Domesday Book and the Local Historian
Book is unique in
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.
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).
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.
the Conqueror initiated the Domesday Inquest at
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
1. J. Percival, 'The Precursors of Domesday: Roman and
2. E. M. Hallam, Domesday Book through
3. 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. Domesday Book: Nottinghamshire, 27,2-3.
5. Domesday Book: Nottinghamshire, 1,22; 5,1; 11,17.6. D. Whitelock,
D. G. Douglas, S. I. Tucker, The Anglo-Saxon
6. ASC, 161.
7. Domesday Book: Nottinghamshire, 5,1
İDavid Roffe, 1986, 2004.