Christopher Dyer’s exploration of the life and business activity of John Heritage, a Cotswold wool merchant and quasi-capitalist farmer in the decades either side of 1500, is a delightful exposition of the ways in which the great and persistent themes of medieval social and economic history can be set within (for this area of the discipline at least) relatively novel historiographical approaches. In what has become a mild trend in recent years in English medieval economic history (recollecting Judith Bennett’s account of Cecilia Penifader at Brigstock or Anne Dewindt’s work on the Berengers on the Ramsey Abbey estates and Dyer’s own article on a later fifteenth-century Chevington (Suffolk) farmer, Robert Parman), Dyer seeks to represent, in so far as the limits of the material allow, the available detail of one life in order to improve our understanding of the changing nature of medieval society and economy at the end of the Middle Ages. In the case of his subject, John Heritage, there survives an account book which offers considerable information regarding Heritage’s world of work, his business dealings, the extent and fluctuation of his trade and the identities of many of his business contacts. The account book, as well as offering detailed insight into Heritage’s activities, also provides us with a sense of the limited extent of what might be deemed to be systematic operation and suggests a potentially haphazard and piecemeal quality to some of Heritage’s dealings. In examining the features of Heritage’s economic dealing and the economic context in which he operated, Dyer revivifies discussion of themes that have remained central to the study of medieval social and economic history. So, Heritage’s activity as a wool-monger takes us into examination of the later medieval wool trade and the relationship between the centres of that trade and its peripheries; his farming and, in particular, the importance of his acquisition of land, permits consideration of such issues as the agglomeration of holdings, the reduction of arable land in favour of pasture, processes of enclosure and the desertion of later medieval villages. Heritage’s account-book and his dealings with local lords also speak to such important themes as rent and its changing nature in this period. Other matters of great interest, most notably the role and nature of credit in later medieval mercantile and rural society, as well as the importance of small-town society and the vibrancy of local and regional trade in an area as rich in resources as the later medieval and early modern Cotswolds, also find their place in this discussion. Dyer’s striking examination of Heritage’s credit arrangements, and the ways in which he managed his credit and his debts, illustrates the complexity of such dealings as well as the ways in which the formal written recording of debt moved alongside other important mechanisms such as public reputation, memory, business efficacy and word of mouth. In short, one of the many strengths of this work is its capacity not only to shed new and particular light on themes long held as important to our understanding of the medieval economy but to introduce them afresh and in a manner that may well encourage new work and new approaches. As Dyer notes in the introduction to the volume (and it is a theme he returns to in the final chapter), Heritage cannot be easily labelled. Wool merchant and farmer, he was also, in his business dealings, a grazier, money lender and general trader. Most of the surviving evidence relates to his finances and his business arrangements; it is in this light, then (as for so many among the lower and middling orders of medieval England), that we are best able to see him. However, Dyer is keen to set Heritage in a wider context than that of the economy and his business dealings, and in so doing he has necessarily to stray further from the man himself and to present evidence gleaned in relation to similar kinds of individual and social groupings. Thus we read of the sorts of activity, including local office-holding and guild membership, with which Heritage would certainly have been acquainted and in which, as a significant figure in his region, he must have been involved. As well as an investigation which allows consideration of the broader themes, the book is also a work of local and regional history. Set within the West Midlands and the Cotswolds, in Heritage’s native Burton Dasset and (through his marriage) Moreton-in-Marsh, Dyer constantly reminds the reader of the landscape in which his subject operated, the places he would have visited, the location of markets, fairs, churches and business contacts. We are left with a beguiling view of Heritage’s world, supported by a number of apposite photographs. Dyer’s detailed and entirely engaging examination of the life of John Heritage also reminds us of an older historiographical convention; beyond an Annaliste histoire totale it also reminds us of the efforts of historians (such as Eileen Power in the first half of the twentieth century) to describe the lives of medieval people. In reprising earlier forms of investigation and discussion, and especially in acknowledging the importance of historical biography and the centrality of actual people to the craft of history, Dyer has taken no step backwards, however; in this thorough, consuming and highly effective discussion, he reminds us of the significance of the individual story but also of the importance and persistence of themes central to our understanding of the pre-modern economy and society. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 3, 2018
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