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Domesday, at a Glance

Updated on December 27, 2016
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J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

Inconsistent Terminology

Using the number of plough-teams and plough-lands as increments of measurement, the Domesday book was a means through which William the Conqueror could assess how much each property holder was worth, for the purpose of increasingly efficient taxation. Written originally in Latin, the fiscal accounts of the Domesday book use a variety of vernacular words inserted where no Latin equivalent was available, as well as an abundance of abbreviations, whose meanings are now disputed. While the use of unclear abbreviations, as well as the omission of an analysis of the property holdings of London cause historians and economists to question the validity of the Domesday book, the book is an otherwise comprehensive picture of England in 1086, and reflects the means of living of the English population in 1086C.E. and the approximately fifteen years prior necessary to complete the study.

Throughout Domesday, abbreviations such as “hides” are commonly used within the text to denote the worth of a particular share of property; as in the case of the Cannons of Saint Michael holding “four hides of this manor” in Sussex (Domesday, 95). It is controversial due to its differing use by different recorders throughout the text, and various historians and economists have interpreted it to mean a variety of measurements. However, the majority of historians studying Domesday agree that “hides,” sometimes abbreviated as “hde,” as in the case of Deormann Langley “answering for five hde. and seven ploughs in lordship” (Domesday, 1134), agree that the abbreviation was meant to indicate that the material being addressed numbers in a factor of 100 (Stevenson, 98). For example, in Domesday’s account of the Leicestershire manor property values, plough lands are labeled as “terrae carutcas” as in the case of Auti of Pickworth’s “Two carucates of land taxable” (Domesday, 2449), and are listed as being three “hides,” indicating that there were three hundred plough-lands in Leicestershire England (Domesday, 231).

The Domesday book recorded information about forested areas in a variety of ways. A frequently used formula was that "there is a wood x leagues by y leagues," sometimes the estimate was given in the form of acres, in hides, or hedges (Darby [1986], 439). For instance, such terms were used in the Norfolk hundred of Clacklose, where "half a league" of wood was owned by Fincham, half an acre by Westbriggs, an acre by Stow Bardolph, sixteen acres by South Runcton, and four acres by Barton Bendish (Domesday, 241). Another formula in Domesday proclaimed, "There is pannage for x swine," because pigs constituted an important element in medieval economy, wandering forests and eating acorns (Domesday, 2834). The amount of woodland was usually estimated by the number of pigs that it could feed, or by the number of pigs rented with the land. Sometimes the actual number of pigs fell far below the possible number. Historians such as H.C. Darby contend that “hide” was a measurement of the amount of swine that could be sustained on the land as a means of measuring the land for its value, however upon a careful reading of the Domesday text, it appears that “hides” were instead in reference to acreage of land as opposed to the number of swine the respective land could support. For example, at Bergholt, in Suffolk, there was woodland for hundreds of pigs, however only 29 were recorded as present on the manor; while in the Suffolk “hde” of Lackford, and in other places too, some pigs were entered with no mention of forested areas in which they might roam (Domesday, 878).

Exaggeration and Taxation

Historian Frederick Pollock contends that the Domesday book is highly accurate, “if we make allowance for some natural exaggeration from the point of view of unwilling taxpayers” and take into account the authenticity of the dates indicated by the original records later compiled to create the Domesday book (Pollock, 210). Domesday was divided into counties. Each county entry began with a list of landholders, beginning with the royal estates. After the royal estates, came the tenants-in-chief, starting with the archbishops and down through the hierarchy of the Church. Then, came the holdings of earls, and other vassals, usually in order of size and worth. The basic unit in Domesday was the manor, which was the smallest area of land held by a feudal lord. It usually covered one village, but often covered several villages and the surrounding area (“The Domesday Book,” 2).

Within each county, Domesday arranges its resident taxpayers in order of wealth and power, in descending order, ranging from the king and the manors he held, through the lords and serfs beneath him. Domesday mentions no property borders or land organization, due to its intended purpose not as a topographical map or a census publication, but as a catalog of taxation potential for William I (Pollock, 213). According to Pollock, “On the whole, the document appears to be some kind of fiscal memorandum” (Pollock 217). Domesday provided William I with a detailed picture of English landholders’ position as the holders of the land, employers of residents, and taxable persons under subservience to the English crown (Pollock, 224). Through a measurement of forested lands, meadows such as that of Thorfridh of Hanthorpe (Domesday, 2540), and pastures such as those of Aethelstan son of Godram (Domesday, 2534), mills such as that belonging to William Blunt of Croxby (Domesday, 2567), fisheries like that of Leofword of Wibrihtsherne (Domesday, 2585), salt-works listed as Brine pits such as King Edward’s brine pit in Droitwich (Domesday, 1371), and other special sources of profit, Domesday provided William the Conqueror with a detailed guide to possible English taxation (Pollock, 230).

