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An Age of Transition? Economy and Society in the Later Middle Ages

Author(s):Dyer, Christopher
Reviewer(s):Huffman, Joseph P.

Published by EH.NET (December 2006)

Christopher Dyer, An Age of Transition? Economy and Society in the Later Middle Ages. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. vi + 293 pp. $65 (hardback), ISBN: 0-19-822166-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joseph P. Huffman, Department of History, Messiah College.

Medievalists for some time now have been about the business of questioning the traditional boundaries between the medieval and early modern periods. It all started with taking down the Renaissance a few pegs in Charles Homer Haskins’ The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927) and has been followed by such works as Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), Joseph R. Strayer’s On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (1970), Pierre Chaplais’ English Diplomatic Practice (1982), Colin Morris’ The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200 (1987), and Giles Constable’s The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (1996), all of which argue persuasively that characteristics and trends we have deemed “modern” appeared much earlier than the post-1500 western world.

What these scholars have wrought in the areas of cultural, political, technological, and religious history, the eminent historian Christopher Dyer (University of Leicester) has accomplished in the area of English socio-economic history. Originally delivered as the Ford Lectures (University of Oxford, Hilary Term 2001), this book’s fundamental thesis is “that many of the tendencies of the end of the Middle Ages had their roots in a much earlier period … [and that] the advance of commercialization, as towns grew and markets multiplied in the thirteenth century, has led to doubts about whether the changes of the long fifteenth century were of much significance” (p. 3). He continues on to assert that “Just as the commercial growth of the thirteenth century prepared the way for the structural changes of the fifteenth, so developments before 1500 can be connected with the trends of the early modern period” (p. 3). Prosperous rural yeomen, wage laborers, innovative farming techniques, occupational specialization, and the rise of a consumer economy were not the turning points of the early modern period but rather quite typical of England before 1500.

Dyer is not fashioning a wholly new thesis here about English economic history, but rather offering a wonderfully detailed yet thoroughly readable account of the scholarship produced by a generation of Anglo-American socio-economic historians (himself perhaps foremost among them) in the past fifteen years or so: Richard H. Britnell, Bruce M.S. Campbell, Stephan R. Epstein, John Hatcher, Edward Miller, David Palliser, Derek Keene, Mavis Mate, Jim Masschaele, Mary Ann Kowaleski, Wendy Childs, and Jenny Kermode, for example. These scholars have produced ground-breaking evidence of a rapidly commercializing economy in thirteenth-century England — a trend overlooked in the past because it was hidden in the local and regional economies of towns rather than documented in multiple metropolitan areas as one finds on the continent. Based on this relatively recent scholarship, the picture of England’s socio-economic development looks much more matured before 1500 than previously believed and the crisis of the fourteenth century proved to be a period of economic innovation and advancement by the lower ranks of society even though the aristocracy experienced decline.

Chapter one, entitled, “A New Middle Ages,” articulates the thesis in more detail. Dyer emphasizes the active agency of the lower ranks of society in overcoming the challenges faced in the later Middle Ages, as they used the market to their advantage. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries no longer appear as a “false start” of a modern economy, but rather as the foundation that weathered the storms of the fourteenth century; continuities in urbanization, commercialization, and transportation infrastructure remained the norm well past 1500. Although the aristocracy lost economic ground and social control in the later Middle Ages, the more entrepreneurial among the social ranks beneath them proved resilient and even prospered as a result of the crisis period. Dyer concludes, “the ‘new middle ages’ contradicts the strongly held belief that decisions were made by the powerful elite, and that change was directed from above … many features of the period, from family structures to farming methods, bear a strong resemblance to those prevailing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (p. 40). It should also be obvious that traditional views of the “transition from feudalism to capitalism” are no longer viable, since the peasantry appears every bit as entrepreneurial and commercial-minded as the gentry and urban middle classes of the late fifteenth century.

The remainder of the book contains topical chapters of real interest to economic historians. Chapter two considers the shifting boundaries between private property and communal welfare. Dyer’s case studies reveal that conflicts driven by individual self-interest were not early modern phenomena; indeed, peasants (not just lords) pressed for ‘privatization’ of common fields, and their retirement, inheritance, and landholding practices reveal a desire for privacy and independence between generations. Yet while a high rate of migration and the transformation of the land market in the later Middle Ages recalibrated communal village life, evidence shows that parish life was vibrant with church ales, entertainment, fraternities, and a great deal of church building and repair. Thus while family bonds were weakened, civic bonds of sociability were actually strengthened in this period.

Chapter three considers the relationship between authority and freedom as magnates abandoned direct demesne farming and village management in the later Middle Ages in response to a declining capacity to extract wealth from a shrinking rural population. Economic dynamism and market-based entrepreneurialism existed among the gentry and peasantry, however, which collectively responded to the new economic conditions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Before royal government filled the political space vacated by the magnates, the peasantry in particular enjoyed a period of unparalleled freedom of migration and economic innovation. High wages, low prices, low rents, and population decline as a result of the plagues enabled untold peasants to migrate, to be freed from serfdom and compulsory labor services, and to benefit from opportunities in land and agricultural markets. Because of such political and economic changes, Dyer argues that the peasantry developed “puritan” social attitudes and a sense of belonging to the political community as early as 1450.

