Survival, Thirteenth Century Style- Part 1, by Snow Wolf

Like many preppers, I love disaster movies, whether Godzilla stomping a city, asteroids hitting the earth, pandemics, earthquakes, or volcanoes. After all, any of these things could happen, except maybe Godzilla, and useful ideas can come from anywhere, regardless of the style of disaster. The disaster movies were good for a laugh, but they also convinced me that any major disaster—asteroid, pandemic, or nuclear attack—will make societal recovery lengthy and perhaps impossible and survival difficult.

Then, I happened to watch the first episode of a 1975 British TV series called Survivors. Two conversations rearranged everything I’d assumed about survival and the continuation of civilization after a catastrophic disaster. I began to think from a perspective of thirteen century style survival.

Surviving, Like Survivors

The plot of Survivors begins with a world-wide pandemic, and the series follows the survival of a few people in Britain who are genetically able to recover from the virus. The heroine of the series is an ordinary upper-class British housewife named Abby Grant whose worries, before the pandemic, went no further than her immediate family and her tennis game. She survived the virus; her husband didn’t. In the first episode her main concern is to find her son, who was away at school and whose fate is unknown. When she reaches the school she finds only one person still alive, a teacher who has been pondering the unprecedented situation.

When Abby asks him what will happen, he explains that the real survivors will be those who can survive what will follow. Abby protests that it won’t be hard; there’s a stockpile of preserved foods and other goods. The teacher replies, “It’ll be enough for many, many years, but that would be simply scavenging, wouldn’t it, in a constantly diminishing supply. What is important is learning again. Things you’ve never even needed to consider before.”

Can You Make a Candle, Electricity, a Lightbulb?

He points to a candle and asks her if she could make it. Abby stumbles between oil products, animal fat, and finally says she can probably find it in a book.

The teacher retorts, “Alright, take it from there. A book will tell you how electricity is generated, but could you do it? Right from the beginning. Find the metal in the earth, dig it up, refine it, turn it into wire. Could you make or cast glass for a light bulb? You’ll need to know every part of every process. A carpenter, a man who works in wood: he doesn’t chop down the trees, he doesn’t forge the steel for his saw. Could he make a hammer? Nails? For myself, I could perhaps fashion some sort of stone tool.”

Ignorant Modern Man

Abby is startled at the realization of just how ignorant modern man is. The teacher warns her, “What you called ‘a stockpile of things’ will merely give us a little breathing space, perhaps several generations. But in that time, all the old crafts must be learned. We must learn.”

Abby’s Search

Abby leaves the school to continue searching for her son while pondering the teacher’s words. In time she discovers a few more survivors. One of them, a man named Wormley who sees himself as a potential leader in this new world, is still living a normal life in a home powered with a generator. As he and Abby eat in a comfortable kitchen, she explains her ideas to him, declaring that humans must relearn all the old crafts with the aim of becoming self-reliant and depending less and less on what’s been left behind.

Counting on “Hardware of Civilization” or Individual Trade Skill

Wormley tells her that the “hardware of civilization” will last for a long time, but Abby hasn’t forgotten the teacher’s words. “Don’t you see the point we’ve reached in our civilization?” she asks him. “Now, look around you. Anywhere you like, in this house, in this room, I doubt if it contains a single artifact that was the exclusive creation of one person.”

Wormley says he’s not a carpenter, but he believes he could make a table. Abby promptly retorts:

“Right from scratch? You would fell the timber? With what, an ax or a saw? The steel for the saw has been made in a foundry. The iron ore has been dug from the ground. And the fuel to smelt it with has been mined. Now what happens when the last ax head cracks and the last saw breaks? This simple metal knife is the product of hundreds of people and dozens of different trades. Take anything else you like, anywhere you like, and the same will be true of it. How do you make a cup? A piece of paper? Glass? Our civilization has the technology to land a man on the moon but as individuals we don’t even have the skills to make an iron spearhead.

