Yale £12.99 (403pp) (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
Making a Living in the Middle Ages, By Christopher Dyer
Friday 20 March 2009
A work of medieval economic history may not sound the most riveting read but Dyer's erudite, sweeping account of Britain's finances between 850 and 1520 turns out to be endlessly fascinating and often relevant to our own plight. As Dyer remarks, economic history is "the only branch of history which gives pride of place to the whole population".
The world he describes is both alien – we learn slavery was widespread in Britain at the start of this book's span, though it died out by 1100 for both moral and practical reasons – and eerily familiar. When the money supply was constrained in the 1330s due to Edward III's hefty taxes for the Hundred Years War, "there were complaints that goods could not be sold due to the shortage of coin".
Similarly, the international nature of finance is nothing new. A Viking hoard dug up in Yorkshire included coins minted in Samarkand, while wool from an estate at Holderness near Hull was sold in bulk to a trading company based in Lucca, which credited the owner's account rather than paying cash to agents. If the energetic building of new towns and roads mirrors our own time, other aspects of medieval life have mercifully disappeared. The Black Death of 1348 killed half the English population. If our own dire economy has an increasingly medieval quality, we should still be grateful for living now rather than then.
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