Christopher Dyer, Making a Living in the Middle
The People of Britain 850-1520
Yale University Press, 2002
403 pages with photographs, maps and charts
Anyone who wishes to study medieval works within
a cultural context will find Christopher Dyer’s histories
invaluable. The title of this book reflects Dyer’s
approach to economic history, which he views as “a unifying
subject . . . from which we gain access to the history of the environment,
culture, politics and thought” (1), and as a means to understanding
the people who populated medieval English societies.
He examines all social strata and displays a sensitivity
for those at middling and lower levels. For Dyer, the medieval period
and people teach us about life management through differences and
similarities with our own experience.
In Making a Living,
Dyer traces the economic development, structure, and impact on cultural
institutions from the ninth to the sixteenth century. At first, this may seem too broad a span to cover comprehensively
in one publication, but he does so succinctly but thoroughly, often
using examples and extrapolating generalities from the specific,
which humanizes the populations under study.
Dyer’s sources include written and material evidence,
both of which he acknowledges to have biases and shortcomings, and
which together form a more reliable picture than one alone.
He frequently reexamines traditional theories towards an
updated but balanced view.
The book is divided into three parts: Origins of
the medieval economy (c. 850 to c. 1100); Expansion and crisis (c.
1100 to c.1350); and Making a new world, (c. 1350 to c. 1520), and
includes England, Scotland and Wales, though the emphasis is on
England. In his introduction, Dyer presents his philosophy on historical
study, the rationale for his date division, the scope and area of
the book, a discussion of the regional differences between the three
countries, and a retrospective of previous histories. He also defines basics such as “feudal” and “peasant,”
which he continues to do throughout the book with more specialized
terms. This makes the
book an excellent primer, for many historical treatises (including
some of Dyer’s) assume a knowledge of feudal terminology. Even so, one thing missing in Making
a Living is a glossary, and
perhaps some maps to help the reader identify the locales under
study. These are small complaints, and overall
the book is informative and readable, free of technical or methodological
jargon. Each of the
parts is prefaced with an introduction that provides an overview
and map of the discussions that follow, and concluded with a summary. An alternative structure would have been
to organize by socioeconomic group or entity such as rural/peasant
life, lords, and towns, for a more continuous discussion of each,
but that would have been at the expense of a comprehensive vision
of the individual periods.
In Part One, Dyer traces the creation and emergence
of feudal Britain from the end of the ninth century to the Domesday
survey, a period difficult to assess due to undeveloped and/or biased
recordkeeping. He begins with the conditions of the land
and how it was managed by farmers, including crops, livestock, and
cultivation methods by region.
Village communities emerged in certain areas, while hamlets
and single farms remained in others.
Dyer cautions against the image of a “village revolution”
and emphasizes the gradual move to larger permanent settlements
and the planned manner of their growth.
He gives a detailed description of village layout, field
plans and utilization, and technology.
Moving from the peasant population, Dyer examines
the great estates and their fragmentation through inheritance, marriage
and gifts by lords to retainers, whereby the smaller estate or manor
system developed. The fragmentation of landholdings was
a major element of feudal economic development and is discussed
in ensuing periods. Exploitation
of land and resources for revenue at all socioeconomic levels is
analyzed, another mainstay in the examination of economic dynamics.
For lords, that exploitation involved peasant labor service,
as well as fines, fees and rents; the methods for establishing that
system are covered in this section, as is the social stratification
and reactions of the peasantry as feudalism took shape.
Rapid change occurred with the Viking raids, and
Dyer vividly describes the impact of invasion and colonization on
economic and social life, including language, land and town development,
and trade. He places these forces in the context
of general tendencies of the period and evaluates their influence
on the economy, which was not momentous due to the Vikings’
lack of social institutions compared with those of Britain. Indirectly, however, the Viking incursions forced greater unification
by destroying weaker states and forcing others into action, as in
Scotland and Wales, which Dyer describes by region, including political,
geographic and social structures and organization. Here the systems of recordkeeping and coinage developed as
the king established power bases to form a unified, controlled state
rather than the fragmentation and independence seen in Europe, particularly
France. Many of the
local sites of royal control, first located in forts, became towns. Dyer presents the definition and complex development of towns
well, with maps and discussion of occupations, economy, political
institutions and structure, habitation, populations, and the relationship
between urban and rural communities, another prominent feature of
economic history through the medieval period.
Of special interest here and throughout the book is Dyer’s
depiction of crafts and production, which helps the reader envision
medieval material life. Importantly,
Dyer reminds us that a country’s wealth is measured not by
coinage but by its ability to provide for its people, and that “It
was in the countryside that most people lived and most income was
With this picture of the socioeconomic scene set,
the effects of the Conquest (1066) can be evaluated, particularly
the misconception of the origination of towns, serfdom and feudal
structure under Norman rule.
