The Time-Traveller’s Dilemma

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to time-travel back to Tudor times, then try to explain 21st century technology to the Tudor people? How would you find the terms that are understandable to 16th century minds?

This was the subject of a very interesting post recently on a Tudor history group page on Facebook, with some well thought out comments. The gist of these was that if one did go back in time, then it would be good to take some modern items like medicines or cosmetics back, in order to provide a practical demonstration of our technology. But the main conclusion, agreed by many contributors, was that any such time-traveller would most likely be deeply misunderstood, and would probably be accused of witchcraft.

All these challenges are exactly the ones I set myself when writing my first book The Witchfinder’s Well, so I feel well placed to add my thoughts on the subject. In the book, my time-travelling heroine, Justine, has to explain 21st century technology to a 16th century mother and daughter. I tried to think what imagery would resonate with them, particularly for things like a mobile phone and a television. I decided on the idea of a ‘polished black stone’ for a screen that shows pictures; “smooth, like the surface of a still pond”, as that seemed to be the nearest equivalent a Tudor mind would grasp. But naturally, the two women thought such things were made by magic – so Justine explains it in terms that would have been as normal to them as the manufacture of a TV is to us – the making of bread:
“You know that if you grind the wheat into flour then add yeast and cook it in the oven, you get a loaf of bread?” They nodded. “Then turning wheat into bread is not magic?”
“No, that it is not,” Sarah’s mother replied.
“So the people who make the black stones know that if they take all the right pieces, and put them together in the right way, then the stones will show the pictures. That is not magic.”

When it came to cars, I wanted to use the analogy of a ‘horseless carriage’. But then, I wondered what that would mean to my Tudor women. They would see a horse as the main means of travel in itself, so how could anything move without a horse? I resolved this by having Justine explain it as “a large covered cart made of iron, like a beetle’s carapace, that can travel at twice the speed of a galloping horse, yet without a horse to pull it!” My thought was that they would know how a beetle moves, so would grasp the concept of a large shiny beetle-like vehicle. 

When Justine explains these things to the Tudor women, she is already on the run from the witchfinder, having inadvertently said the wrong thing to the wrong person soon after arriving in 1565. So she tells them of her future knowledge as a means to get their understanding and help – but she knows it could easily backfire and turn them against her. I won’t say if she is or isn’t successful, as if you have not yet read it, I wouldn’t want to spoil the story, but this conversation does have a strong bearing on the final climactic scene of the book!

If you want to read The Witchfinder’s Well, you can find more details by clicking (or tapping) on the image of the cover.