent.

Now compare that to childhood mortality in the Middle Ages. According to Representing Childhood, exact numbers are impossible to come by, but estimates place the medieval infant mortality at around 25%. That means one out of every four babies born during that time period would die within the first year of life. The odds went up a bit for children who made it to toddlerhood — kids between the ages of 1 and 4 had a mortality rate of around 12.5%. If they made it to 5 then they were really cruising — the mortality rate for kids between the ages of 5 and 9 was only about 6%. Still, that was worse than the mortality rate for infants in modern America, but hey, at least medieval kids got to play with swords and drink alcohol and stuff without any of those oppressive child safety laws. Small price to pay.

Chances are you'd be a peasant, and peasants in the Middle Ages died young

So if you somehow did manage to T.A.R.D.I.S. your way into medieval society, you're probably going to stick out like a purple unicorn in a herd of white horses, what with your iWatch and your blue jeans. So you're going to have to make yourself inconspicuous pretty quickly, and you're not going to do that by putting on a velvet robe and pretending to be the queen. No, your best chance is to blend in with the peasant population, where no one is likely to notice you.

Peasants in medieval Europe comprised around 90% of the population, so what's one more peasant, really? The problem with becoming a peasant, though, is that the life of a peasant sucked. According to Western Reserve Public Media, peasants wore the same danged rough, itchy wool outfit every day, ate bread, porridge, and vegetables, and if they were lucky got a little bit of meat occasionally. And also when the weather sucked, they died. Peasants would starve when the weather was too wet and they would starve when the weather was too dry because when the crops failed so did they. The average life expectancy for a peasant was between 30 to 40 years, depending on the time frame, as per History Extra.

If the weather didn't kill you, the Black Death would

Nobody gets the Black Death anymore, except for 20,000 people between 2000 and 2009, including 56 people in the United States. But if we just pretend we don't know that and if we avoid chipmunks like the plague because chipmunks are freaking plague-carrying harbingers of death, then we mostly don't have to worry. But travel back in time to, say, 1340s Europe, and your chances of surviving are somewhere between 7 in 10 and 2 in 5.

Estimates suggest the Black Death killed as much as 60% of the entire population of Europe. To give yourself an idea of just the sort of impact this might have had, the next time you're at work you can tick off three out of every five people you see and pretend they're deceased and then try to figure out how you and your colleagues would manage without them.

Here's the crazy part, though. With your colleagues gone, you're suddenly in a position to go, "Hey boss, it looks like you need a new middle management team!" That's what happened in the Middle Ages, too. After half the world died, it kind of changed the balance of power. Suddenly, peasants could ask for pay raises and improvements in working conditions and life actually got better for them. Probably not worth losing three-fifths of everyone you ever loved, but hey, money is the great softener of blows.

If the Black Death didn't kill you, childbirth would

Women had it especially hard during the Middle Ages. They were generally regarded as morally weak, and they weren't allowed to do things that modern women take for granted, like getting a job, deciding who to marry, and having opinions about things. There were some powerful women, granted, but they were pretty uncommon.

The worst part about being a woman, though, was that you were expected to procreate or else become a nun. And frankly, becoming a nun sounds pretty tempting compared to the dangers of procreation, which would kill like one out of every three women. Compare that to today's maternal mortality rate of one out of every .028% and no one's going to blame you if you decide to take the T.A.R.D.I.S. back to civilization once your nine months are up.

According to the Raven Report, childbirth in the Middle Ages and the Tudor period were so dangerous that royal women were encouraged to write out a last will and testament well in advance of giving birth. Just imagine working that in somewhere between decorating the nursery and setting up your kid's college savings account.

In the Middle Ages you could be killed for your religion, or lack thereof

Everyone in medieval Europe was a good Catholic, except for those who weren't, and they either had to pretend to be or else be prepared to die for their beliefs. The concept of religious freedom was most definitely Not A Thing.