The proceedings of the inquest, which was later published as Domesday, were taken down “in extenso” for every county, forming the 'original returns ' upon which William I based his taxation of English citizens. These original returns were sent to the king's treasury at Winchester, and the royal clerks compiled Domesday Book, which remained unpublished until 1773 when it was made available to the public; further fueling the already paranoid American colonists in fear of further taxation by the English Parliament. Photographic facsimiles of Domesday, for each county individually, were published in 1861-1863, also by the English government. (Galbraith, 161). The original returns were an administrative convenience that were rearranged to form a national catalog from a series of local records (Sawyer, 178). What is called the Domesday Book is actually a substantial composite work of two volumes: Exchequer Domesday, an abbreviated account of taxation liability of most of the country, and Little Domesday, the second volume; a detailed account of eastern England and Essex (Harvey, 753). Domesday was an income-tax inquiry of the tenant-in-chief of the land. Much, perhaps most, of the agrarian life of England inevitably escapes the attention of the Domesday commissioners because the agrarian life of England, except in the restricted sense in which they were required to investigate it, lies beyond their terms of reference due to Domesday’s preoccupation with taxable income; of which there was little among agrarian rural peoples (Bridbury, 284).

Domesday served as a final account of taxation liabilities in England for William I. Similarly to the biblical Last Judgment (Revelation 20: 12-15), it was felt that there was no appeal from its testimony, and according to Historian David Rolfe, even “to the present day the popular imagination has invested Domesday Book with near-mystical power as a source of exhaustive and unimpeachable authority. Although the survey is recognized to be incomplete, its account of the northern counties is considered to be essentially consistent” (Roffe, 311). Historian David Roffe warns that the Domesday book alone, as a record of fiscal activity cannot be used to reconstruct the complete nature of society in the eleventh century, although it consults a great variety of sources, and provides an idea of an economy in 1086 as conceived by William I. According to Roffe, “the camera never lies, but it is always dangerous to assume that a single photograph tells the truth” (Roffe, 336). Throughout Domesday, stylistic changes in the listing of properties may account for different writers, or for different conditions under which the property ownership would lie. According to Historian S. Harvey, it is not clear whether the differences merely reflect the various personnel concerned in the inquiry, or whether they signify different conditions (Harvey, 221).

Historian H.C. Darby contends that "when this great wealth of data is examined more closely, perplexities and difficulties arise” due to such discrepancies. One problem suspected by Darby is that the clerks who compiled this document "were but human;” they were frequently forgetful or confused. The use of roman numerals throughout the text of Domesday also led to countless mistakes. Darby states that anyone who attempts an “arithmetical exercise” in Roman numerals soon sees something of the difficulties that faced the clerks. More importantly are the numerous obvious omissions, and ambiguities in the presentation of the material throughout Domesday. Darby cites F.W. Maitland's statement following his compilation of a table of statistics from material taken from the Domesday Book survey, contending that "it will be remembered that, as matters now stand, two men not unskilled in Domesday might add up the number of hides in a county and arrive at very different results because they would hold different opinions as to the meanings of certain formulas which are not uncommon.." Adding that "each county presents its own problems," Darby concedes that it would be more correct to speak not of “the Domesday geography of England,” but of “the geography of Domesday Book.” The two may not be quite the same thing, and how near the record was to reality we can never be sure (Darby, 12-13).

Politics and the Church in Domesday

Although Domesday serves as an economic catalogue, it also makes mention of political activities of the era of its creation, such as the March of Whales. The phrase “Marcha de Wale”s occurs twice in Domesday, in the descriptions of two fiefs that lay on the border of north-west Herefordshire, in the records of land-holdings of Ralph de Mortimer (Domesday, 183) and Osbern Fitz Richard (Domesday, 186). The two entries list fourteen places with fifty four waste ploughlands, laid waist by Welsh raiding in the years preceding the study. As shown through the studies of Historian H. C. Darby, Welsh raiding had left its mark all along the Anglo-Welsh border long before the Norman Conquest, from 1039 to 1063 under Gruffydd Ap Llewelyn and continuing on through 1086 after Llewelyn’s death (Darby [1986], 262). Domesday, concerning the tenure of land and possible taxation, has long been recognized as authoritative, and providing what amounted to final judgments for English lords. Even after Domesday Book had lost its original value for the decision of cases in the courts of law, it remained very famous due to it’s former power. Similarly to the Magna Carta and Westminster Abbey, it was a great national monument, “acclaimed in exuberant language by generation after generation of scholars” (Stephenson, 1).