Parting Ways

Abby and Wormley soon part ways. He goes to create a feudal society with himself as leader, and she’s determined to establish her own survival group that will master the old crafts rather than relying on scavenging.

Society’s True Supporting Structure– Knowledge

We know that a catastrophic disaster such as a nuclear war will wipe out society’s supporting structures. We usually think of these structures as things, such as roads, factories, buildings, bridges, et cetera. After hearing the teacher and Abby, I believe this is incorrect. The true supporting structure that holds up our modern life is knowledge—the knowledge of how to do and make things. Due to the increasing complexity of our civilization, it has become almost impossible for an individual to know how to make the items that keep our world operating. The critical supporting structure we will need is not a bridge, but the knowledge of how to build a bridge.

Government’s Primary Concern in Disaster

We also know that the U.S. government’s primary concern, should a major disaster ever occur, is what it calls “continuity of government”, which means saving the lives of politicians and their rich friends who will supposedly get the country going again. But what, exactly, can senators or billionaires do? Can they extract oil from the ground? Refine it? Make paper? Plant and harvest corn without a tractor? I don’t believe any of them have such skills. Indeed, the richer and more powerful people become, the less practical knowledge they have and the greater their contempt for actual workers.

Government’s Post-Apocalyptic Plan to Collect Taxes

What the government would do as it “governs” in a post-apocalyptic world is kept deliberately vague, although a study was conducted on how to collect taxes in such a situation (see “What the IRS plans to Do in Case of a Nuclear War Will Leave You in Stitches” at Ready Nutrition). The mere fact that the government would waste time and money writing something so ridiculous proves that as an institution it would not only be worthless but an actual impediment to survival after a catastrophic event. In their hidden bunkers our so-called “leaders” will do what they do best: hold endless meetings, accomplish nothing, and try to take whatever the rest of us might have.

Politicians and Digital Rich Will Be Worthless, But Others With Skills…

In a total collapse situation, politicians and the digitally rich will be worthless, because their skill set is worthless. Coal miners will be worth their weight in gold. The man who can forge steel will be beyond price. She who can make glass will be worth more than diamonds, Someone who knows horses (how to care for them, perform farrier work, train them for various tasks, such as pulling a plow) will be worth the Crown Jewels.

Incidentally, can anyone make a plow? Can you make the steel to make the plow? Do you know how to make a wooden plow? Can you train and hitch up mules, horses, or oxen to pull the plow?

No One Knows How To Make An Entire Object or Complete Entire Process

As Abby realized, our civilization has advanced to the point where no one knows how to make an entire object or complete an entire process. At best, we know one small step in creating the things that make up our world. Our essentials are created in factories where humans know only what button to push to instruct machines to produce what we need.

Tomorrow, we will take a deeper look from the prepper’s perspective on what we should do with this greater understanding of the need to learn skills and obtain knowledge.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been part one of a two part entry for Round 75 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

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Round 75 ends on March 31st, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.


  1. This article is a great read for the uninformed. I have done many of the things that were mentioned. Having grown up on a farm and ranch we did many of these things the old way. After WWII there were many “Great Craftsman” and if you wanted to learn they were more than glad to teach you. But you didn’t except pay and you were going to have to work.
    I had the great privilege to learn many trades.But as I am getting older not many young people want to learn. The strongest thing in there bodies seems to be there finger as they text each other. When young men in the Army can’t throw a hand grenade and the army has to delay the training till later were are in trouble.
    Looking forward to the next article.

  2. In a situation such as you present I believe there will be a few older folks who “know stuff” and “how to make things fro scratch”. But older folks need younger folks who have the physical strength to get the ore from the ground/mountain. There are a folks who know how to make knives, rifles, bullets, tan hides, collect seeds, spin wool, blow glass, etc., etc., but finding those specific folks with knowledge and putting them together in a community with young folks willing to learn those skills and a force to protect the community will take the art of leadership.