According to History Extra, during the 11th and 12th centuries, people started thinking critically about the Catholic Church, and one of the things that certain critical thinkers disliked about the Catholic Church was its wealth and power. If history has taught us anything it's that people who have wealth and power don't especially love when people who don't have wealth and power start criticizing them for having wealth and power. But these were extra dangerous times because the Church was so wealthy and so powerful that it could pretty much just snuff out its critics, and it could do that in the name of God, because, you know, it was the Church and therefore everything it did was ordained.

No one is really sure how many people were burned during that time period, but we do know it was sometimes done in groups of 200 or more. And it didn't end for a long time, either — Queen Mary burned 300 Protestants in the 1550s. So visit medieval Europe, sure, but remember, pope jokes are right out.

Famine wasn't just something you could pretend wasn't happening to other humans

In the modern West, hunger doesn't have anything to do with the availability of food — it's a symptom of poverty, not the weather. When we have crop failure in here, we get food from other places if we can afford it. Famine as we understand it is something that happens in the developing world, where we can mostly just ignore it and complain about our first world problems instead, like how hard it is to get good cell phone service in rural America. In the Middle Ages, most people did not have the luxury of just getting food from somewhere else. And also, there was no cell phone service anywhere, so hard times.

According to Historic U.K., when famine struck it was epic and deadly. From the summer of 1314 through most of 1316, England was plagued by uncharacteristically huge quantities of rain. And if you've ever been to the U.K., you know that "uncharacteristically huge quantities of rain" is just seriously a ton of rain because typical rainfall is already pretty heavy by most standards. Anyway, it rained and rained, and crops rotted in the fields, farm animals drowned in floods, all the stored food got eaten and then people started to starve. By the end of the famine, roughly 5% of England's population was dead, which isn't Black Plague terrible, but it's nowhere near Whole-Foods-just-ran-out-of-kale terrible, either.

Forget that summer holiday backpacking around Europe in the Middle Ages

If you wanted to travel in the Middle Ages, the local monastery offered a clean, safe place to sleep, but what if there was no local monastery? Well, you could stop at an inn. Sure, the beds were made of straw and you might have to share yours with one or two other travelers, and there were rats and so many fleas that it was sort of similar to donating a pint at the local blood bank, only itchier — but it was a mostly safe place to spend the night.

Depending on where you were going and how many villages you might encounter on the way, though, you weren't always going to have the option of staying in an inn. And that might mean sleeping out in the open, which Travel and Trade in the Middle Ages says was a terrible, terrible idea. There were always people lurking on the roads after dark, ready to murder you for your pocket change, and wild animals were a problem, too. People embarking on pilgrimages during the Middle Ages often traveled in groups for safety, and wealthy people would sometimes just pay someone to go on pilgrimage for them, which kind of seems to be defeating the purpose but whatever.

So anyway, if part of your time travel fantasy involves backpacking across medieval Europe, forget it. Though you could always just pay someone to do it for you.

Wars in the Middle Ages were even stupider than they are today

Modern wars are always over sensible things, like which country has the bigger missile and whose soccer team is more awesome. But in the Middle Ages, wars were fought over really stupid things, like which unqualified rich person was going to end up sitting on the throne.

So that's between Rich Person One and Rich Person Two, except that it wasn't — if you were male and you happened to reside in the kingdom of one of those two rich people, you'd be compelled to go fight in his stupid war. According to Finer Times, though, it wasn't all that bad — if you didn't die within the first 40 days, you could go back home. That's because it was bad business to draft all the peasants into service at the same time. With no one around to take care of the farms, the kingdom would lose money and then it wouldn't be able to afford the stupid war.

Noblemen died in war, too — before 1550, roughly 30% of them could expect to perish in some battle or another. As for the peasants, well, no one really knows. Peasant deaths were considered so inconsequential that no one ever counted them. And defeat often meant systematic slaughter of all the leftover common people. It definitely wasn't a good time to be a soldier or a peasant.

There were way, way more capital crimes in the Middle Ages than there are today

In the U.K. today, there are no capital crimes because Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965. But prior to that, Britain was big on executing people. During the Middle Ages, there were 50 capital crimes on the books, which included not just treason and various forms of murder but lesser things like poaching, robbery, and forgery.

