Saturday 24 October 2020

Domesday Now

Is it just me, or should there be an exclamation mark after the second word of the title? Perhaps I am just one of the Apocalypse Now! Generation, although I cannot be bothered to look up whether that had the punctuation. On the other hand, I also recall an obscure TV comedy called Whoops! Apocalypse! Which did have punctuation, although I don’t recall exactly where. To be honest, all I do recall was the SAS storming a gents lavatory on a cross channel ferry and the US President, looking very like Ronald Regan, crash landing the Space Shuttle on Moscow and sparking the aforesaid nuclear holocaust.

I digress, however. This book is:

Roffe, D., Keats-Rohan, K. S. B., eds. Domesday Now (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2018).

As the edited state suggests, it is a book of essays, subtitled ‘New Approaches to the Inquest and the Book’. The contents are papers from a 2011 conference on the subject, so the claim of the word ‘Now’ is a bit subjective. However, someone clearly thought it was worth publishing as a paperback in 2018, and I suspect that as work on Domesday Book and its environs go it is as up to date as any.

The assiduous reader of the blog will recognise the name of the first editor, David Roffe. Aside from the introduction, he contributes three out of the twelve essays, a pretty good strike rate. In the first, he provides an overview of how studies of the Domesday Book have progressed over the years. In the second we have a detailed discussion of some of the ‘scribal devices’ used in the Domesday manuscript. The ‘diplomatic’, which appears to be the stuff actually comprising an entry, gives us certain clues as to what the scribe was doing when writing. For example, a marginal ‘m’ indicates that the place in the entry was a manor. Different forms of the initial letter of entries suggest different dependencies: dependent lands are marked with a rustic letter (often a capital I) while an independently held land holding gets a square I. This is difficult to reproduce in anything but a facsimile of the manuscript itself (which is, incidentally, falling apart).

Roffe’s third essay is about the role of the records of the Domesday inquest post the inquest and presumed initial use to which the returns from the counties were put. The book itself became something much used by medieval exchequer clerks and such like. It is, of course, Roffe’s argument that the book only reached its present form after the 1088 rebellion against William Rufus, when the government had to figure out which lands to remove from the defeated rebels. Creating the Domesday Book as we know it, with lands ordered within a county by landholder, could well have facilitated this task.

Roffe’s model of the creation of the returns for Domesday Book is one of a fairly gentle, normal process of vill, hundred and county juries stating what they knew of who held what from whom in 1066 (on the day when King Edward was alive and dead) and now. This was a fairly standard Anglo-Saxon process, albeit on a grand scale. Roffe argues that to pay geld was to be free, and so no-one had much interest in lying about their tax returns and the whole thing was a fairly civilised process.

Sally Harvey, in her essay, disagrees with Roffe, pointing out that while the inquests might have been fairly standard, violent coercion was not far behind. The inquests were conducted under oath, and oath-breakers were of course eternally damned as well as being liable to earthly sanctions. For example, there were ordeals to but undertaken if no resolution to a dispute could be found – ordeal by water or by hot iron. The priest adjudicated as to the innocence of guild of the person undertaking the ordeal was innocent or guilty. Harvey suggests that the threat of the ordeal in the Domesday inquests was shocking, as any perjury committed was not, under Anglo-Saxon law, criminal, so did not require it. The Normans also introduced trial by combat, which seems to be referred to around six times in the Domesday corpus. Out of 29000 returns that may not be many, but the point is that the threat of ordeal, by whatever means, was sufficient implied violence to coerce compliance with the Domesday questions.

Aside from this ongoing argument, and disagreements as to whether the Book was an expected outcome of the inquest, there are other interesting essays. There is a fair bit on the production of an electronic, searchable, version of the Domesday Book. Naturally, these can be a bit out of date, but they do indicate that the creation of online resources is no easy matter. Another essay on using geographical Information Systems for Domesday studies is interesting, but again shows the difficulties of converting an Eleventh Century text to Twenty-First Century technology.

Perhaps the most interesting comment to me is the suggestion (by Ian Taylor ‘Little Domesday Reconsidered’) that as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 1085, to oppose the feared Danish invasion, William had ‘the land near the sea laid waste’, this might be expected to appear in the East Anglian records in LDB. But the relevant counties do not record any significant ‘waste’ or decline in values at the time of the inquest. He notes that only in Yorkshire is there significant waste, and that the Crowland chronicler states that the 1085 wasting was in Northumbria. This is not Taylor’s point of interest, but it is mine, and it might suggest that the large quantities of waste manors in 1086 was not due to the harrying of the North but to a later scorched earth policy aimed against renewed Danish invasion and those who might sympathise with them.

As is often the case, one book leads to another, or in this case, two others, as the literature on waste points to two further essays by J. N. N. Palmer in two different books. Ho hum. I have some more reading to do.


  1. I remember WA. The SAS were led by Rik Mayall. I seem to remember them being involved in (de)construction too. Classic.
    English history seems relatively at peace with repeated invasion strategies, or at least the perception of same. If only the rest of the isles could do the same.

    1. They don't make them like WA any more, I suspect. Probably just as well; geopolitics has moved on a little.

      I was once told in all seriousness that England had only been successfully invaded once in 1066. Aside from quibbles about what success might be in terms of invasion, it overlooks a large number of 'incidents' in medieval history, at least. And of course England is quite at ease with having invaded everyone else...