Dyer focuses his analysis of the impact of the Conquest on
the “old” English aristocracy, the structure, economic
status and living conditions of which he defines and describes at
length, based on written and material evidence. The “new”(Norman) aristocracy displaced and dispossessed
the old, forcing many into debt and exile. Here as elsewhere, Dyer evokes the loss of home, wealth and
social status with clarity and sympathy.
The redistribution of land by the Conqueror created a new
social order based on holdings, and the establishment of castles
(previously unknown in England) involved military service and knighthood,
although Dyer reminds us that this practice was in place before
the Conquest in important respects. The king and state maintained control
through ultimate land ownership and legal authority. The new aristocracy placed heavier burdens on the peasantry,
some of whom became impoverished, but their place in the feudal
system was otherwise little disturbed except for reclassification
within servile status. Overall,
physical destruction of property and disruption of trade and estate
management caused by the Conquest had negative effects on the economy.
Dyer uses the Domesday Book of 1086 to examine
the state of post-Conquest England, albeit cautiously due to its
unfamiliar terminology and methodology that may skew interpretation.
From the survey data, he presents calculations of population,
landholdings, livestock, and food production for a single manor,
which is then used to estimate larger areas.
Dyer concludes this section with a look at the weaknesses
of the economic system at Domesday, which portrays a country unevenly
developed still in transition from the change in polity and aristocracy
in both urban and rural settings, but with positive developments
during the previous two centuries that would endure (99).
This section provides a particularly helpful background for
those who have studied later periods “in medias res.”
The second and lengthiest section of the book begins
with economic expansion between 1086 and 1300 evidenced by an increase
in rural and urban communities, more productive land usage, the
growth and establishment of towns, the rising population, and the
expansion of domestic and foreign trade.
The strengthening of the state and growth in governmental
administration benefits historical inquiry through an increase in
recordkeeping and documentation, although it is biased toward the
elite male population. Lives
of the lower classes and rural folk are reconstructed through material
remains. Dyer closes
the section with an examination of the faltering of the earlier
expansion and resultant economic crisis in the early fourteenth
Rather than the standard depiction of an all-powerful
aristocracy, Dyer balances the portrait by presenting the limitations
imposed by the state and a realistic vision of lord/tenant relationships,
as well as the levels of aristocracy and their interrelations. Again, land fragmentation through inheritance and gifts to
supporters resulted in many smaller manors, while the great magnates
accumulated land to form extensive estates. Dyer examines estate management in detail and the ways in which
lords exploited their resources and the effects of inflation during
the period. He traces
the development of manorial organization and administration, including
the benefits and risks of employing local officials like the reeve
from the peasantry (an enlightening discussion for readers of The
Canterbury Tales, as are many of Dyer’s background portraits) and types and methods
of crop and livestock cultivation. Technological developments appeared in building standards,
mills and windmills, and bridges.
A large part of Dyer’s analysis focuses on labor services
from both sides of the system.
The direct control of demesne production by lords brought
income, but most of the their revenues came from rents in cash,
kind, and/or labor, and Dyer compares the advantages of free and
villein status for tenant and lord. Lords also founded towns to profit from
expanding trade and rental income.
The lesser aristocracy, knight and gentry, faced the same
economic challenges as the magnates with less land and resources;
gentry found administrative employment on large estates and in legal
practice, and held public office.
Dyer turns from lords to peasants, whose increase
expanded the population in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. We learn about peasant attitude towards
marriage and family, which was cautious and depended greatly on
landholding and income. As
lands became available through fragmentation and reclamation, more
new households were established, although income was often augmented
by labor and craft/trade. Dyer stresses the participation of peasants
in settling new lands from woodland, marsh and other rough areas
(assarting) and creating arable and pasture. In reaction to market growth and rising prices, peasant land
management moved to surplus production for sale; this had an impact
on farming practices, which varied by regional condition. Again, Dyer perceives conservatism in agricultural innovation,
based on experience, and a lack of full commercialism; peasants
also continued gathering and hunting and self-sufficient manufacturing. Crafts became specialized, and some urban
industry, like pottery making and metal working, moved to the countryside.
Peasant consumerism included housing and clothing, tools,
and household furnishings and utensils, the quality depending on
the wealth of the purchaser. There was also an active and complex land market, supported
Despite restrictions and obligations, peasant economy
had positive aspects, and some advantages were gained through organized
pressure and occasional protest and conflict with lords over labor
services and tenancy status, which impacted obligations.
During the period, commutation of service for cash rents
increased; while rents rose somewhat, they were limited by custom,
so lords raised taxes and fees to boost their revenues.
