Domesday Now? Some Heretical Thoughts on the Nature of Domesday Data
Centre for English Local History, University of Leicester, 5 December 2002

In the last fifty years or so there has developed a growing awareness that the Domesday inquest was concerned with lordship. Outside of the estate agent's office and the lunatic fringe, Domesday Book is no longer seen as a comprehensive Rough Guide to Norman England. Paradoxically in tandem with this acceptance of the limitations of the source, there has developed a new confidence in its thoroughness and scope within its own remit. In the last twenty years sophisticated statistical tools have been brought to bear on the Domesday data, notably by Professors MacDonald and Snooks, and the results have been held to be significant (both in the statistical as well as in the everyday sense). High correlations are found between almost all the variables of Domesday Book. Thus, it has been shown that manorial resources increase in proportion to the assessment of estates and that values accurately reflect this reality. The record of less important resources like churches, mills, and fisheries, may be eccentric, but in the essentials of the manorial economy Domesday is consistent and thorough. It is concluded that Domesday Book is about real estate and real economies. For most economic historians the Domesday inquest was an inventory survey of a well-established type and Domesday Book preserves much of its data.

In this lecture I seek to show that much of this is misconceived. I argue that, yes, Domesday is about lordship, but not the comic strip caricature so often assumed in many accounts. In 1086 lordship was not monolithic, but was a skein of interlocking and overlapping rights which devolved upon taxation and service rather than land. Domesday data were chosen to illuminate these its central concerns. Thus, only hidated land, whether it be demesne or otherwise, is described, omitting a large reserve of inland that was beyond the remit of the inquest, and all manorial statistics relate only to this the warland, including values which represents customary renders in coin. Domesday Book tells us less about real estates than networks of soke dues. As such it greatly underestimates the scale of the economy in 1086 and is therefore a misleading datum for economic historians who have traditionally used it as a baseline for subsequent developments.


David Roffe, December, 2002.