Domesday Book and the Local Historian


Domesday Book is unique in Western Europe. Although scholars have adduced Carolingian, Byzantine and Islamic parallels, no document of such an early date is so comprehensive in its account of a realm (1). As such it is the greatest testimony to the genius and energy of Norman government. Its central importance was recognised from its inception in 1086. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicler expressed horror mixed with grudging admiration at the very enormity of the survey and the name Domesday itself, first recorded within a hundred years of the Inquest, attests to the special place that it thereafter occupied in the mediaeval mind. Like the Last Judgement, there was no appeal from its testimony. Its high reputation was, indeed, merited for it was a departure of some moment in the theory and practice of government. Anglo-Saxon administration had made much use of documentation. It was the very efficiency of the system that made the inquest possible. But, more than any other single act, the Domesday survey moved governance out of the realm of custom and personal relationship onto the firm foundation of written record. Throughout the Middle Ages it was the source of ultimate authority in matters of tenure (2).

ááááááááááá In legal terms, then, and more often than not in fact, the documented history of most English settlements begins with Domesday Book. As an historical source, however, it is not an easy document to use. The first problem is presented by its format. The account of the country is arranged by shires, but within each the geographical principle is abandonned. A separate chapter is assigned to the king and every tenant-in-chief who held interests in the county and the description of the lands of each proceeds by estates as opposed to settlements. Thus, even though a manor may have had appurtenances in a widely dispersed group of villages, all are usually enrolled in a single entry, or a group of consecutive entries, regardless of location.

ááááááááááá But the form of the text has been experienced by historians as a mere irritation compared with the other problems encountered in the study of the document. Despite Domesday Book's unparalleled range and content, independent evidence frequently demonstrates apparent anomalies and contradictions. Many thriving settlements, for example, are not recorded by name, while commodities that were located in one village often appear to be appended to another. Thus, there was clearly a church at Attenborough (Notts) in the late eleventh century, but the place-name does not appear in the Nottinghamshire folios, and the church is enrolled in two separate entries as an appurtenance of manors in Toton and Chilwell (3).

ááááááááááá Such irregularities, however, are not simply a function of omission and confusion. Like any other administrative document, Domesday Book has its deficiencies of organisation. Information is frequently omitted through incompetence or lack of data. Soke of Colston Basset (Notts), for example, is recorded but there is no mention of the manorial centre to which it belonged (4). The description of the estate is either subsumed in another entry or the manor escaped the notice of the Domesday commissioners. Duplication is also rife. Where different tenants-in-chief had an interest in a single parcel of land, or there were rival claims to its title, the same resources were returned by a number of individuals and were duly entered in their respective chapters. An estate in Farnsfield (Notts), for example, is enrolled no less than three times in the text (5). But were it possible to identify and correct all such lacunae and inaccuracies, many anomalies would remain. The peculiarities of Domesday Book, of both form and content, are a more basic characteristic of the document for they emanate from the purpose of the enquiry and the consequent mode of compilation.

ááááááááááá William the Conqueror initiated the Domesday Inquest at Gloucester in 1085 (6). Since the Conquest almost all the major landholdings in England had changed hands and, with the threat of imminent invasion from Scandinavia, the king urgently needed to reassess the resources of his realm in order to prepare for the coming onslaught. The first priority was to take stock of his own resources, the regular provision of the crown. Consequently, royal estates and the income from the geld, the national taxation, were probably the subject of an initial pilot survey. The king, however, was no less concerned with the estates of the tenants-in-chief for he regularly received several types of due from them and was further entitled to enjoy their issues through the normal incidents of wardship, forfeiture and the like. It is an account of these estates that constitutes the body of the Domesday text. But the commissioners were not interested in them per se. Internal management is at best only sketchily outlined. Sub-tenants, for example, are but seldom recorded with any degree of consistency and even right to land was of subsidary interest. It was rather value to the lord, whether de facto or de jure, that was the overwhelming consideration (8).

ááááááááááá The arrangement of the text by estates is a natural reflection of this preoccupation. In the eleventh century the lord exploited his land through the institution of the manor. At root, the term merely signifies a residence and, indeed, beyond a hall and small demesne, that is home farm, its lord did not own the land of the manor in the modern sense, but was merely entitled to extensive dues from those who occupied it. Such included the profits of justice, labour, a food rent - usually commuted to a monetary sum by 1066 - and ecclesiastical tithes. The manor was essentially a tributary nexus and therefore value was most easily expressed in terms of the income of the lord's hall at which dues were rendered. From the very start, then, as an inventory of seigneurial wealth, Domesday Book was a survey of manors.

