Published by EH.NET (December 2006)

Richard Britnell, Britain and Ireland, 1050-1530: Economy and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xvi + 562 pp. $45 (paperback), ISBN: 0-19-873145-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Langdon, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta.

Richard Britnell, emeritus professor of history, University of Durham, has produced a superb textbook covering the economy of the British Isles from 1050 to 1530. It has a simple but effective organization. After a short introduction, the book starts with four preliminary chapters. The first of these involves basic physical matters such as the climate and topography of the islands; the second deals mostly with religious and ethnic divisions over the islands; the third with the nature of power relations between the various classes; and the fourth with the basic economic contours over the entire period, including a discussion of the various models which seek to explain them. Thereafter, the bulk of the book is divided into two time periods. The first stretches from 1050 to 1300 and, despite having a thinner evidentiary base, clearly evokes a time of overall economic expansion. The second period, richer in documentation, presents a much more complicated story of economic stagnation and decline with at best fitful recovery towards the end of the period in the early sixteenth century, perhaps not surprising since the later middle ages was punctuated by the disasters of the Great Famine of 1315-18 and the Black Death starting in 1348, not to mention the monumental conflict between the crowns of England and France known as the Hundred Years War. Each of these chronologically-based sections is comprised of ten chapters outlining various aspects of the urban and agrarian economy, including settlement, mercantile activity, the relationship between lords and tenants, government action, and the management revolution of land and resources that occurred over the twelfth and thirteenth century in particular. The book concludes with a survey of the economic and social situation in the British Isles in 1530, comparing it with that which existed in 1050, and how the economy of the British Isles is to be judged within its European context at the start of the sixteenth century.

What makes this book so valuable, even though it is more narrowly economic than other recent surveys of a similar sort (such as Christopher Dyer’s excellent Making a Living in the Middle Ages (2002)), is its comprehensiveness and sure-footed approach throughout. Consonant with the book’s length, Britnell covers virtually every important issue dealing with the medieval economy and society of the British Isles. Its strengths are not only that it very effectively synthesizes a mass of secondary literature, but that it also highlights the author’s own contributions to the field, particularly in the chapters dealing with “procedural routines and literacy.” Altogether, the book is likely to be the standard work on the topic for many years to come.

It does have one major limitation. Inevitably, given the overwhelming preponderance of English evidence compared to that for the rest of the British Isles, the comments about Scotland, Wales and Ireland, sizable as they are, often seem like add-ons rather than providing an integrated view of the economy of the islands as a whole. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of having an expert whose work is primarily in English history to write this book. Britnell certainly tries mightily to overcome this Anglo-centric view, but the study still seems somewhat unbalanced in favor of England. In this regard, to provide something closer to a truly integrated view might require someone whose primary expertise lies in one of the other parts of the British Isles, as has been shown recently in volumes dealing with other topics in the medieval period (one can point here to the late R.R. Davies’s Domination and Conquest (1990) and The First English Empire (2000), which furnished a truly pan-British Isles view of medieval power relations and ethnic identities).

Even with this qualification, the book remains a tour de force of intelligent assessment and penetrating insight. Britnell is not content simply to provide a survey of existing knowledge, checking his personal opinion at the door, so to speak, but — with suitable circumspection — often supplies his own take on things. He certainly goes well beyond the traditional view that the performance of the medieval economy was determined mostly by the balance between population and resources and makes a cogent argument for seeing things like investment and employment opportunities as playing a much stronger role than formerly indicated in the literature (see especially Chapter 4 and pp. 310-15). He also takes what many might feel is an overly pessimistic view of the impact of war on medieval economies, expressed on many occasions in the book (esp. pp. 322-25 and 453-55). Certainly, one might be able to say that over the long run of the later middle ages war had a deleterious effect on economic development of the islands (one surprisingly lightly considered area in the book along these lines were largely internal conflicts like the Wars of the Roses), but there were times when war might have buoyed up the economy, particularly during the 1350s and 1360s when ransoms and other generally favorable outcomes of the Hundred Years War for the English might have provided important countervailing tendencies to the impact of the plague. As with virtually everything else in this book, however, the reader might in places question a particular point of view, but still has to give it immense respect.

Finally, as with all important books, Britnell leaves the reader with the excitement of major things yet to be divulged. Perhaps the most crucial of these is what happened to the economy as it entered the upswing of the sixteenth century. In this sense, the endpoint of the study, for all that it makes sense in marking off the medieval from the early modern period, is strikingly ambiguous. As Britnell says, “there was no very well-defined divide between slow recovery from the major economic recessions of the fifteenth century and a subsequent period of more rapid development” (p. 501). A better understanding of the mechanisms through which the British economy emerged from its sluggishness of the later middle ages is thus becoming more urgent in the field. It may be, as Britnell indicates in an excellent comparison of the performance of the British Isles versus the Continent at the time (pp. 521-22), that the islands eventually coat-tailed on more vigorous activity originating elsewhere. The essential question remains, though, as to who in the British Isles were most directly responsible, as individuals or groups, in translating these more favorable circumstances into new and sustained economic growth.

John Langdon is Professor of British Medieval History in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Two of his more substantial publications in recent years are Mills in the Medieval Economy: England, 1300-1540 (Oxford University Press, 2004) and [with James Masschaele] “Commercial Activity and Population Growth in Medieval England,” Past and Present (Feb., 2006).