Saturday, 23 May 2020

Decoding Domesday

In further pursuit of my Domesday project, I have been reading one of the ‘big academic’ names in the subject, David Roffe, or at least, one of his books:

Roffe, D. (2015) Decoding Domesday, Woodbridge, Boydell.

Before you start to think that I have way too much money and am deficient in the head department (which may, of course, be true) I hasten to add that this is the paperback version of an academic tome first issued in 2007, which would have been, almost certainly, beyond my means.

The problem that Roffe tackles is twofold: Firstly, the question is about what the Domesday survey, the seven circuits of investigation (called the ‘inquest’) were for. Various ideas as to this have been put forward, such as a survey of the population if England for tax purposes, and assessment of how much tax was supposed to be paid, the assertion of Norman control over government locally as well as nationally and so on. The problem here is that none of the chroniclers say why the Domesday inquest was conducted, and, of course, most later commentators read into the Domesday book what they are looking for.

The second part of the problem identified is the relation between the Domesday inquest and the book itself. It is not obvious that the returns from the inquest were immediately turned into a book. It is not even obvious that the intention was to obtain anything except a snapshot of the nation and its service levels (i. e. tax and service to the King whether directly or indirectly via tenants in chief), as a response to the military and fiscal crisis of 1085. William needed money and men and needed them quickly. To know what he could call upon in 1086 was probably a good idea.

The uses to which the Domesday Book and its ‘satellites’ documents were put is interesting. It was originally held in Winchester, the seat of the King’s treasury and was used for quite a long part of the medieval period as the definitive base-line for landholding, tax and service. Roffe observes that in Anglo-Saxon times tax paying and landholding went together – if you held land you proved it by paying the geld. Thus the juries and landowners in hundreds and shires were quite content to name their lands and the tax due from them, as it cemented their claim on the land. Of course, non-taxpayers and non-tax paying land were ignored.

That last statement is not quite true, of course. It would seem that some of the inquest returns (and, maybe, all of them) did do things like count people (including slaves), beasts, areas of woodland and pasture and so on. But, eventually, such items were excluded from the Book itself, because they were not interesting, not being about tax or service. Hence the Domesday Book itself is incomplete as a survey of all England (aside from the fact it excludes the northern counties anyway).

Many of the uses to which the Domesday Book have been put are, therefore, liable to be in some error. We can count the number of people named in the book and obtain some idea about the chief landholders. Thus we do get lists of lands held directly by the King, by his chief henchmen, by various bishops and so on. We also get some idea of how much tax these lands were liable for. We also get some ideas of the next slice down in society, that is, the people who held lands “of” the tenants in chief. These are often (but not always) named, as often is the tenant or owner in 1066. A number of disputes are also recorded in some parts of the Domesday Book, but while some entries have the number of ordinary people residing on a manor, many do not, and so the whole can only give us a lower limit to population.

There are further oddities as well. The village I live in had a Saxon church – the local history society seems to have found the foundations near the present (Georgian) structure. No church is recorded here in Domesday, presumably because it rendered no tax to the King. The church in the nearest market town is recorded, with a priest, and also how much it was worth. One of the nearby upland parishes also has an entry and a priest.

The upshot of all this is that the Domesday Book has, in the past, been used in rather naive ways by historians, both professional and amateur. The assumptions made do not always square with the realities of the documents preserved in the Book. When peering this far back into history, there is a tendency to grab any bit of information which seems fairly solid and build upon it. That can lead to building historical castles in the air or projecting our own interests back onto the past.

The Domesday Book is a bit of a pig, therefore. We would like it to be able to tell us more than it can. It does give us some ideas of some things: landholding at the highest levels of society in a shire; how those holdings might have changed over the twenty years since William came to the throne; geld levels in those places. We can guess that some holders of land in 1066 were English from their names and that some of the holders in 1086 were not. What we do not know is how the holdings were transferred, at least in many cases where the 1066 holders were not at Hastings and did not rebel.

Overall, I read the book as an appeal to allow the Domesday Book to tell us what it can tell us about Anglo-Norman society and how it worked. The Hundred / Wapenshaw / Shire complex of courts and juries is, in itself, interesting enough, but on the whole, historians have not read it for that information. And that is even before we get into the question of ‘waste’ and what that might mean….

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