This is one of those rare instances where you'd actually be better off in the Middle Ages than you would be a little later down the road of history, though. Sure, there are no capital crimes in the U.K. today but by the 1600s the number of crimes you could be officially executed for rose to around 200, and included things like petty theft, "damaging Westminster bridge," and cutting down a sapling. So basically, if you flew your T.A.R.D.I.S. into Westminster bridge or a forest with a lot of young trees in it, you could kiss your modern time-traveling butt goodbye. Although, History Extra says the "Bloody Code" of that time period actually resulted in fewer executions, probably because juries were reluctant to sentence people to death for minor offenses.

Just in case, though, you should keep your T.A.R.D.I.S. out of the Middle Ages and also out of the 1600s, just to be on the safe side.

Your food might actually kill you in the Middle Ages

Medieval people were often smelly and illiterate, but they weren't stupid. Everything you've heard about how people in the Middle Ages covered the taste of rotten meat with heavy spices isn't the truth — spices were expensive, and anyone who could afford them could probably also afford to throw out all that rotten meat.

For the most part, people knew how to preserve food. They salted, smoked, dried, and pickled it and there doesn't seem to have been a rash of people dying because they were eating bad meat.

There were other dangers lurking in the food, though. If you were rich, you probably owned a lovely set of fancy glazed dishes, which were full of lead and other heavy metals like mercury. According to Smithsonian, when you filled your plates and bowls up with salty or acidic foods, the glaze would start to break down and those metals would leach into your food. So members of the upper class were slowly poisoning themselves as they dined on luxury dishware.

Meanwhile, bakers sometimes made bread from rye infected with a fungus called Claviceps purpurea, and that could cause an outbreak of an illness that modern medicine knows as ergotism. The infection caused hallucinations, convulsions, a burning sensation in the limbs, and sometimes even blackened body parts that would literally just fall off. When you're traveling back in time, take some trail mix and beef jerky along. You can never be too careful.

If you survived an illness in the Middle Ages, it was probably in spite of your doctor

If you got sick during the Middle Ages, just forget it. There were no antibiotics, no appendectomies, no chemotherapy, and physicians didn't wash their hands in between patients. The things doctors did know were mostly wrong and almost always totally useless from a medical perspective. According to the British Library, a sick person might be diagnosed with the help of an astrological chart, and treatment might include bloodletting, purging, or trepanning, which was the practice of drilling a hole in the skull to relieve pressure in the brain.

Shockingly, these treatments not only rarely worked but sometimes could even hasten a patient's death. Still, the practice of bloodletting persisted for a long time. In fact there's still debate on whether George Washington was killed by strep throat or by the aggressive bloodletting doctors used to treat his condition.

Your best bet, then, is to avoid calling the doctor when you develop a sore throat and fever during your medieval vacation. Or maybe just don't go to the Middle Ages, okay?

And then there was ye good olde fashioned violence

If you escape all those other dangers, you're still left with one very harsh truth: The Middle Ages was just a much more violent time. According to History Extra, murder in medieval England was around 10 times more common than it is today. That sounds really bad until you consider that the murder rate in America is like 4.7 times higher than it is in the U.K., but let's just try to pretend like there's a huge difference between 10 and 4.7.

Still, even with terrifying maternal mortality rates, life expectancy for women in the Middle Ages was considerably better than it was for men — according to Purple Motes, on average a woman could expect to live about 9.4 years longer than her male counterparts, and that was mostly because of violence between men. In fact roughly 46% of all deaths in men ages 15 and above were caused by violence, so yes, as a dude living in medieval England you had a roughly 1 in 2 chance of meeting a bloody end.

So sure, T.A.R.D.I.S. your way back to the Middle Ages and take in the sights, but you might want to avoid actually getting out and having a look around. If the Middle Ages were lethal for the people who were born and raised there, a modern person doesn't really have much hope for survival at all.