  3. Thank you!
    This piece is a part of prepping that some forget about.
    There will be VERY few preppers who have enough to keep them for the rest of their life, never mind the lives of their children.
    The foods and other supplies they will have put aside will only give them a “breathing space” to get crops and animals to replace their MRE’s.
    I look forward to part two!

  4. Having been raised “from scratch”, I can attest to the fact that skills being acquired later in life as the most difficult to master. But, master them we must. Those skills I learned as a child are innate; whereas the ones I have learned later are arduous at times as I have to think about how to actually accomplish the task at hand.

    When I grew up, and I’m only mid-life aged, we raised EVERYTHING that we ate (except sliced white bread which my mother said wasn’t worth it since sliced bread was so inexpensive) by hand using a few simple gas powered machines. I made many of my clothes and learned to knit, crochet, tat and embroider.

    Did we live like the Beverly hillbillies? No, We were quite educated and expected to maintain a level of civility and respect. Looking like your neighbor is an advantage in life. Keep your private life private.

    There is only so much time in each day, so priorities must be made. Each task that does double duty greatly lowers the work load. Keep things in their place. Hire or exchange help when needed. Fix small problems before they grow. Become good at alternative solutions. Be dependable and live clean. Have a sense of humor.

    Fly under the radar.

  5. This sure gets me thinking about life after Grid Down ! My hobbies are welding and blacksmithing. I am 40 minutes from my coal supplier by pickup and He gets it by rail !

    1. Can you use charcoal for welding and blacksmithing? There are good youtubes on how to make charcoal from very simple materials (mostly wooden sticks, mud, and good firewood).

  6. A good beginning. I look forward to more.
    Humankind has been semi-specialized since people came out of their caves and gathered together to form a community. One person cut wood. Another person knapped and formed the stone axe to cut the wood. Yet another person farmed. Etc. etc.
    Being semi-specialized is nothing new to humanity. Being semi-specialized is the basis for trade and barter. “I’m good at this, and I’ll trade for that”.

  7. At our home – we are learning a few from scratch skills. As a family we figure that our refined skills may be worth some items or skills in barter when a time of need arrives. Here is our list.

    Wool products: we keep sheep, sheet them, hand process that wool, spin into yarn, knit ir weave that yarn into a fabric.

    I keep a small flock of dairy goats: we milk , make cheese, butter, etc…

    I cut hay in the woods and powerline easement with my scithe – which I maintain myself, pasture animals in summer, breed and supervise the birthing process, cull spare animals for food.

    I can tell you that these two related fields of study have kept my family of 5 very busy for the last 6 years and I do not feel that we are yet experts in all areas of management and processing for all sheep and goat products.

  8. Snow Wolf understands the underpinnings of modern civilization and the interdependencies of everything that holds our world together. I’ve always had a gut feeling that there is a more subtle reason for the transfer of our manufacturing technology to Asia by global industrialists.
    While a total war waged on the U.S. would leave it in the devastated state described in this essay, the manufacturing base to make steel, glass, fuels, medicines, rubber, etc will not be destroyed everywhere, at once. The outside world beyond our borders would continue to function, probably without missing a shift. The problem for folks living within the affected area will be TIME.
    In the case of a successful EMP laydown on the U.S., the very large and expensive EHV transformers that are destroyed at thousands of power plants cannot be replaced nearly fast enough to restore power, and thus water and other critical needs. Millions will perish in weeks to months. The outages will last for many years, and people isolated because of the collapse of the supply chain will see the problems touched on in the essay.
    The North American power grid may well be restored, but it won’t be by Americans, and it won’t be in time for most of us. Those with the local resources and skills mentioned will probably get by. But they will be relatively few (10%?). Learning Spanish may be a good idea.

  9. I strongly advise everyone who wants to learn pre-1600 ways to look into The Society For Creative Anachronism (SCA). There, people learn (or teach themselves) the arts and crafts necessary to live in a world before automation. They also know where to find good books dedicated to these arts and crafts, and they want to pass these abilities on to others. Worth the effort.

