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Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain, 850-1520

Author(s):Dyer, Christopher
Reviewer(s):Masschaele, James

Published by EH.NET (September 2002)

Christopher Dyer, Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain,

850-1520. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. x + 403 pp. $35.00

(Cloth), ISBN: 0-300-09060-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James Masschaele, Department of History, Rutgers


Christopher Dyer’s latest book, Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The

People of Britain, 850-1520 appears as part of The New Economic History

of Britain series published by Yale University Press. The aim of the series

is to offer monographs that are sufficiently scholarly to be taken seriously by

academic historians, but sufficiently accessible to appeal to a broader market

of sophisticated amateurs curious to understand why a small island off the

coast of Europe came to have such an inordinate influence on the history of the

world’s economic development. Dyer, now professor of regional and local history

at the University of Leicester, has achieved this objective by providing a

thorough synthesis of existing literature in a book that is highly readable.

Specialists may come away from the book feeling that he hedged his bets on some

of the more controversial issues in the field, but most readers will find the

book to be a clear and well-articulated account of the medieval British


Dyer divides the period covered into three eras: from 850 to 1100; from 1100 to

1350; and from 1350 to 1520. The first era was one of vigorous and creative

growth, during which the basic patterns of village life, manorial economy, and

urban geography that would survive beyond the medieval period were put in

place. In making the argument for substantial and influential growth, Dyer

relies heavily on archeological evidence to support the meager written evidence

of the period, and his use of archeology and his arguments for major advances

in economic sophistication in the period are among the most original and

interesting parts of the book. Reginald Lennard once famously remarked that by

1066 England was already an old country. Compared to later medieval periods,

relatively little has been written about the economic history of this early

period, but Dyer makes a convincing case that we need to give more heed to

Lennard’s old saw. Whether one looks at settlement patterns, at the exchange

economy, or at the social relations of production, one finds an economy that

looks surprisingly familiar to those better versed in the economic structures

of later centuries.

Dyer divides his second era (1100-1350) into the two phases traditionally

depicted by historians, one of growth in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries

followed by a period of crisis in the early fourteenth century. The growth

phase is presented as a continuation of the first era, essentially a process of

filling in the mold set in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Population grew

quickly, for example, but mostly within settlements founded before the Domesday

Book; similarly, the money supply grew dramatically, but its growth was

associated more with a change in degree of commercial orientation than a change

in kind. Dyer portrays the crisis phase primarily in Malthusian terms, the

consequence of too many mouths feeding from too few acres of land. He expresses

dissatisfaction with several key components of the neo-Malthusian approach

championed by Michael Postan, but like most other economic historians, he finds

it difficult not to view the crisis phase as a consequence of the growth phase.

Dyer’s third era is one of flux, in which different sectors of the economy

experienced different phases of growth, stagnation, and decline, preventing any

easy generalizations. Dyer favors a high estimate of plague mortality, arguing

that a death rate of fifty percent accords well with the evidence. He also

argues for a relatively late date for a return of population growth, offering

1540 as his best guess. Most economic trends in the era are related to this

severe demographic regime. Some towns clearly suffered through the period as

markets shrank and new rivals emerged, but overall Dyer believes that towns

held their own through the period, noting that urban populations comprised

about the same proportion of total population in 1520 as they had in 1300. The

countryside saw considerable conversion from arable to pasture land, as

producers sought to cope with the collapse of the market for cereals in the

fifteenth century. Individual holdings of land increased in size, but many

proprietors of these larger holdings still had difficulty making ends meet. The

principal beneficiaries of the new circumstances of the era were laborers and

smaller landholders, while lords and those who employed labor had the greatest

hurdles to overcome. Dyer insists that collective action by peasants and

laborers, particularly in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was instrumental in

bringing about the redistribution of wealth that favored the lower orders in

the period.

Viewed as a whole, the book has many features to commend it. Dyer’s survey of

existing literature is thorough and his synopsis of the work of other scholars

is intelligent and fair. His inclusion of economic trends in Scotland and Wales

adds refreshing geographical breadth to the work, and often makes for

interesting comparative observations. Reports of archeological fieldwork are

skillfully integrated with documentary sources, and furnish considerable

support for the author’s contention that the material world of medieval

peasants and townspeople was richer and more accomplished than is generally

recognized. (The inclusion of twenty plates and illustrations also is helpful

in this regard.) One is particularly struck by the author’s use of anecdotes

and vignettes to enliven the general description of economic trends. Dyer

insists that individual decision making needs to be set along side impersonal

economic forces to explain why the economy behaved as it did. The story of

deserted villages, for example, is not simply a consequence of the exogenous

influence of disease on society, it is also a consequence of decisions made by

individual peasants to leave particular villages to seek better fortunes

elsewhere. Recapturing the motives, fears, and aspirations of a wide spectrum

of medieval people is not an easy task, and few, if any, medieval economic

historians do it better than Christopher Dyer.

The purpose of a good synthesis is to draw attention to what we don’t know as

well as to highlight what we do know. By adopting relatively broad geographical

and chronological frameworks, Dyer’s book raises a number of issues that beg

for further study. Regional variation is one such example. The author notes on

a number of occasions that pastoral areas differed from arable regions in their

responses to prevailing economic circumstances, but it is far from clear in

these discussions what such shifts mean and how we ought to relate them to the

economy as a whole. Why, for example, did the southwest fare so much better in

the late medieval period than other parts of the country? Similarly, the

author’s reconstruction of population trends over the period raises a host of

questions that defy easy explanations. His reconstruction (seen most readily in

Figure 2 on p. 235) opts for gentle growth from 850-1150, followed by

dramatically faster growth from 1150-1300. Given his emphasis on the structural

continuity between these periods, one is puzzled to explain their fundamentally

different demographic trajectories. One also wonders why late medieval

population levels stagnated for so long. Dyer suggests that both mortality and

fertility issues need to be included in the explanation, but he fails to give a

clear statement of how they ought to be weighted, nor does his treatment of the

subject offer many insights into earlier population dynamics. Perhaps the most

interesting issue raised by his population estimates is the aberrant nature of

the thirteenth century. Dyer’s model suggests that the population of England

ranged between two and three million for every century between the ninth and

sixteenth, except for the thirteenth, when it rocketed to about six million. By

crafting such a fine synthesis of other aspects of the medieval economy, Dyer’s

work suggests that we still have much to learn about the inner dynamics of

medieval demography, as well as about the structural relationships between

population movements, commercial change, and the social relations of production

and income distribution.

James Masschaele is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University. He

is the author of Peasants, Merchants, and Markets: Inland Trade in Medieval

England (St. Martin’s Press, 1997), and “The Public Space of the

Marketplace in Medieval England,” Speculum 77 (2002).

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval