Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



Book Review


Christopher Dyer, Making a Living in the Middle Ages:
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 generated” (70).

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 century. 

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 by lending.

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 decline.

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 long term.

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, London, 2000.)

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.












Updated 3/31/03