34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
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. A better way to look at it may be that economic history could be said to be social history with the economics thrown in. To say that Dyers book is something of a landmark is not to overstate the case, not since M. M. Postans "The Medieval Economy and Society" has such an extensive study of the economic development of medieval Britain been undertaken. But whereas Postan wrote as an economist, Dyer is a historian through and through. His approach is document based and he allows the evidence to set its own agenda. Whereas Postan was well known for selecting evidence specifically to fit his pre-formed theory, Dyer doesn't allow himself to follow any line that isn't bourne out by the evidence.
The book is divided into three sections. The Origins of the Medieval Economy (850-1050), Expansion and Crisis(100-1350) and Making a New World (1350-1520) It has to be said that it is the later period of the book that Dyer is most convincing in, and in this era he manages to turn the pessimism and bleak outlook of Postan on its head and re-interprets the period in a more positive light. The earlier part of the book is presented in vaguer terms, but still holds its own and comes up with some convincing theories. Exploring such themes as the development of class separation, the formation of towns,exchange and trade networks, population increase and inflation, as well as the obvious key events of the times such as the Viking Invasion and the Black Death, a whole range of factors is explored for their effect on society and how society responded to those factors.
At nearly 400 pages, Making a Living... is a large book, but with its chosen span of seven hundred years it has a lot of information to impart, and if Dyer doesn't give us all the answers, he does give us the next best thing, a whole new framework of thinking on which to hang our own interpretations. It is both a scholarly work and a consumerist book and as such covers a wide market audience and with its solid footing in good research and convincing theory it will last a lot longer than many of the passing fads that come and go with such frequency these days.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 3 November 2011
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.
on 13 February 2014
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.