THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

26 December 2018

All I want for Christmas is ... Domesday Book

What did you do over Christmas? Peel sprouts? Wrap (and unwrap) presents? Sing carols? 

At Christmas in 1085, King William the Conqueror had other things on his mind. It was on that occasion that he chose to commission the famous survey whose results are preserved today in Domesday Book. We may revere this for its record of life in 11th-century England, but William's contemporaries sometimes thought otherwise, as this early account demonstrates.

‘William, king of the English, ordered all the possessions of all England to be described, in fields, in men, in all animals, in all manors from the greatest to the smallest, and in all payments which could be rendered from the land of all. And the land was troubled with much violence as a result.’ 

Cotton_ms_nero_c_v_f158v - Copy
Cotton_ms_nero_c_v_f158v - Copy
Continuation of the Chronicle of Marianus Scotus: Cotton MS Nero C V, f. 158v

So reads an addition to Marianus Scotus’s Chronicon, found in a manuscript made in the 1080s. It’s not clear exactly which violent incidents the chronicler had in mind, but discontent with the Domesday survey is recorded in other sources. For example, a 12th-century copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle complained that William the Conqueror ‘sent his men over all England into every shire … There was no single hide nor virgate of land, nor indeed … one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out, and not put down in his record’ (translated by D. Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961, pp. 87–88).

Writing later in the 12th century, Richard fitz Nigel, the royal treasurer (d. 1198), reported that the English called the book Domesdei, the Day of Judgement, because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, could not be appealed.

Great Domesday Book is currently in the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on loan from The National Archives. It is displayed next to a draft of the text for the South-West counties (Exon Domesday, loaned by Exeter Cathedral) and a list of questions that the commissioners should ask (loaned by Trinity College, Cambridge), as follows:

  • What is the manor/estate/place called?
  • Who owned it in the time of King Edward [the Confessor, 1042–1066]?
  • Who owns it now [1086]?
  • How many hides are there?
  • How many plough teams belong to the lord?
  • How many plough teams belong to the men of the manor?
  • How many villans [a type of peasant] are there?
  • How many cottars [a type of peasant]?
  • How many slaves [servi]?
  • How many freemen?
    How many sokemen?
  • How much woodland?
  • How much meadow?
  • How much pasture?
  • How many mills?
  • How many fish ponds?
  • How much has been added or taken away?
  • What was it worth?
  • What is it worth now?
  • How much did each freeman have then?
  • And now?
  • How much did sokeman have then?
  • And now?
  • All this is to be given three times: what it was in the time of King Edward, what it was when King William gave it, and what it is now [1086].

This process was used to gather information about 13,418 places in England and a few in what is now Wales. Domesday Book mentions over 269,000 people, from the king and his family to slaves, oxmen and swineherds. It describes 48 ‘castles’, over 60 abbeys and cathedrals, over 300 parish churches, around 6,000 mills, and about 45 vineyards, not to mention markets, mints, woods, inland and coastal fisheries, salt pans, lead working, quarries and potteries.

Great-Domesday-161_E31-2-2-f304v-Great-Domesday-Book-Yorkshire

Great Domesday Book (image © The National Archives)

The extent of this survey and its level of detail were quite extraordinary in northern Europe. But it did not cover absolutely everyone and everywhere in England: women are notably underrepresented. Nor was all the information collected used. The cows and pigs mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were largely left out of the final version of Domesday Book, although they appear in the earlier draft for the South-Western counties, today known as Exon Domesday. 

Domesday Book has remained in the possession of the English administration since the time it was made. If you’d like to see Great Domesday in person, hurry to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on until 19 February at the British Library.

The Chronicle of Marianus Scotus has been digitised as part of our Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project.

Alison Hudson

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