7 Reasons You Don't Really Wish There Was a Time Machine

Have you ever caught yourself wishing you could go back in time to the old-worldy, cobblestoned, smoky Middle Ages? Or the skirt-swishing, ale-guzzling Stuart period? Or maybe you'd don your lace-up ankle boots and head back to the Victorian era.

While it might seem like a fun thing to do (and I've wished this many times myself), perhaps the past isn't quite how we imagine it. Here are seven reasons why, even as a history lover, you really don't want to travel back in time, even if you could. 

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash

They didn't quite know how to cure disease
Go back anytime before the late eighteenth or nineteenth century and your risk of dying from a vicious disease increases. The reason is that before then, no one had a clue about viruses, bacteria or how infections happened. There were repeated incidences of plague from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries and some of the government-lead solutions included prayer and lighting bonfires, although they did also restrict travel and self isolate as we do now. Until the late 1700s there were no vaccinations. Bacteria was discovered in the 1670s but its link with disease wasn't discovered until 1881, with Louis Pasteur. You'd have to wait until 1796 for the first vaccinations with Edward Jenner, although there were side effects, one of the more serious being death. And you wouldn't want to trust your doctors. Just look up how Charles II died.  

You would probably know too much
Presuming you travelled back in time with the knowledge you have now, you'd be considered a bit of a weirdo. You'd end up wittering on and asking where you can get hold of these strangely-named things like antibiotics, paracetamol and doughnuts. You'd - perhaps outwardly - wish they had aeroplanes or cars - big metal carriages that soar through the skies or bomb down the road at 70mph. You'd know about the different continents and countries without having travelled to them, in an age before flights, cruises and the internet. You'd also know that bacteria caused disease, and you'd say 'pah' to the idea of the four humours that existed until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But just remember that any talk of malicious, tiny little monsters that you can't see, crawling into your body and making you ill might get tongues wagging in your village. Which brings me on to...

You'd be arrested within about four minutes
Generally, anytime prior to the twentieth century and you're talking religious times. Go back to the Stuarts and Tudors and you'd better keep track of who's ruling and what the religion is. Go further to Medieval times and even the time of day was decided by the name of the prayers that were said throughout the day. There were rules on what to wear, too, and you had to wear clothes that reflected your social status. Start talking about exercising our own free will, miss your prayers, wear a nice gold-trimmed and purple tunic you brought with you from the future or let slip that the king's beautiful, young new wife might well meet a sticky end in a couple of years and you'll be up for charges of witchcraft, treason or heresy. 

It's unlikely you'd have a clue what anyone was talking about 
When we watch films with Richard III or Henry V giving rousing speeches to their armies, we hear them bellowing out orders in a trim, clipped southern English accent. But did you know that as late as the late sixteenth century people spoke in a strong, rounded accent with rolled 'R's, that, to us, would have been difficult to understand. Words meant different things, too. When someone described someone as 'mean', it really meant they were poor, not antisocial or rude. Up until the 1500s a lot of texts were written in Latin. See this video for a guide as to how our language has changed over the years. I bet it'll surprise you. And there's this one, which is what Richard III probably sounded like. 

It was a lot more dangerous back then
Although cases still hit the news, it's fair to say that we live in less violent times than our ancestors did. We don't all carry swords and daggers around with us for a start, which meant that things got heated pretty quickly when there was a local disagreement. In September 1639, Constables were called to The George Inn, in Reading, where they found a scene with "a number of people, amongst whiche some had their heades broken and cutt with swordes and staves, and some of the fighters and quarrellers gone." So what caused this outburst of violence, leaving men lying in the road with gashed heads and blood dripping about their ears? "Beinge brought before the Maiour, upon examynacion, it apeared the quarrel arose about a dogge." (1)

Olden days were seriously tough on your body
Apart from the higher risk of disease and physical violence, you can look forward to getting up early (4am is a good time), working and ploughing fields in all weathers and being exposed to the cold, wet and frost. Think you'd be able to pass yourself off as a noble? Then you might spend less time ploughing fields but you'd still be sent around the country - maybe even through Europe - on royal business, delivering messages, commanding armies with little experience and riding horses through muddy tracks for days on end. And if the monarch was at war whether at home or overseas, you'd be fighting for hours in a field, just trying to stay alive. Add in the constant being bled and having leeches and hot irons stuck on you to - ironically - make your aches and pains better, by doctors. 

You'd probably miss your favourite things. 
Anytime before the 1660s, no tea or coffee. Before the 1700s? No chocolate. Craving a burger with gherkins, a brioche bun and a slice of melty, tangy Cheddar? Forget it. Take your phone with you by all means but there'll be no way to charge it, no one to call or text and no such thing as wireless or data. Until the late 1800s, night time was just darkness, with hazy plumes of flickering light provided by beeswax candles that melted down quickly. The pepper that seasoned your food was a luxury. On the other hand, the food was all organic, it was still pretty tasty and would comfort you on a cold day. The air was cleaner. People spent more time socialising, with no screens to distract them. It wasn't all bad, there would be some advantages to time travel for sure - but would you risk it? 

What do you think? Would you go back in time anyway? Where or when would you go? 

(1): JM Guilding, Diary of the Corporation, Reading. Vol.3 p464.

You might also like this book review of Past Mistakes - which helps us see some of the biggest historical events in a new way. Or this post, about why being a history lover definitely changes you forever. And how about this one, which explains why no, history will never actually run out of things to be studied. Ever. 

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