Friday, 30 April 2010

Making a Living in the Middle Ages

Making a Living in the Middle Ages: the People of Britain 850-1520, by Christopher Dyer (2002; first UK paperback edition, 2009). Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10191-1.

This is a very readable survey of economic conditions and changes over its seven-century period, published as part of Yale’s series The New Economic History of Britain. Though it is well-furnished with scholarly references, Dyer writes in a clear and lively style, and makes few assumptions about the reader’s starting knowledge. It's therefore a fine introduction to what we know of everyday life in this period, and to how such immemorial British institutions as villages, farms, trades and towns grew up. As a reader, I enjoyed it and learned from it; as a fantasy writer, it has earned its precious shelf-space in my permanent reference collection; and as a tightwad, its current RRP of £12.99 will do just nicely, thank you!

The book is especially strong in its open-minded and sceptical approach to its matter, and eschews simplistic, schoolbook-friendly accounts of such developments as the evolution of the manorial system, the crisis at the end of the High Middle Ages, and the rise of sheep-farming and enclosure. Long-term developments and trends are followed through, and their continuity emphasized, even where the acorn is gone beyond tracing and all that can be done is to descry the course of the older roots.

Likewise, there is much examination of individuals' changing circumstances and incentives, and the author's eye is squarely on their agency and inventiveness. As the title suggests, here is a book not of conquerors and reformers, but of peasants and artisans, clerks and merchants and lords, each making their living every way they knew how. Details of peasant enterprise, innovation, and organization under the feudal yoke provided me with some particular eye-openers.

Dyer’s chief fault - and it is not very grave, because it happens seldom - is that occasionally he seems so concerned to avoid dogmatism in his conclusions, as to produce prose that merely mixes arguments rather than develops or judges them:

"The abandonment and shrinkage of rural settlements shows that the peasants were not the victims of their lords, but decision-makers and initiators. Many peasants did not better themselves or make great changes in their economic roles during this period..."

for instance, begins a long paragraph the rest of which is equally irrelevant to its random opening sentence. More typically, though, his arguments are honestly open rather than annoyingly invisible.

This book will be a valuable read for fellow perpetrators of mediaevaloid fantasy - particularly for those who, like me, find peasants and burgesses at least as interesting as knights and kings, and are bored with the usual suspects out of central casting. Libertarians (and, I suppose, their foes) will find highlighted in it many ways in which valued institutions, customs, and livelihoods developed specifically in the interstices of state and feudal authority. And what conclusion could better appeal to such an individualist and wary-eyed goat as I, than this final paragraph?

"These influences are presented here in an impersonal manner, but we should not forget that the mediaeval world developed in the way that it did because Haehstan managed his limited estate in an enterprising way; Wulfhelm developed his goldsmith's craft in a new urban environment; Stephen de Fretwell mismanaged his affairs and went bankrupt; Robert Broun cleared new land; Nicholas Symond the spurrier demanded higher wages; and Thomas Vicars managed his farm in the most profitable fashion. [Internal chapter references removed.] These individuals had little impact on their own, but they were part of tendencies involving many others, and their accumulated actions created the 'new world' with which the middle ages came to an end."

Yes, he has told us the surviving tales of all these people, and a great many more to boot.

John Langdon of the University of Alberta provides a professional historian’s review here, and seems no less impressed therein.


  1. Do you know how high my TBR pile already is?

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  2. I don't know, but from examination of my own I may be able to guess...


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