  10. I often wonder about the excesses in the world if there was a die off or grid down. How difficult Would it be difficult to find shoes that fit if a significant number of people were to die? How difficult would it be to find warm clothing given the billions and billions of articles of clothing already made. I would think that the shear amount of ” stuff” that has saturated us in the last 100+ years would be enough to sustain a population for quite some time.. Foundries wouldnt be so much in demand if items made of metal can be melted down. How to make the fires hot enough?burning tires create a lot of heat.
    Old tires burn for a really long time, generating heat and energy. and we know there is no shortage around. I think our environment would take a huge hit and probably hasten the die off further. The biggest problem would be clean water, food and medicine .
    But i think everything else would come from the stuff we already have and creativity.

  11. Great points,made,by all. Spouse and I were both country raised by old-world country ways. We are a jack- and jill-of-all-trades. Whether it’s fixing modern equipment, or building a homestead from scratch, we are there.
    One important thing we try to do is to live in ways that our skills are utilized and kept fresh. We may have electricity, but we still have lamps and oil. We may have a TV, but we still read (and write) books. Information and skills will be some of the greatest commodities if something goes wrong. It is easier to slip into an older lifestyle if you are already accustomed to it, if you already have the basic tools and skills available to you.
    Someone mentioned the SCA. It and other historical enactment groups can be a fun, social and “harmless” way to learn, as it can be viewed as a hobby by the outside, mundane world, rather than a group of survivalist training for societal breakdown. The point was made, that looking like your neighbor has advantages. Appearing to be like every other distracted, unbelieving individual around you can help you blend and not be noticed. It doesn’t mean you have to join in their insanity, just be the “beige” individual who is there, but is never noticed.

  12. One of my favorite books, Earth Abides, comes to the same conclusion. After the pandemic, after survivors have banded together, they are scavengers for many years, not creators.

  13. I watched both of the Survivors series, much to the dismay of my wife who thought the characters to be insufficiently ruthless to survive. There were a few good ideas on re-building a society, so can both amuse and inform. Both series are on YouTube.

  14. I recall seeing what may have been a re-make of this series in the past five years or so. I would like to watch the original version of “Survivors” that the author mentions.

    Is this series available online anywhere? Otherwise, where do I find it?

  15. There’s an amazing series of 35 YouTube videos by Primitive Technology where the gentleman walks out into the forest with a pair of shorts on and proceeds to recapitulate some of the history of basic human technologies.

    He fabricates wood and stone tools, hews building materials, fabricates a shelter, warms it with radiant, under-floor heat, roofs it with clay tiles he fired in a kiln, constructs a forge, breaks up metal ore with an automatic water-powered hammer and smelts the metal, builds weapons like the bow and throwing stick…the list goes on.

    Kind of reminds me of the animated opening to How Its Made…wire becomes spring, spring hooks to pliers, pliers open gas valve, gas burns in a torch, torch welds How Its Made die to a stamping press….each step necessary for the next, each forming a synergistic whole.

    These videos are well worth the time, even if its just to watch a process by which some of the amazing things we can do come about.

  16. Some good points made.
    What would be gone quickly would be mass production. As mentioned, the economic chain would be broken in many places, making it hard to get all the materials needed to make tools, to keep engines of any kind running, producing fuel of any kind, and any number of other essential materials that contribute to modern life.
    There are many small machinist companies, and other such businesses that could continue to make certain parts, certain tools, and other needed equipment, but it would be very limited until the economic chain could be better established. A lot at first would come from scavenging and cannibalizing what was left. If the economic chain could not be re-established to some extent within 10 years after such an event, you would probably not be able to continue producing very much.
    A lot would depend on how any survivors could re-create communities that worked together, not just economically, but in terms of common defense. Protecting what you have would be just as important as re-establishing communities and resources needed to keep everything working, so it did not fall into disarray.
    That might be the most difficult aspect, maintaining communities that could work together and defend themselves against any roaming bands just looking to take whatever they could in order to survive.
    Don’t know that it would necessarily put life back into the 1200s or 1300s, but could very well put life back to the 1700s and 1800s.
    It would depend on the extent of the disaster. If from disease, infrastructure would survive more, and it would be a matter of finding people with the expertise to continue operating that infrastructure, and training others to do the same. The more infrastructure is lost, the more difficult to survive and re-establish communities.

