03.01.05, Dyer, Making a Living in the Middle Ages

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James M. Murray

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.005


Dyer, Christopher. Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britian, 850-1520. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002. Pp. x, 403. ISBN: 0-300-09060-9.

Reviewed by:
James M. Murray
University of Cincinnati

In the past twenty years, Christopher Dyer has written a series of valuable syntheses of the vast and increasing research devoted to the economic history of medieval Britain. Bearing the modest titles of Everday life in medieval England, Lords and Peasants in a Changing Society and the invaluable Standards of Living in the later Middle Ages, each book has made accessible to the non-specialist the history of a medieval economy unique in its richness of detail thanks to the unrivalled sources that survive and the devoted and impressive work of a large number of British and North American scholars. Moreover, Dyer himself must be counted among that number, and he continues to publish specialized work on the urban and rural history of medieval Britain. Making a Living is thus the latest of an established genre whose modest title masks an ambitious and erudite body of work.

True to form and title, Dyer makes no sweeping generalizations or theories in this book. His goal is to survey "the society and economy of medieval Britain" through "the perspective of those that lived at the time." His period begins with the quickening of the British economy around 850, and ends with the English Reformation and the beginnings of the sixteenth-century inflation. That period is further subdivided into part 1: Origins, c. 850-c. 1100; part 2: Expansion and Crisis, c. 1100-c. 1350; and part 3, Making a new world, c. 1350-c. 1520. Though hesitant to state it as such, Dyer essentially makes the argument that the British economy achieved by 1100 a "productive structure" that combined a "dominant aristocracy living on the rents and services of a subordinate peasantry, and a network of exchange based on towns." All these economic actors, Dyer argues, behaved rationally in accord with their own self interest, often in productive tension with other social groups, to effect economic gain. Clearly economic history to Christopher Dyer has little to do with class struggle, proto-capitalist structures, or world systems theory; it is no more than the sum total of individual decisions and initiatives.

How and who works the land are key to any agrarian economy, and these crucial problems had been largely worked out in Britain before the turn of the millennium. Far from being a vast forest, much of ninth-century Britain had long been cultivated. What changed was the transformation of rural settlements into villages, the breakup of large estates held by great lords and the creation of a dependant peasantry. These are huge changes of social organization, whose inner workings are lost to view for the most part. But Dyer stresses the economic logic at work in the background: by banding together in villages adjacent to the most important cultivated fields, peasants could share farm implements and cooperate in field management and cultivation. The resultant "open fields" marked a new and more efficient way to increase output, especially of bread grains. Joint management of complementary resources such as woods and pasture also contributed to productivity and conservation

Lords breaking up great estates into smaller holdings also served the logic of production, marking a shift from a "tribute based" interaction with the peasantry to a closer, more extractive economic relationship. Tenth-century lords most often resided and invested in these properties, providing the mills, ovens and churches, which did so much to structure village and manor life. And last but not least, lords both freed slaves and coerced free peasants in order to form a serf-based labor force. Thus the English manor came to be the most common form of agrarian organization especially in the broad belt of territory running from eastern Scotland to Dorset and Hampshire.

Even Viking and Norman invasions served to solidify this agrarian structure, while intensifying exchange. Vikings brought connection to a wider market, and their pillage and collection of Danegeld "freed" gold and silver for economically productive purposes. But above all, the Viking challenge brought the Anglo-Saxon response of Alfred the Great and the Wessex dynasty who reorganized the tax and defensive system of the country. The Burh system of distributed defensive strong points had the unintended consequence of serving commercial purposes as sites of royal mints and frequently urban growth. Although not all burhs became towns, the pace of urbanization in Britain was significant, so that by 1086 there were 100 towns, 17 of which had at least 2,000 inhabitants. Thus ten percent of late eleventh-century Britons lived in towns -- a four-fold increase over 850 -- and a clear indicator of a quickening of economic activity.

The Normans in turn maintained the "grass roots" of this economy while replacing the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. Royal power increased markedly under William and his successors when roughly a sixth of the landed revenues of England were in the king's hand. William's efforts at conquest and pacification did damage the economy and rapacious new lords sometimes ruined peasants with their demands. But on the whole, Dyer's picture of the Norman conquest is a benign one for the British economy.

Dyer's story as told across the first chapters is one of individual and collective initiative and growth involving considerable cooperation among peasant, lord and townsman. Part 2 of the book continues the narrative to the early fourteenth century, but with a shift away from structure in favor of individual chapters devoted to Lords, Peasants and Towns and Commerce. In each case, Dyer is interested in the contribution of each group to the process of expansion and growth he sees as characteristic of the period from 1100-1315.

