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Making a Living in the Middle Ages

Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850–1520

Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 424
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  • Book Info
    Making a Living in the Middle Ages
    Book Description:

    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, preeminent 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16707-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
    Christopher Dyer
  5. Introduction Approaching the economic history of medieval Britain
    (pp. 1-10)

    We should explore the economic history of medieval Britain for many reasons. It is the only branch of history which gives pride of place to the whole population, and through the study of the economy we can understand the everyday lives of working people. The economy was important. All other human endeavours depended on the production of food and other goods, which means that any investigation of non-material things must take into account the material base. Economic history is a unifying subject, not taking us into an obscure byway of the past, but acting as a crossroads from which we...

  6. PART ONE Origins of the medieval economy, c.850–c.1100

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 11-12)

      The late ninth century saw the first stage of a great formative episode in history, when key elements in society and economy such as villages, manors and towns were created and states were forged. Of course people had been organizing production and consumption for a very long time before the ninth century. The whole of mainland Britain up to central Scotland had been brought into a sophisticated urbanized and commercial economy as a Roman province in the first and second centuries ad. The villa estates, cities, industries and tax system had largely collapsed in the fifth and sixth centuries when...

    • CHAPTER ONE Living on the land, c.850–c.1050
      (pp. 13-42)

      Most medieval people made their living from agriculture, and had to arrive at decisions about the best methods of production. Their choices were not made freely, because they worked within the limits imposed by their social circumstances and technical knowledge, and by the soil, terrain and climate. Their resources were more restricted than those of later cultivators, but that did not leave them at the mercy of nature. They moulded and exploited the landscape, and indeed were the inheritors of a countryside already changed by centuries of human intervention. It was once believed that great tracts of primeval woodland survived...

    • CHAPTER TWO Crisis and new directions, c.850–c.1050
      (pp. 43-70)

      Economic history often deals with slow and even imperceptible changes in population or trade, and dramatic events are the concern of political history. Sudden upheavals were sometimes so profound that they had an impact on economic and social life. The Viking invasions were a cataclysmic episode of this kind, when people from Scandinavia surged into the rest of Europe. We need to consider whether an influx of settlers, who certainly regarded themselves as brave, innovative and resourceful, changed the economy, or whether their main impact was to energize the existing population.

      The Viking attacks shocked the people of Britain. The...

    • CHAPTER THREE Conquest c.1050–c.1100
      (pp. 71-100)

      The English suffered a shocking defeat in 1066, when an army from northern France under William, duke of Normandy, won a decisive battle near Hastings and conquered the whole kingdom. The invaders were soon to penetrate into Wales and Scotland. The humiliation reverberated through the centuries. From the seventeenth century onwards the myth of the ‘Norman yoke’ fostered the misconception that social inequality and political oppression began with the imposition of Norman rule. These ideas influenced modern historians, and in the twentieth century it was possible to attribute the origins of towns, serfdom, the manor and feudal services to the...

  7. PART TWO Expansion and crisis, c.1100–c.1350

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 101-105)

      Many of those who lived between the time of Domesday and 1300 experienced varied types of economic growth. If they lived in the countryside they saw the number and size of settlements increase, and they were aware that land was being brought into more productive use through clearance of woodland, scrub, moors and heaths, or the drainage of fens and marshes, or the enclosure of open land and woodland. Town dwellers realized that new houses and streets were being built around them, and many new towns were being founded, sometimes in rivalry with existing places. By 1300 the numbers of...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Lords, c.1100–c.1315
      (pp. 106-154)

      The lords had established themselves in a strong economic position after the upheavals of the eleventh century, and here we need to consider their involvement in the age of expansion. Did they develop their control over property and expand their landed assets? How successful were they in managing their estates and incomes in a time of rapid change? And did they make their own contribution to growth?