Chapter four explores the results of recent research in the areas of late medieval consumption and investment. Much of this evidence has come from archaeological investigation of structures and artifacts, and it entirely refutes the traditional view that consumerism did not exist until the “consumer revolution” of the eighteenth century. As Dyer asserts, “There is no value in announcing yet another revolution, but we can recognize consumerism in the Middle Ages, and identify episodes and characteristics in the material culture of our period which have some similarity with those of the eighteenth century” (p. 128). Of course the contracted economy of the later Middle Ages (ca. 1375-1500) does not compare in size with that of the eighteenth century, but when viewed from the point of view of consumption rather than production, remarkably similar patterns emerge. After the Black Death, likely because of lowered prices and the concomitant increase in spending power, the pattern of consumption changed markedly. Per capita expenditure for foodstuffs and manufactured goods increased significantly: wheat bread replaced rye and barley, more meat was consumed (indeed, more fresh meat and fish), and more ale brewed (now from barley malt instead of oats). New building, metal products, and ceramic pottery (replacing wooden cups and bowls) are signs of changing manufacturing patterns. Even fashion became a significant aspect of consumption, with shops beginning to advertise in order to create demand: one need only think of the notorious poulaine shoe with its four-inch long toes and the close-fitting short garments of the era. Increased expenditures on consumer goods, however, did not in fact inhibit investment. Again, although lords invested less in the later Middle Ages, new groups (farmers, entrepreneurs, artisans) spent much more on infrastructure, textile mills, ironworks, and even facilities to brew hopped beer on a large scale.

Dyer extends the economics of consumption and investment further in chapter five, which considers the relationship between subsistence living and markets in this period traditionally understood as one of economic contraction. He concedes that the volume of economic activity obviously shrank during this period. Yet he persuasively argues that the “ingrained habits of marketing and the employment of credit and money continued” (p. 173). Though it was an era of economic contraction for some, it was also an age of opportunity and prosperity for many (like entrepreneurial farmers, artisans, and even wage-earners), who in time subverted the social hierarchy by dressing and eating above their traditional status. We are reminded of the Statute of Laborers, the sumptuary laws, and the Canterbury Tales in this context.

What attitudes toward work and leisure developed among the lower ranks of society during this period? In chapter six Dyer considers this question, and though he rejects the view that a “proletariat” class of wage earners emerged in the later Middle Ages he does assert that definite attitudes toward the value of work and leisure appeared, which had profound implications for the traditional ethic of charity. “Voluntary idleness” became unacceptable given a strong work ethic; therefore charity was increasingly reserved for the “deserving poor” with vagrancy and begging frowned upon as mere laziness. In a rather modern-looking development, familial care at retirement diminished given the smaller number of children and their mobility during this period and so the community was turned to for support. The net affect was one of pragmatism rather than charity, akin to our modern attitudes toward welfare. For their part, employers conceived of a “work ethic” because of the labor shortage (i.e. they needed to maximize their labor resources). But we also find this ethic among wage-earners who were seeking to better themselves through hard work. Dyer concludes, “‘Modern attitudes towards leisure and social security, which are so often thought to have developed under Protestant influence, were emerging in association with the work ethic” (p. 241).

Dyer does a masterful job of using new types of sources that shed light on the dynamic and vital aspects of late medieval economic history. Reliance on traditional sources of estate records from the aristocracy and church obviously renders a picture of slow economic decline and decay of social control. Yet inclusion of wills and archaeological sites of buildings provides additional dimensions that reveal continuity and even entrepreneurial adaptation to changing economic times among those below the aristocracy and upper clergy. Thereby Dyer has effectively defended the thesis that “the supposed turning point around 1500 has been given excessive importance, as many features of the early modern period can be observed well before 1500 and even before 1300″ (p. 244).

The socio-economic patterns Dyer articulates so well in this monograph are by now well known to medievalists. The historiographical aspects have been anticipated by John Hatcher and Mark Bailey’s Modeling the Middle Ages: The History and Theory of England’s Economic Development (Oxford University Press, 2001). Indeed, one will find this understanding of late medieval economic trends throughout histories that include continental Europe; for example, Fran?ois Crouzet’s A History of the European Economy, 1000-2000 (University of Virginia Press, 2001) has already asserted, “The European economy of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period … was not fundamentally different from the one that had emerged in the thirteenth century.” Peter Spufford’s Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe (Thames & Hudson, 2002) has also declared, “The whole period from this commercial revolution [i.e. of the thirteenth century] to the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries possessed an economic unity …” Though the bibliography of this volume is extremely thorough when it comes to English historiography, Dyer could have taken his volume beyond the Hatcher/Bailey historiography by connecting late medieval England’s economic history with that of the larger economic history of Europe (and of contemporary continental historiographies). The signal benefit of this book, though, is that we see English economic patterns in line with those on the continent, even though England only had one major metropolitan region.

But this is asking more than was intended for this fine book. Dyer was hoping to build bridges with Anglophone socio-economic historians of the early modern era rather than with medievalists, and we can only hope that they will take up this book and engage with him anew the subject of the “age of transition” toward a modern economy. If this book becomes mandatory reading for all scholars of English economic history, as it should well be, we can be sure that there will emerge a clearer and more unified view of English economic history from the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries.

Joseph P. Huffman is academic dean of the School of the Humanities at Messiah College and Professor of European History. He has authored Family, Commerce and Religion in London and Cologne: Anglo-German Emigrants, c. 1000-1300 (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and The Social Politics of Medieval Diplomacy: Anglo-German Relations (1066-1307) (University of Michigan Press, 2000).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval