Domesday Book

Above: Part of a typical page from the Domesday Book. On the first line of the new paragraph can be seen the name for ‘Greenwich’ (highlighted by the scribe with a red line through it). The following line shows the name of ‘Lewisham’ (also with a red line through it).

Nearly everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of the Domesday Book, along with many others who do not even speak English. The curious thing about it is that very few people know much about what is written in it and almost nobody has ever read even a small part of it. It is likely that only a handful of historians have ever read all of it. If the book is so well-known – as a name – why is it not read more widely? We will get to that question a little later.

The Domesday Book was commissioned at Christmas 1085 by William I – usually known as William the Conqueror. It was to be a survey of the wealth and assets of his kingdom and the survey covered most of England. William needed to raise taxes to pay for his army and by knowing the wealth of his subjects he could then raise money from the wealthy ones. William I had defeated Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and he was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. It was just 19 years later that he decided to commission the Domesday survey.

When it was first commissioned, the survey was not called by today’s familiar name. It became known as the Domesday Book because of a play on words relating it to doomsday, the day of final judgement in the Christian religion. The information that the survey collected was so complete that it was compared to the information and judgement made on doomsday.

The answers to a set of defined questions were written down by men who conducted the survey. The results were collated and hand-written before being published as a book. Most of the text was in Latin with a few additional notes in Old French. Only scholars who have learned to read the handwritten script are able to read it. In order to read it, you also have to know Latin and understand Old French. For that reason, only partial translations ever appeared in history books until the late 20th century when the entire text was translated into Modern English and published in normal everyday text. Even having the modern translation, the text is rather boring which means that few people ever take the trouble to read it.

The generally accepted date for the publication was in 1086 but that is now being called into question and a later date now seems much more realistic. There is no doubt that the Domesday Book was commissioned on Christmas Day 1085. However, to gather the information, scribes had to be sent into every shire and write down the name of every manor and record the population and the resources – described in the number of animals (like sheep and cows), the number of ploughs (which indicated how much land could be cultivated) and the type of land (like pasture, fields or woodland). There are no less than 13,418 locations set out on the pages of the book. In general terms, it has been assumed that the information was collected during 1086 and that the final book was published in 1087. In fact William I died in 1087 but that would not have affected its production.

The contents of many documents contributed to the final information in the Domesday Book. Some of those documents are known to date from 1089. Some of them are believed to have been written in 1106. It has been argued recently by scholars that the records may not have been completed until as late as 1114. If the new research is correct, it would mean that the information contained in the Domesday Book could have been produced between 1098 and 1114 which puts the date for the final information between 11 and 27 years later than has previously been assumed.

In general, discovering that the book’s completion was later than scholars had previously thought is not revolutionary information but it does allow for the likely reality of the situation. To have completed such a detailed survey in just one year would have been nothing other than miraculous. Even today it would have been very impressive. To think of the Domesday Book being produced within a longer time frame of about 20 years is a much more realistic concept.


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