      To begin with property, the word is linked in our minds with ownership, but such modern concepts cannot be applied to the world of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries without reservations. The English...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Peasants, c.1100–c.1315
      (pp. 155-186)

      We rely on documents produced by peasants’ superiors, and material evidence, to reconstruct their lives, because they did not write. They gained their education from the practical training given to them by their elders in house and field, which does not mean that they lacked intelligence. They were actively involved in the growth and innovations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They perceived that some changes were to their advantage, and that others were against their interests, and behaved accordingly. For example, they cleared land, and sold produce, but resisted those technical changes which might involve them in more work...

    • CHAPTER SIX Towns and commerce, c.1100–c.1315
      (pp. 187-227)

      The two centuries up toc.1300 transformed the urban scene in Britain. The total number of towns increased from 100 to 830; in England the proportion of the population living in towns rose from nearly 10 per cent to almost 20 per cent, and in Scotland and Wales from virtually none to more than a tenth. This chapter is concerned with exploring the significance of that urban expansion, and how it changed the lives and outlook of those who lived in towns and those who had contact with them. We have already seen the decisive contribution of the lords who...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Crisis, c.1290–c.1350
      (pp. 228-264)

      Those who experience turning points in history are not always fully aware of the great movements around them. This is especially true of changes in economy and society, which tend to develop inexorably but gradually. An exception to this rule was the first half of the fourteenth century, which was punctuated by two sudden natural disasters: the Great Famine and agricultural crisis of 1315–22, and the epidemic of 1348–50, usually known as the Black Death. The famine affected the whole of northern Europe, and the plague spread over virtually the whole continent. These disruptions of economic and social...

  8. PART THREE Making a new world, c.1350–c.1520

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 265-270)

      In this period the sources change, as those who once dominated the economy lost their active role. The manorial accounts kept by reeves and bailiffs, which tell us so much about agriculture under the management of the lords, become less informative after 1400, and are quite rare by the late fifteenth century. This was because lords, and especially those with large estates, pulled out of direct involvement in growing corn and rearing animals. We know something about the new activists of the economy, especially the wealthier peasants and entrepreneurs, from the growing number of wills. Some documents are informal and...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Black Death and its aftermath, c.1348–c.1520
      (pp. 271-297)

      The epidemic of plague which spread from Asia into western Europe reached Britain in 1348. It was in effect a new disease, as an interval of six centuries had passed since the previous major epidemic. The plague moved through the population of black rats, colonies of which surrounded human settlements, even in remote places. When the rats died, their hungry fleas moved on to human beings and infected their new hosts when they bit them. The bubonic plague was a warm-weather disease, so it was most active in the summer, but in the winter it developed a pneumonic strain which...

    • CHAPTER NINE Towns, trade and industry, c.1350–c.1520
      (pp. 298-329)

      In 1462 John Paston remarked in exasperation that his tenants looked forward to a ‘new world’, but could that phrase be applied in general to economic and social changes in the century and a half after the Black Death? Those who made their living from commerce and manufacture, whether they lived in town or country, encountered difficulties in a time of recession. Yet towns retained their importance, some grew and new ones emerged. There were changes in the flow of trade, and from industry came new methods of production.

      Towns, and large towns in particular, in the fifteenth and sixteenth...

    • CHAPTER TEN The countryside, c.1350–c.1520
      (pp. 330-362)

      The prejudice that new ideas come from towns, and that country people are slow and conservative, was held to be true in the middle ages, as it is now. The superiority of the towns does not survive close examination. The rulers of large towns clung to old values and attempted to preserve their prosperity by preventing change, while the country and small town clothiers contributed a new energy and expertise to industrial production. Here we turn to the the rural economy, to see how those who made their living from agriculture stood up to the tests of the long-term changes...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 363-365)

    People in the early sixteenth century tended to depict their world according to traditional habits of thought. Edmund Dudley, writing in 1509, divided the commonwealth into the three orders of nobles, clergy and peasants, as William Langland had done in the 1370s and Aelfric soon after 1000. Little had changed in some respects over the centuries before Dudley wrote. The fundamental structure of manors and villages of his day, which provided the basis for the relationship between lords and peasants, had been formed between 850 and 1050. The urban network had also begun to take shape by about 900, though...

  10. Further reading
    (pp. 366-389)
  11. Index
    (pp. 390-404)