  17. Perhaps the most overlooked assets in our society are our engineers. I am not speaking exclusively of those who are trained as professional engineers (though I am one and there are enormous benefits to that specialized training); rather, I am referring to those true engineers (professional or not) who find innovative solutions to technical problems. We are the hidden hands that maintain and advance the tools of society. In this time of relative comfort and plenty we are well-paid to keep things humming along but largely invisible: teachers, athletes, entertainers, first responders, soldiers, politicians, and others are celebrated (some deservedly so; others not so much), but there is no national “hug an engineer day”. Nevertheless, we are out here and, when the S hits TF we will go to work and astonish the doomsayers. We can`t help it: that is who we are. If we craved recognition we would have chosen another line of work. The character`s fear that it will take generations to re-learn how to make iron or electricity or light bulbs is only because she doesn`t know any engineers.

    1. Can you dig iron ore,coal,lime,make coke? Those are the raw materials,a engineer may know how to build a blast furnace but a lot had to be accomplished before that knowledge is useful.

  18. Population density will make all the difference. Many folks in fly-over country possess ‘life skills’. City dwellers will suffer at the altar of dependence.

  19. THANK YOU! I don’t know why most prepper blogs are so stuck on the most simple of tasks, things that my grandparents did without outside assistance. Yes, it will be a chore to relearn and accomplish those tasks — but to survive much longer than a while, one must recreate at least some semblance of division of labor.

    Division of Labor. It is on the shoulders of millions before me that I carry out my trade. Probably true for most non-menial labor employees….. The ancient trade routes allowed it, and something similar has to reconstructed quickly in that day.

    Give me a stash of transistors and components and I can make almost anything electronic. But how to put together a silicon foundary? Laser trimmed film resistors? Forget integrated circuits!!! First take the gear you have and begin developing higher technology — and LEARN and TEACH….the educational system will have to be rebuilt!

    Great that your group has a surgeon….how are you at belly surgery without ANESTHESIA?? Somebody better start learning how to make ether, local anesthetics, narcotics…..then advance to halogenated anesthetics while you hope the electronics guys learn how to make oscilloscope tubes before all the existing gear dies.

    Antibiotics?? Better hope a microbiologist survives and can help people begin to even TEST new agents, and a chemical engineer (or an organic chemist)….KNOWLEDGE will be king, right after firearms & farming…..

    Justice? Even Moses had to institute a legal system….

    I don’t know exactly what to tell you, but preppers need to UP THEIR GAME several orders of magnitude or it is going to be a very very hard existence…..

    Prepping blogs in my opinion need to begin thinking through THAT level of division of labor….every prepper needs to be thinking of not only the menial skills (like keeping yourself alive, food, water, defense) — but also the myriad of skills just below and just above your own knowledge base, and developing your skill level there, figuring how you would re-create,, even on the most modest level, that specific area. If you are an aircraft designer…..time to start thinking about how to build engines, simple pulley controlled airplanes like the Vans etc….propellers, etc. If you are a software developer… you can use your skills to automate whole new factories and acquire the stored computers, actuators, etc to make that happen…..before we’re all speaking either Chinese or Russian…. our ancestors did it. We may not survive it, we may be annihilated, but it won’t be with my trying to succeed in the little area of expertise that God gifted me particularly for!

  20. Survivors from the BBC (Three series) in the seventy’s was a lot better than the 2000’s (Two series) remake.
    Like most series, series one is more popular then series two and well I’ll not say anything about series three. It’s not hard to look up the details on the net.
    From a Survivalist point of view series two is the best, it’s were the set up a farm.

  21. Many good points, buy why make a wheel when there are plenty laying around? It would only make sense to acquire basic skills and scavenge everything you can, as scavenging is far less labor intensive than making it yourself. High quality manual tools will last for generations with good care.

