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Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain, 850-1520 (New Economic History of Britain) [Paperback]

Christopher Dyer
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

13 Feb 2009 New Economic History of Britain
Dramatic social and economic change during the middle ages altered the lives of the people of Britain in far-reaching ways, from the structure of their families to the ways they made their livings. In this masterly book, pre-eminent medieval historian Christopher Dyer presents a fresh view of the British economy from the ninth to the sixteenth century and a vivid new account of medieval life. He begins his volume with the formation of towns and villages in the ninth and tenth centuries and ends with the inflation, population rise, and colonial expansion of the sixteenth century. This is a book about ideas and attitudes as well as the material world, and Dyer shows how people regarded the economy and responded to economic change. He examines the growth of towns, the clearing of lands, the Great Famine, the Black Death, and the upheavals of the fifteenth century through the eyes of those who experienced them. He also explores the dilemmas and decisions of those who were making a living in a changing world - from peasants, artisans, and wage earners to barons and monks. Drawing on archaeological and landscape evidence along with more conventional archives and records, the author offers here an engaging survey of British medieval economic history unrivaled in breadth and clarity.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 424 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (13 Feb 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300101910
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300101911
  • Product Dimensions: 25 x 14 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 284,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'A work of immense ambition and erudition.' Daniel Snowman. 'An exceptionally wide-ranging book... Dyer's mastery of his material is indeed enviable. The book abounds with a wealth of illustrative examples, which bring the discussion to life. Yet the author's learning is always worn lightly.' Nigel Saul, History Today. 'This elegant account of the economic history of Britain over seven centuries is an exhilarating book - this is serious history that can be read for pleasure.' Danny Danzinger, The Sunday Times. 'He has an open style, an encyclopedic knowledge of a vast sweep of over half a millennium of history, and he offers accessible and cogent introductions to an infinite range of potentially complex and obscure topics... With commendable assurance, Dyer guides his readers through all corners of the economy.' John Hatcher, Times Literary Supplement. --Daniel Snowman, History Today, Sunday Times, TLS

About the Author

Christopher Dyer, formerly professor of medieval social history at the University of Birmingham, is now professor of regional and local history at the University of Leicester.

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We should explore the economic history of medieval Britain for many reasons. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Seven Hundred Years of Earning a Crust 21 Aug 2005
By D. J. Franklin VINE VOICE
A look at the way people earned their income through out the later dark ages through the medieval period, may seem like a very specialised book, even for those already well versed in British history. However the way to approach the subject is to understand that everyone in the country had to earn a living somehow, especially in days before state benefits, and so an examination of this kind is really a study of everyday people doing what they did for a large percentage of their life, and is therefore a study of the everyday society going about its business. Whilst it is more exciting to study kings and battles, intrigue and invention, when you want a clear picture of what medieval life is really like, then a book of this nature is worth its weight in gold. History writers in general, and archaeologists in particular, in the past have been guilty of focusing on glittering yet pointless goals. Uncovering a Saxon palace site and reporting it in a five volume series of tomes may further our understanding of the life of ninth century kings, but remember that the king and his hangers on account for a very small sector of society. Society is better understood from the activities of merchants and farmers, tradesman and artisans and the changes in society are more often as a result of their collective power than that of the politicians and armies, more subtle, less glamourous but ultimately more responsible for the shape of the world we inhabit today.
This book is part of a series called "The New Economic History of Britain" but it is much more about the people than the economics of the time, indeed the economics almost seem to appear indecently. To paraphrase Nigel Saul, it is often quipped that social history is economic history with the economics taken out.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I got from this book what I missed in most of the other books on the "everyday life in medieval times" topic - a detailed and most of all comprehensive model of the medieval man's economic and social choices. In the face of very limited original historical written accounts, the author has made his best in coupling written sources with archeological evidence and modern knowledge (it was very funny to find out that medieval farmer knew more about fertilizers than a modern bank's agriculture analyst would; the details on real estate market development in the early cities was also very interesting), to show us that even in the dark plague times people were making rational and innovative choices, which led to economical development.

Some criticism as well. The book is strongest in explaining the rural life of farmers and rural aristocracy, while the explanation of urban life was slightly less intriguing. The book could be shorter, as it gets less interesting by the end. Overall, the reader must have the stomach for long reading, as it is not a page-turner book.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Informative, easy read 13 Feb 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
GOt this book for a short course on medieval history as I wanted to know more about how ordinary people were affected by the socio-political changes of the time. It certainly ticked that box, and I found out so much that I didn't know. Dyer's writing is academic, but readable and it is well organised, so you can navigate to the parts that particularly interest you. A good buy for uni study and the enthusiatic amateur.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Making a Living in the Middle Ages 2 Aug 2011
By emjay
An excellent book for social history in the Middle Ages. The delivery of the book was extremely quick and very impressive.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A richly illuminating ride through life in the medieval past 10 Nov 2003
By Michael J. Warby - Published on Amazon.com
This is a splendidly readable and highly informative book.

Dyer takes us from Anglo-Saxon England, through the Normal Conquest, the long medieval surge then the calamitous C14th (as Barbara Tuchman memorably called it) and ending in early Tudor England. We are guided with erudition and ease through the choices the various levels of society faced, the rich texture of life and the ebb and flow of social change.

Carefully evidence based, and willing to admit uncertainty, Dyer nevertheless informs with a telling mixture of general trends and revealing examples.

I was struck, for example, how the owners of lordly (and other) estates faced similar types of management choices as modern firms, whether to engage in direct command-and-control (farm oneself), franchise (lease), donate (grant) or sell. The balance of choices shifted back and forth, as circumstances changed.

This is an excellent book I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in economic and social change in the long run and medieval history in particular.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 7 April 2008
By doc peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Christopher Dyer's thorough study of social and economic life in Britain in the high and late middle ages is fascinating. The details are remarkable showing a thriving, bustling commercial network that criss-crossed the island - not at all what one would expect of Europe in the middle ages.

All facets of society are examined here - peasants, merchants, craftsmen and aristocrats of all levels - close attention is also played to the roles women played in the medieval economy, their social and economic position was striking. Far from the droll, insulated and simple life that typically comes to mind when one thinks of medieval Europe, Dyer's treatise shows quite the opposite - a bustling and growing economy that was financially diverse and tied to the rest of Europe and the wider world. Utilizing an abundance of primary sources from throughout Britain, a clear picture of the daily economic life of England is provided, with solid analysis of the role economics played in the larger social and political changes that took place between 800 and 1500.

It is not light reading, however - Dyer is writing for a more academic audience. Some familiarity with Medieval (or better still, British) history is assumed, as is passing familarity with English currency. (For example, pence are denoted ("d"); 12 pence to the shilling ('s"), 20 shilling to the pound.) For historians, economists (or better still, economic historians) this is invaluable and fascinating - recommended.
11 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review of Christopher Dyer's Making a Living in the Middle A 7 Nov 2004
By Kate Lukach - Published on Amazon.com
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.
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