Christopher Dyer: Daniel Snowman Meets the Historian of Life and Living in Medieval Britain. (Today's History)

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ONE OF THE CHARMING THINGS about Christopher Dyer is that many of his articles and all his major books -- including a new 400-page volume just published -- have `life' and `living' in their titles. Thus, Dyer writes about getting a living, about standards of living and everyday life; about what people in medieval England ate, what they did with their work and leisure time, and how peasants emerged from serfdom to achieve a degree of independence. He is not a subscriber to the old-fashioned `Merrie England' school of medievalists and is not comfortable with sweeping generalisations. On the contrary, Dyer's careful writing is exhaustively documented and impeccably balanced, constantly returning to the individual instance evinced by the evidence. Yet, within the constraints imposed by the requirements of scholarship, he might be said to document `Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness' avant la lettre.

It may seem absurd to say of a medievalist that he writes about topics of which he has personal knowledge. But Dyer, who was born to a lower-middle-class family in Stratford-upon-Avon (to a long line of carpenters') and active in the Labour party when a young man, has always been attracted to the study of the Midlands, of small towns, of individual economic survival at the local level. In addition to the written records familiar to all medievalists, Dyer found himself drawn to anything that would get him closer to the experience of life in Britain a thousand years ago, such as landscape history, aerial photography and archaeology. He went on his first archaeological dig at the age of twelve; and today, forty-five years later, he still gets out whenever he can, loves the camaraderie that develops around an archaeological site and is a good friend of TV's Time Team.

In the mid-1960s, Dyer went up to the University of Birmingham to read History. Here he soon came under the influence of Rodney Hilton and found himself at the core of an intellectual revolution. Hitherto, medieval history had tended to concentrate on those who had owned property and had left written records: royalty, lords, knights, clergy, lawyers. The poor, the peasantry, the criminal and vagabond classes and the rest were usually regarded as a large undifferentiated group more acted upon than acting, the victims rather than the protagonists of history, even by such leading and innovative medievalists as Michael Postan. Experts on later periods, too, had tended to concentrate on the visible elites who, after all, were easier to research and write about. But now a new generation of historians, motivated in part by a shared political radicalism and influenced by the Annales school in France, were beginning to emphasise economic and social history and, by delving into new kinds of source material, to retrieve `the people' for the historical record. Among the pioneers were Christopher Hill on seventeenth-century Britain, Edward Thompson on the eighteenth century and Raphael Samuel on the nineteenth. In this quasi-Marxist historiographical revolution, the leading medievalist was Rodney Hilton.

At Birmingham under Hilton's tutelage, Christopher Dyer soon found his metier, learning to apply the new insights of economic history to the minutiae of individual (often `ordinary') lives in specific locations. But he also learned to combine this worm's-eye view with that of the high-flying bird. Going on to do a PhD under Hilton, Dyer chose to research the Estates of the Bishops of Worcester. A straightforward enough topic, you might think -- until you note the astonishingly wide terminal dates: 680-1540, a span of nearly nine hundred years. No wonder it took him close on a decade to complete!

After a few years lecturing at the University of Edinburgh (teaching survey courses which, he recalls, had to cover `Alfred to Attlee'), while also trying to concentrate on his doctoral research, Dyer returned to Birmingham in 1970. …