    If humanity hits the wall – for whatever reason and there is not a quick recovery – I would expect to run out of paper, fibers, easy fuel, and easy food, long before I would run out of manual tools, furniture, or iron!

    My first years were off grid and dirt poor in Northern Nevada. Our needs were much less than in today’s world. My uncles were entirely too cheap to buy candles or kerosene. When it got dark you went to bed and that was the end of that! Nor was there any paper in the outhouse! You filled your little bucket with water, washed yourself and air dried! A real thrill when it is well below zero. Ever been next in line for the weekly bath, same tub – same water?

    Many things I use everyday and consider necessities, we simple did not have. Somehow we survived and thrived. Humans are amazing creatures, those who are healthy and can accept the situation – will figure it out. Most don’t stand a chance.

  22. It is true that people can survive without most of the modern luxuries.
    But don’t overlook —
    — maternal mortality was far far higher without modern care
    — significantly premature delivery was a death sentence for the child
    — childhood measles, diptheria, etc. killed off so many children that people had to have several kids just to raise some to adulthood
    — childhood leukemia, wilms tumor, etc…. a death sentence
    — peripheral vascular disease —> gangrene —> death
    — prostate troubles? you develop pyelonephritis and die.
    — copd? you’d die with the first pneumonia
    — sepsis? no chance
    — stroke — 50% death rate (we still aren’t terribly better, but some)
    — I bet large percentages of the population had parasitic worms (e.g., north korea!)
    — angina? prepare to meet your Maker
    — breast cancer? same.

    Oh and the torture! Civil war surgeons could cut off an extremity in only a few seconds with a gigli saw—because their victim had to scream in pain, dulled only by opium / whiskey. Didn’t really matter — patient stood a good chance of dying anyway. A bullet ANYWHERE and you were likely to die.

    Now on the bright side:
    Anyone who can find or make a high-vacuum pump and can do elementary glassblowing can make vacuum tubes….Lee DeForest did it in 1903. Analog meters are terribly difficult to manufacture. I don’t have one, b

    ut small semiconductor fab labs probably exist and one might want to learn how to operate it. Machine shop gear is nearly indestructible and all of us can learn how to sharpen end-mills. Once you find a machinist (or become one) then you can manufacture engines / generators etc. Hyroelectric power isn’t hard at all. Many antibiotics came from nation and can once again. As society loses all advanced antibiotics, the plasmids that confer antibiotic resistance will slowly disappear and non-resistant bacteria will once again predominate. Only a hundred units of penicillin used to be CURATIVE….and at some point it will again. The techniques to make many useful vaccines isn’t that difficult tho there may be some tragedies early on….

    And we arent that far away from some of this….right now hospitals in America are having difficulty merely finding morphine and other standard narcotics for patients with cancer or surgical pain — because of damage to Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical industry. When things become SO concentrated, the risks to the society increase.

    Obviously people who have stored up food, SEED, BOOKS, firearms, know how to reload ammunition, cast or swage bullets, are in good physical shape and LUCKY will have the best chances…..and live in hospitable climates…..and are missed by whatever armies become involved…..

    But the prepper industry could benefit from moving into far higher plans for reconstruction of a society beyond small gardens. From antibiotics, to munitions, a huge number of items will need to be produced to return any semblance of modern lifespan.

  23. Let me point out a depressing truth. If you are to try to regenerate modern society from the ground up, you would rapidly run into this simple fact: the easily accessible resources are largely gone. Coal close to the surface, oil in shallow wells, iron ore, copper ore, etc. That is why the mines are deep or huge now. And they are not coming back. Wood will come back eventually, and could be turned into charcoal, but the reason we have such limited forest resources now is that they can be used up far faster than they can grow. We may go farther back than 1350! On the other hand, the jobs in “mining” garbage dumps will probably keep us going for a while. Human ingenuity will probably find a way, but it will be a very different way than where we are now.

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