Dyer examines the effect of individual initiative on village
solidarity and finds that most peasant communities remained healthy,
but he notes the dangers of increased numbers of small land parcels
in conjunction with the growth of families.
One way to escape rural servitude was migration
to towns, which added to the expansion of urban population. A dramatic number of new towns of varying sizes were established;
the larger the town, the more complex its economy, organization
and function. Dyer
reviews the network of towns and their relationship to rural areas
with clarity, particularly trade and migration, drawing on examples. Descriptions of town layouts, buildings,
living conditions and occupations are equally vivid. Due to their importance in town economics,
politics and government, merchants receive much attention, including
their roles in both domestic and foreign trade and the concomitant
risks and rewards. Increased
trade naturally depended on increased production, and Dyer examines
accompanying technological advances like the water wheel and mill,
improved building materials and techniques (many buildings from
this period are still standing and in use), and improved, dependable
inland transport of goods. Examples illustrate the development of business partnerships
and transactions, as well as urban marketing techniques, which sound
surprisingly modern with rows of shops and stalls, upstairs galleries,
and shopping districts with specialty items.
Governmental control aided trade through legislation
for recording credit arrangements and debt recovery, and the maintenance
of the currency standard, a difficult task.
Some towns were governed by the establishing/governing lord,
in cooperation with the urban elite, while larger royal chartered
towns could be self-governing through a mayor and council and held
borough courts, although this does not to confer advantage as both
types of towns prospered and failed.
Dyer suspects that “contemporaries did not distinguish
between the political advantages of self-government and the economic
gains” but valued charters for the “right to rule over
others” (222). Despite the tendency to view urban life and economy with its
special privileges as an “alien growth” in the feudal
agrarian system, Dyer points out the compatibility and the parallels
between the two worlds.
Like the earlier Viking raids and Conquest, rapid
and severe change came with the Great Famine (1315-1322) and the
Plague, which coincided with political upheaval.
To counter the common perception that economic crisis and
decline followed the Black Death’s first outbreak in 1348,
Dyer points to the poor harvests and diminished crops earlier in
the century, which stopped economic expansion, caused a fall in
wages, employment, production and trade, and brought higher prices.
Self-serving lords and wealthier peasants were able to benefit
from the plight of the peasants, and social bonds were strained,
especially from theft by the hungry and resultant distrust of the
poor. Dyer presents
an analysis of the population decline by region, and the complex
factors that impact population dynamics.
In the years following the Famine, cultivated land
and crop yields decreased, grain prices fell, and cash wages rose
slightly as did the quality of food for harvest workers due to decreased
population, all of which impacted the lords, who began to rent demesne
land to peasants and ceased to buy new land.
Caught between falling prices and a higher cost of living,
the aristocracy became more sophisticated in fiscal management to
avoid debt, although many failed, particularly monasteries.
Towns were no longer founded, and the economy of established
urban centers slowed down, as did trade and industrial production
except cloth making, which recovered by 1348.
Dyer takes a long view of the period and reprises Postan’s
model along with historians’ responses to that paradigm, particularly
the portrayal of peasant life.
Dyer searches for explanations for the crisis of the early
fourteenth century and weighs external vs. internal causes, monetary
fluctuation, sociopolitical stresses, war and its destruction and
taxation, the wool trade, and other potential forces. Rather than determining a single or simplistic
cause, he concludes with a discussion of the interrelationship of
many influences and notes innovation and vitality within the broad
In the final section, “Making a New World
c.1350 - c.1520,” we see the survivors of the Black Death
faced with a changed world in which approximately half of England’s
population perished. Many of the trends from the early fourteenth
century were continued and exacerbated, although with fluctuations.
Dyer focuses on experiences by region and time period within
the overall contraction from the Plague to the sixteenth century.
Dyer recounts the effects of the Plague by examining
specific manors, villages, towns and individuals, as they first
dealt with death, then its aftermath as plagues recurred and became
endemic. Over generations, marriage and family
life changed, with lower birth rates, rising migrations and loosening
family ties. Depopulation
lead to vacant land which could be acquired by surviving tenants. Generally, peasants gained greater freedom, higher wages and
improved conditions, and some relief from poverty. Legislation to fix prices, curb wages and stop migration were
not uniformly successful and were biased to the interests of employers.
Establishment (and failure) of sumptuary laws to control
the apparel of the lower classes demonstrates their upward ambition
and its social and economic threat to lesser aristocracy.
War with France called for increased taxation,
much of which fell on the peasantry.
Though the poll tax sparked the Peasants Revolt of 1381,
Dyer points to the underlying issue of taxation and misgovernment,
particularly of the war, and focuses on the individuals and their
reasons for rebellion, especially the perception of a corrupt political
system in which both the state and landlords participated. He follows the view of the Rising as a
reaction to the blocking of opportunity and advantages rather than
to exploitation; the rebels were moved “not by poverty or
despair, but by hope” (288), and he reports the events, motivations
and reactions succinctly.
