Christopher Dyer presents a general economic history of England during the Middle Ages. He uses primary sources to support his claims and addresses a number of issues that this broad topic encompasses. His language is accessible to a wide audience, yet contains elements that require some scholarly background in order to fully appreciate the impact of the information that he presents. The main problems with Making a Living in the Middle Ages revolve around the inconsistency between Dyer's introduction and the majority of his book.
This book was written very recently so one could assume that the author would take into consideration some of the most recent theories on the matter. While it is possible that this is the case, Dyer does not make specific reference to any such sources. Overall, the text is well written. Syntax and word choice make it accessible. His transitions were lacking, which would make it difficult to read if the reader lacked background knowledge. The vocabulary in the book was not at all difficult, and the author defines terms on initial and subsequent usages. When he fails to provide clear definitions, his context clues make his word choice accessible, providing a general impression of the meaning of the terminology. The book to me was appropriate with occasional oversimplification. The nature of the oversimplification was a lack of depth, but he has chose to cover an extremely broad topic, which I do not think should be approached in one book.
The book deals with the economic history of England from 850 C.E. -1520 C.E. The author has a well-written introduction and clearly states the importance of the subject and his reasons for approaching it. I would not go so far as to say he fully addressed those reasons in his book. One reason he presents for doing an economic history is to gain insight into the daily lives of the people during this time period. I did not get a feel for this upon reading the text. Instead, I saw broader claims. These claims were well supported through the use of primary sources, both written and archeological. Dyer explains a lot about his reasoning for his choice of topic, and it is very convincing. However, he fails to live up to his superb introduction. The material addressed in the book is by no means unimportant. On the contrary, it is well constructed and very important in the overall canon of English history. However, I think that the introduction implied a different treatment of the subject than what I found in the body of the text. Dyer breaks up his book into chronological sections, and within those sections he addresses various topics, some dealing with class, other with important events that effected the economy. This construction makes sense in regard to the topic. Other organizations might allow for more detail, but the scope of the topic does not allow for such a lengthy treatment, at least not to be contained in one book. The length of the book is already on the excessive side. This is not to say that a treatment of this topic could fit into a smaller book. Rather, the topic would be better suited for a series of books, with each book dealing with a shorter time period so as to allow for more detail. In this way, Dyer would have been able to fulfill all his reasons stated in his introduction.
Dyer claims to intend an analysis and present historical theory, but I felt that he relied almost exclusively on making a claim based on the facts without much conjecture or analysis. A broad topic such as this one would be difficult to approach in terms of a thesis, so I think both the actual and intended approaches are appropriate for the topic, but are not consistent with each other.
The book is obviously meant as an economic history, and it does achieve this goal. However, there are also elements of social and political history, which Dyer indicates in his introduction. Considering the subject matter, it would be impossible to address it from a purely economic perspective. Therefore, Dyer was correct in mentioning social and political elements. The problem with this is that he did not go into enough depth in the social realm. He could have done a lot more psychological analysis. While this is not necessary for an economic history, Dyer's introduction and various comments throughout the book indicate that he meant to approach the thought processes of the people living in this period.
One of Dyer's stronger points is his use and treatment of documents. For the purpose of a general economic history of England, a decent body of documents exist, including various charters, wills, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Domesday Book, all of which Dyer uses. Dyer presents plenty of evidence from primary sources to back up his claims. He gives specific examples on a regular basis throughout the book. On first analysis I concluded that Dyer was being overly cautious with his treatment of documents. However, upon further thought and examination, I found that he was merely pointing out historiographical problems that could arise form the nature and availability of documents. He discusses the lack of written evidence dealing with marginalized groups of society. He also provides a partial solution to this by emphasizing the importance of material archeological evidence. My one complaint about Dyer's use of documents is that he could have used diary or journal entries to address the thinking of the people at this time and therefore addressed all of the reasons for choosing the subject that he indicates in his introduction. To his detriment, Dyer fails to acknowledge his own bias. However, to his credit, Dyer does mention the bias inherent in primary sources.
Due to the broad scope of this topic, Dyer is unable to present a complete treatment of it. He also attempts to address much more in his introduction than he actually addresses in his book. Because he does not fully address the ideas set down in his introduction, I must argue that the book is not balanced. Even excluding everything but economic concerns, Dyer still lacks balance in that his treatment of women is highly lacking. I feel justified in this criticism because he claims that the book is a general economic history of England. He does make an attempt to balance the material by making references to continental Europe. Dyer compares England to the rest of Europe in an appropriate fashion. He does so sparingly, which is good, but makes enough connections to put the information in the proper context.
The general content of the book solidified many concepts for me. The chronological presentation and mention of events of political importance put the ideas in a context that is relevant to my prior knowledge. Various facts were new to me, but were not surprising upon consideration in light of what I already know.
I found this book to be empirically good. Dyer is accurate and concise in his introductions, and supports his claims well. He does, however, go on at length at times, and this feature made it difficult for me to organize my thoughts. The introduction to a section was so far from the end that it was often difficult to place the information in a cohesive unit of thought. In this regard, the book provides a great deal of information about the economic history of England, which needed to be broken into smaller sections. Furthermore, I do not feel that the book fully explored the concepts that were indicated in the introduction. An entire series of in depth and incredibly useful books could have been formed from the ideas in Dyer's introduction, yet he failed to even touch on some of the ideas, while providing an excess of cursory examples in other cases. This was disappointing to me because the title and introduction sparked my interest and led me to anticipate something different. As a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, I had hoped to see more detail in regard to the everyday lives of the people and hoped that Dyer would address their motives and thoughts much more thoroughly. Such detail would be both intellectually stimulating and would have practical applications for various aspects of Medieval reenactment. Overall, this is a good economic history that is accessible to a wide audience, and I can see its usefulness in spite of its shortcomings in regard to my personal expectations.