ááááááááááá The fact introduced four types of bias into the selection and enrolment of data. First, identifying names are rarely those of settlements. They either refer to estates and their administrative subdivisions or, in certain circumsatces, to local government units. The manor of Southwell (Notts), for example, encompassed twelve berewicks. None, however, is identified in the text and their resources are in no way distinguished from those of the manorial centre (7). Settlements in themselves were only of minor interest and their existence is often not apparent for their land and stock were enrolled under the name of the manor to which they belonged.

ááááááááááá Second, the Domesday commissioners took little notice of resources that did not contribute to the income of the crown or the tenant-in-chief. Commodities were not recorded simply because they were there, but because they turned a profit for the lord. There was, for example, much woodland in north Nottinghamshire in the eleventh century, but only the comparatively small amount which was appropriated to the exclusive use of the manor is recorded. Much was common to a number of communities and therefore escaped notice since it was beyond seigneurial control. The record of meadow, pasture and much else is subject to this qualification. Indeed, even the population figures are incomplete for only those who owed services to the lord, and thereby contributed to the issues of the manor, were enrolled in the returns.

ááááááááááá Third, just as the use of estate names often disguises the complexities of settlement structure, so manorial resources which were physically remote from an estate centre were often recorded as an integral element for it was at the lord's hall that their tribute was renderd. Hence, the church of Attenboroough was entered in the accounts of the manors of Toton and Chilwell between which its dues were divided. It is not always so easy to identify the location of other resources, such as woodland, mills and pasture. But many manors apparenntly enjoyed assets which could not be obtained within their immediate vicinity and we must therefore suppose that they were located elsewhere.

ááááááááááá Fourth, not all the commodities that contributed to the income of the estate are explicitly noticed for, by and large, manorial appurtenances were only recorded at the level at which they rendered dues. For example, there were probably many small chapels in Nottinghamshire in the eleventh century which were the precursors of the parish churches of the later Middle Ages. But none is recorded in the text. Only the mother churches, to which they were subject, are noted for they alone contributed directly to the income of the lord's demense.

ááááááááááá Many of the survey's inconsistencies, then, are less real than apparent, for it is clear that Domesday Book is not, and was never intended to be, a comprehensive account of settlements and communities. In its own terms, however, it is eloquent on the organisation of English society in the late eleventh century. Clearly its data cannot be taken at face value. Conclusions drawn from a simple geographical distribution of settlements or commodities will be imperfect if not positively misleading. The survey's emphasis upon estates and their issues must inevitably condition the analysis and interpretation of its evidence. Population statistics illustrate the point. The social mix portrayed in the survey is clearly not a representative cross-section of English society for, by its very nature, the record is biased in favour of those classes that owed extensive dues to the lord. Small independent landowners, like rent-paying censarii, contributed little to the income of the demesne and therefore frequently escaped the attention of the commissioners. Thus, Domesday Book furnishes little sound evidence to determine the absolute size of the population and even less to calculate the degree of freedom in society. Nevertheless, its record does provide some sort of measure of the extent of manorialisation, that is the subjection of the population to the lord's demesne. In many parts of England land was originally organised in large tributary estates known as 'sokes' or 'shires' in the Anglo-Saxon period. But by 1066 many of these estates had been broken up by successive royal grants and alienated to lords who were increasingly extending their newly acquired rights at the expense of the peasants who occupied the land. Villeins, although still personally free, were already closely tied to the lord's demesne and in the next hundred years other classes were to be drawn into the seigneurial web. Domesday Book and its statistics is a freeze-frame snapshot of the process. It provides a picture of a land which was in transition from a tributary to a truly manorial society and as such preserves the vestiges of a much earlier society as well as the seeds of future change. It is this which is the great challenge of the survey to the historian for it is a field in which many great discoveries remain to be made.




1.áááááááá J. Percival, 'The Precursors of Domesday: Roman and Carolingian Land Registers', Domesday Book: a Reassessment, ed. P. H. Sawyer, London 1985, 5-27.


2.áááááááá E. M. Hallam, Domesday Book through Nine Centuries, London 1986, 32-73.


3.áááááááá Domesday Book: Nottinghamshire, ed. J. Morris, Chichester 1977, 10,25; 13,4; R. Thoroton, The Antiquities of Nottinghamshire ii, 2nd ed. London 1790, 178.


4.áááááááá Domesday Book: Nottinghamshire, 27,2-3.


5.áááááááá Domesday Book: Nottinghamshire, 1,22; 5,1; 11,17.6. D. Whitelock, D. G. Douglas, S. I. Tucker, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London 1965, 161.


6.áááááááá ASC, 161.


7.áááááááá Domesday Book: Nottinghamshire, 5,1


ęDavid Roffe, 1986, 2004.