Post-plague economy is examined first in the urban
environment, which was characterized by shrinking population, decaying
buildings, and reduced trade volume.
However, while populations per town rose and fell, the percent
of the total population living in urban centers remained nearly
unchanged, and towns retained their functions and attracted immigrants,
including the poor in search of work and charitable support.
Some towns prospered, and Dyer discusses London’s importance
due to its geographic, socioeconomic and political centrality, especially
for trade; some smaller towns gained and others lost from their
association with London. Similarly,
Edinburgh expanded as a commercial and governmental center.
Town governance was generally directed by the elite
(merchants) and aimed at economic control, as well as peace and
order through legislation, price fixing, and trade/occupation restrictions
that protected the quality of goods, prevented monopolies and governed
trade practices (often in the elite’s interests).
However, traders and workers found ways to circumvent the
tight economic control, evidence of the force of commerce and the
labor market. Craft guilds participated in civic organization,
though membership was severely restricted. Religious fraternities provided care for
their members, social solidarity, and educational opportunities;
they also built churches, public buildings, bridges and roads. Crafts became more specialized, trade and manufacture were
stimulated by consumer demand, and industry in the countryside included
metal working and pottery, and entrepreneurial investment in textiles
and coal mining. While
these activities appear to be heading towards capitalism, Dyer lists
traditional economic influences that continued to undergird the
system but notes the “early puritanism” of public governance,
the emphasis on privacy and thrift, and the strong work ethic among
the elements of a “new” world.
The greatest changes and innovations occurred in
the countryside rather than the towns.
Initially, landlords changed types and quantities of crops
and moved to more animal husbandry in response to the labor shortage. Rents still accounted for more income
than farmed lands, and some lords reduced rents and entry fees and
converted customary tenancy to leasehold in order to retain tenants. As time passed and wages rose and prices
for agricultural produce fell, lords increased the commutation of
services and the leasing of part or all of their demesne arable
for cash income, which weakened lord/peasant bonds and the traditional
manorial system. New
contractual relationships and estate management strategies developed
as landlords needed to assess their annual income, costs of maintenance
and repairs, and rent collection methods (sounding like modern landlords). During the first half of the fifteenth century, land values
declined and some lords fell into debt and bankruptcy, and most
scaled down their commitments and households.
While they experienced a modest economic revival later in
the century, the fortunes of the upper aristocracy declined in the
The lower aristocracy adjusted in a different manner,
showing more enterprise. The
status of the gentry, based on level of landholding, was defined
by legislation as knights, esquires and gentlemen.
Facing similar problems as the magnates, they also rented
out demesne land to farmers and protected their investments through
building maintenance but continued direct management, often personally,
of their manors. Some invested in commercial and industrial
enterprises, and many moved to livestock rather than farming, removing
peasant holdings to enclose pasture land.
The sudden increase in leased demesne lands resulted
in a new, powerful group: the farmers, with their control of resources
and new production and management methods.
Often, they were serfs or customary tenants; some formed
groups to add extensively to their holdings.
“Gentlemen farmers,” lessees from the gentry,
clerical and merchant classes, took on land for cultivation, pasturing,
or investment. While peasant land was converted to pasture,
much of the displacement of that group was self-motivated by the
desire for higher wages and improved living conditions, since many
of the villages decayed after the Plague despite lords’ attempts
at repair; industrial villages were an exception.
Dyer points out that the peasant economy was largely unchanged,
due not to lack of initiative but to forces that impacted producers. He sees the peasantry as a “rational
economic” (355) group that adapted to circumstances. Migration was constant, and family relationships,
previously tied to land and production, loosened as children left
home and no longer inherited parents’ holdings. Servile status was eradicated, either
through purchase of freedom or migration.
Social stratification within the peasantry was now defined
as yeoman, husbandman and laborer, the latter being in high demand
due to the decreased population.
Peasants built larger houses of better quality, bought more
goods, and had an improved diet; such improvements were enabled
by increased land holdings through marriage, inheritance, and purchase.
(For an extensive study of these and other elements of peasant
life, see Dyer’s Everyday Life in Medieval England,
Despite the length of this review, it only skims
the surface of the richly detailed history that Dyer presents with
such lucidity and quiet compassion, bringing the period and its
people to life. In his concluding paragraph, he reminds
us that at the core of scholarly study are the folk like Nicholas
Symond the spurrier and Thomas Vicars the farmer, who appear in
his illustrations of economic theory and activity, and he leaves
us with their names and places in history.
RETURN TO TABLE OF