Lords were a diverse group that included magnates, gentry and members of monastic orders, but they all shared an "agricultural mindedness" unmatched anywhere in Europe. As a group they were also subjected to the increasing subdivision of landed estates through subinfeudation and inheritance, land shortage in the case of new monastic orders, and the rock and a hard place reality of fixed manorial rents and increasing inflation, especially after 1200. As a group they responded in general by taking over direct farming of the demesne in the cases of magnates and gentry, while in the case of the Cistercian order, the challenge was met by controlling both labor and the land. New technologies were developed and deployed, including detailed record keeping and accounting, specialization and experimentation in crops and stock raising, increasing the use of the horse for ploughing, and encouraging the founding of towns, markets and fairs. This was a "competitive and acquisitive group" according to Dyer, whose disciplined and rational approach to extracting more from the land and those who worked it added much to the economic expansion of the era.

Peasants were neither unwitting victims of their lords' acquisitiveness nor were they fully "commercially" minded according to Dyer. They were "partly"integrated into the market economy, flexible and willing to use the market for their purposes, but refusing to be entirely dominated by the market economy. Peasants were also alive to the possibility of negotiating better conditions for themselves with their lords. Slavery was ended as a result, and the harsher terms of serfdom also came to be increasingly part of the process of negotiation. Lords maintained the upper hand by and large both because they possessed the courts and influence to maintain their advantage, and because population pressures became increasingly apparent through the thirteenth century.

Not all peasants could be accommodated even with an expansive agrarian economy. Towns therefore became the destination for increasing numbers of countrydwellers; towns which far from being distant or unfamiliar were most often nearby and familiar to the immigrant due to the close urban/rural integration of the British economy. Towns opened opportunities for a vast array of employment: from cloth making and construction work, to hawking food and drink in town streets and market squares. Both men and women sought this freedom of opportunity, and the percentage or Britons living in towns doubled to around 20 percent by 1300. But urban life was in no way remote or disconnected from the society and economy of the countryside. Feudal lordship, peasant agriculture and commercial, urban life all contributed to a single economic order.

It is to Dyer's credit that he chose to deal with the period from 1290-1520 as an integral part of the narrative that precedes it. Judicious as always, he is careful to weigh the magnitude of both the Great Famine of 1315-17 and the Black Death of 1348-9, concluding that as serious a blow as they both were to the population of Britain, the era of growth had in fact ended by the 1290s. The initial impact of famine and disease was in his words "to confirm, deepen and emphasize tendencies which had begun earlier." Yet Dyer does let the appalling numbers speak for themselves: half the population wiped out by the initial plague outbreak, coming a little more than generation after the profound social and economic stress of the Great Famine. But Dyer rejects the arguments of the neo-Malthusians led by M.M. Postan, who credit population as the driving factor in economic change. Rather, he sees the effects of the fourteenth-century crisis to be both subtle and slow to surface, as the medieval economy showed surprising resilience and adaptability even in the face of famine, disease and the man-made scourge of war.

Leaving behind the somberness of the first half of the fourteenth century, Dyer entitles part 3 of his book "Making a new world, c. 1350-c. 1520." Of course Britain bore the marks of disaster, most notably in a population that fell from 5 million in 1300 to 2.5 million by 1377, which recovered much more slowly than was the case in France and Italy. He explains this failure of recovery by pointing to a new "English family culture" that prevented population growth through delayed marriage and high rates of celibacy.

Liberated from their compromised bargaining position before 1315, British peasants wasted no time in exploiting the labor shortage to gain a virtual end to slavery in the century after the plague, higher wages and greater consumption of better foodstuffs, costlier cloth and better dwellings. Change did not occur unopposed, however, as lords employed the state to reimpose social and economic controls. This was the context of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, which Dyer sees as a sign that the "lower orders" were refusing to obey their rulers and were instead asserting different ideas about political and social order. Though the revolt was put down, the traditions of medieval lordship largely melted away in the British countryside after 1400 as a result of peasant resistance.

The "New World" of the late medieval British economy was one increasingly dominated by towns, trade and industry, however. In a remarkably short time, Britain became a significant exporter of cloth, a major competitor in the maritime carrying trade, with London emerging as a true economic powerhouse of national and international significance. Dyer credits a new assertiveness and entrepreneurialism in both town and countryside for the change in British fortunes. Towns attracted migrants and mobilized production to satisfy a new demand for luxuries and services. Gentry and peasants seized the initiative from lords in the countryside, reorganizing production through specialization particularly in stockraising, while breaking free many of the constraints of family and customs of landholding. It was a "brave and ruthless new world at the end of the middle ages," Dyer concludes.

"Making a Living In the Middle Ages" succeeds admirably as a general work for those who desire an up-to-date, well-organized summary of a generation of research on the medieval British economy. It is not a work for specialists, however, who will search in vain for footnotes and will find little solace in a rather weak "Further Reading" section at the back of the book. Within those boundaries, the book is both a valuable and persuasive work of scholarship.

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Author Biography

James M. Murray

University of Cincinnati