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Getting Domesday done: a new interpretation of William the Conqueror’s survey

A new interpretation of the Domesday survey, the famous survey of England taken on the orders of William the Conqueror in 1086, has emerged from a major study of the survey’s earliest surviving manuscript. It is now clear that the survey was more even more efficient, complex, and sophisticated than previously supposed. The first draft of the survey was made with astonishing speed—in about 100 days—and the information it contained was then checked and reorganised in three further stages, each resulting in the creation of new documents carefully designed for specific fiscal and political purposes. The iconic Domesday Book was simply one of several important outputs from the process.

This interpretation has emerged from a major collaborative study of Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3500, aka Exon Domesday. Although this survives in an incomplete form and covers only part of the kingdom (Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall), Exon Domesday is priceless because it is the earliest manuscript of the survey to survive in its original form, and contains several different types of text, written by about two dozen scribes in the summer of 1086. A team of specialists led by scholars based at King’s College London and Oxford University has recently completed a detailed study of these scribes, establishing precisely what they wrote and how they collaborated; and when placed alongside the other surviving manuscripts and records of the survey, this new evidence affords a deeper understanding of how and why Domesday was made.

The suggestion is that the first draft of the survey was made between Christmas 1085 and the following Easter, which fell on5 April 1086. This was organised on a geographical plan and was intended to improve yields from the land tax known as the “geld,” which was paid by lesser landholders, subtenants, and peasant farmers. Indeed, a major levy of the geld was collected and accounted for in tandem with the survey. The text of the survey was then checked in dramatic, widely attended meetings of shire courts between Easter and Whitsun (25 May), generating lists of contested landholdings from which the king could generate political as well as financial capital in later judicial hearings (rulers routinely profited from justice in this period). The geld accounts were also publicly checked at the same meetings: Exon uniquely contains a series of accounts relating to this exercise, and astonishingly these reveal that 96% of the money demanded from taxpayers was collected.

Between Whitsun and 1 August, the survey was then reorganised on a feudal plan, creating documents known as “fiefs,” which listed the lands of barons—that is, major landholders who held land directly from the king—under separate headings. Statistical summaries of each fief were also made as they came off the production line. Exon Domesday is the only surviving manuscript witness to this stage of the survey. It reveals a team of scribes working under intense pressure and collaborating in ingeniously pragmatic ways to get the job done. They had to finish before 1 August, because on that day an extraordinary ritual occurred: the king required all the barons in the kingdom to perform homage to him, presumably in return for the lands recorded in the survey.

The feudally-arranged draft of the survey and the summaries combined to create a comprehensive inventory of the king’s own estates, which recorded how much revenue they were expected to generate for the king and made those responsible for managing them more accountable. They also created the potential for the king to generate feudal taxation by extracting large sums of money from barons each time their property changed hands, e.g., through inheritance or marriage. The barons complied with the whole exercise partly because they also got something precious in return: unambiguous confirmation of title to the land they held from the king.

“This was arguably the first systematic use of big data in British history.”

However, further editorial work remained necessary to make the material more accessible and user-friendly for treasury officials. In the autumn of 1086, another group of scribes collaborated to make a fair copy of a document similar to Exon relating to Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex: this manuscript is known as the Little Domesday Book. Meanwhile, a single scribe who possessed a remarkable talent for organisation and concision spent about a year compressing the material in Exon and similar records for other parts of the kingdom into a single document: this manuscript is known as the Great Domesday Book. These documents were furnished with contents lists, running headers, and coloured rubrics, and were carefully designed to enhance the administration of royal estates and feudal taxation.

In short, the survey was brilliantly conceived to create information structured in specific ways to allow the Conqueror’s officials to maximise his revenues from different income streams. That is to say, the survey was compiled in a similar way to modern databases, into which data can be entered in one format and extracted in other formats for specific purposes. The Conqueror’s regime effectively compiled and manipulated a database of England’s landed wealth in about seven months using technologies no more complex than parchment, pen, ink, and human interaction. This was arguably the first systematic use of big data in British history.

Historians have been arguing for some time that the Normans inherited an unusually powerful state when they conquered England in 1066. Even so, this new evidence demonstrates how effectively the Normans mastered the machinery of the English state and adapted it to the distinctive challenges of governing newly-conquered England. It also establishes that they did so by drawing on ideas, technologies, and personnel that originated from the Continent, for the closest parallels to the Domesday are the great surveys compiled in the reign of Emperor Charlemagne and his successors in the eighth and ninth centuries, along with confirmation charters that were commonly issued in northern France in the eleventh century. The new research also indicates that the Exon scribes were trained in northern France. The Domesday survey was therefore a distinctively English yet fundamentally European phenomenon.

These new findings may resonate at a time when the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit have placed intense demands on the machinery of the state and public participation in its strategies.

Feature image by Ben Griepenstroh

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