The gathering of information for Domesday began in January 1086. All tenants-in-chief and sheriffs were ordered by agents of William the Conqueror to submit a list of manors and men, with women mentioned only in a few instances throughout the text. Women mentioned throughout the text include women such as Christiana, the daughter of Edward the Exile and Princess of the West Saxon House. She was a Nun at Romsey, and at the time of Domesday, she had extensive holdings in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire (Domesday, 1232). Also included in the Domesday book , is Countess Judith of Lens; the wife of Waltheof of Huntingdon and Northumbria, and niece of William I. Judith was a land-holder with large holdings in 10 counties in Midlands and East Anglia (Domesday, 1286). Domesday records these womens’ land holdings with such detail as to include their land acreage divided by woodland and meadow, slaves owned, plough teams controlled, plough harrows available for use, and how many villagers rely on their land. Various panels of officials and clerks were sent to different parts of England in early 1086, to collect further information for the Domesday records. The officials and clerks went to the larger towns within each county of their appointed circuit, and were then presented with the information for each tenant-in-chief. The officials were men of high rank, including bishops and dukes, and the clerks were often monks. Those who presented the information to the commissioners are believed to have been sheriffs, reeves, and priests of the area with as many as six villagers from each manor. These local officials were also required to act as an inquest jury to hear others submit the information for the royal survey to insure the highest validity possible for the study (“The Domesday Book”, 1). The original Domesday text was written in Latin. However, there were some artificial words inserted for vernacular terms that had no equivalent in Latin. The text was highly abbreviated. The term "T.R.E." was the contraction of “tempore regis Edwardi” meaning in the time of King Edward, which was “on the day on which King Edward was alive and dead” (Domesday, 1093). Also, Domesday terms and standards were not consistent from county circuit to county circuit; for example, the term “wapentake,” as used in the description of Odbert of Upton’s three hides, “Wapentake, Odbert holds from William of Bernck” (Domesday, 1772), was the equivalent to the “hundred” in the Danelaw counties. Domesday was also known as “Liber Wintoniensis” (Book of Winchester) because it was kept at the king's treasury in Winchester. Other names included the “Book of the Exchequer” and the “King's Book” (“The DomesdayBook,” 2).

Written in Latin, the Domesday book serves as the starting point of history for the majority of towns and villages throughout England. It lists places, landowners, tenants, tax assessments, cultivated land, numbers of oxen, plough teams, property values, legal claims, illegal activity, and social classes including freemen such as those listed as in the employ of Eustace of Huntington (Domesday, 1801), “villeins” and smallholders such as those held by the Church of Allbrightlee in Longdon (Domesday, 2004), cottagers and priests such as those held by the Bishop of Onbury (Domesday, 1998), slaves such as those held by the Count of Evreux (Domesday, 388), and burgesses, such as those under direction of the Abbott of Malmesbury (Domesday, 427). The Domesday book, the oldest European public record, was based on the 1086 great survey of England which investigated “how the country was occupied, and with what sort of people... how much each had... and how much it was worth.” It covered over thirteen thousand settlements south of the rivers Ribble and Tees. The total value of all property in England in 1086 was calculated to be £75,000, which in today's money would be in excess of £1 trillion. The twelve wealthiest individuals in Domesday were each richer than any more recent billionaires in English history, with fortunes ranging from the equivalent of £56 billion to £104 billion today (Smith, 1).

Domesday, compiled in 1086, has been described as "probably the most remarkable statistical document in the history of Europe", but it was not subjected to statistical analysis until the 1980s. In an attempt to acquaint statisticians with Domesday book, discussing its nature and method of compilation, many scholarly articles were published regarding the book’s history and context throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Also, the methodology of Domesday scholars is contrasted with that of modern statistical analysis. Local Domesday statistical studies provide the basis for school and tertiary education projects, bridging the disciplines of history, economics and geography and showing the value of statistical methods to students (McDonald, 147).

The Domesday book shows not only that the Church held lands of considerable, and sometimes of vast extent, but that it had obtained these lands by free grants from kings or barons during the Saxon period. For example, four ministers, Worcester, Evesham, Pershore, and Westminster, were lords of seven-twelfths of the soil of Worcestershire, and that the Church of Worcester alone was lord of one-quarter of that shire besides other holdings elsewhere (Domesday, 1368). According to historian Herbert Thurston, it is probable that this did not imply absolute ownership, but only superiority and a right to certain services on the respective land. This must be borne in mind when we see it stated, and so far correctly, on the authority of Domesday, that the possessions of the Church represented twenty-five per cent of the assessment of the country upon the Norman Conquest in 1066, and twenty-six and one-half per cent of its cultivated area in 1086. These lands were in any case very unequally distributed, the proportion of church land being much greater in the South of England. According to Thurston, “the record does not enable us to tell clearly how far the parochial system had developed, and though in Norfolk and Suffolk all the churches seem to have been entered, amounting to two hundred and forty three in the former, and three hundred and sixty four in the latter, county, the same care to note the churches was obviously not exercised in the West of England” (Thurston, 1). Much church property seems to have been of the nature of a tenancy held from the king upon conditions of some service to be rendered, often of a spiritual kind. For example, Domesday states "Alwin the priest holds the sixth part of a hide", at Turvey, Beds, "and held it tempore regis Edwardi, and could do what he liked with it; King William afterwards gave it to him in alms,” on condition that he should celebrate two ferial masses labeled as “Ferias Missas” for the souls of the King and Queen twice a week (Domesday, 1616). As well as the great bishoprics, such as Canterbury and Worcester, there were more than 60 major religious houses for men and women, which were richly endowed, and documented throughout Domesday. Some preceded the Conquest, for example at Wilton, The aristocratic nunnery of Wilton, founded in the ninth century near Wiltshire, the royal seat of the kingdom of Wessex (Domesday, 3135). Other religious houses were of more recent foundation such as Battle Abbey, constructed on the site of the Battle of Hastings on the instructions of King William in 1067 (Domesday, 12).

Domesday has been consulted for legal precedent throughout its existence. In 1256, Henry III asserted that according to Domesday, the inhabitants of Chester, not the king, should pay for the repair of a bridge. Domesday has been consulted within the reign of Elizabeth II. Later, David Hume, philosopher and author of History of England, wrote of Domesday that it "is the most valuable piece of antiquity possessed by any nation." The detail of Domesday was not surpassed until the introduction of censuses in the early 19th century. Domesday is the earliest public record in England and without rival in medieval Europe, and is a remarkable administrative accomplishment of the Middle Ages (“The Domesday Book,” 5).

Special Thanks

Special thanks to my husband, for enabling my historical research adventures!
Special thanks to my husband, for enabling my historical research adventures!

Sources

Bridbury, A. R. “Domesday Book: A Re-Interpretation” The English Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 415 (Apr., 1990), pp. 284-309.

Darby, H. C. “The Marches of Wales in 1086” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1986), pp. 259-278.

Darby. H. C, “The Domesday Geography of Norfolk and Suffolk” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 85, No. 5 (May, 1935), pp. 432-447.

Galbraith, V. H. “The Making of Domesday Book” The English Historical Review, Vol. 57, No. 226 (Apr., 1942), pp. 161-177.

“The Domesday Book” History Magazine, October 2001. p.1. Available at: <http://www.history-magazine.com/domesday.html>

Harvey, Sally. “Domesday Book and Its Predecessors” The English Historical Review, Vol. 86, No. 341 (Oct., 1971), pp. 753-773.

Harvey, Sally “Royal Revenue and Domesday Terminology” The Economic History Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Aug., 1967), pp. 221-228.

McDonald, John. “Statistical Analysis of Domesday Book: 1086” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Vol. 148, No. 2 (1985), pp. 147-160.

Pollock, Frederick. “A Brief Survey of Domesday” The English Historical Review, Vol. 11, No. 42 (Apr., 1896), pp. 209-230.

Roffe, David. “Domesday Book and Northern Society: A Reassessment” The English Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 415 (Apr., 1990), pp. 310-336.

Sawyer, P. H. “The 'Original Returns' and Domesday Book” The English Historical Review, Vol. 70, No. 275 (Apr., 1955), pp. 177-197.

Smith, David. “The Holy Grail of data: it's Domesday, Online: William the Conqueror's great census is made available free on the internet” The Observer, February 10, 2008.p.1.

Stephenson, Carl. “Notes on the Composition and Interpretation of Domesday Book” Speculum, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Jan., 1947), pp. 1-15.

Stevenson, W. H. “The Hundreds of Domesday” The English Historical Review, Vol. 5, No. 17 (Jan., 1890), pp. 95-100.

Domesday. Reproduced in Digital format: “Electronic Edition of Domesday Book: Translation, Databases and Scholarly Commentary, 1086” 2007, Accessed June 16, 2010 at: <http://www.dataarchive.ac.uk/findingdata/snDescription.asp?sn=5694>

Thurston, Herbert. "Domesday Book." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909). Accessed June 16th 2010, <http://www. newadvent.org/cathen/05103a.htm>.

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