Most of us have heard about the 12th century Domesday Book, but few really know much about it. I was lucky enough to hear three separate lectures about it given Cambridge University’s Dr Philip Morgan and the following is what I’ve learned:

  • Actually, the Domesday Book is five separate books, or at least that’s where it stands today. Little wonder there’s some confusion about it as over the centuries few scholars have ever seen the book(s) but instead have had to make do with transcriptions provided by the guardians of the document (whoever and wherever that might be).
  • The plot thickens when you consider that there are three different ‘editions’ or translations available and so if you’re thinking you’ve seen a photo of the original document, you haven’t – what you’ve seen is a replica of one of these three editions:
    • In 1783, there was a demand for the Domesday book to be reprinted and the challenge was taking up by a man named Farley. As the original was in Latin (abbreviated Latin) supplemented by hand  scribbles, a whole new typeface had to be devised to accomplish this monumental task and as this was about the time that the original more or less disappeared from the public eye, (it is rumoured to be kept in a cool, dark place to preserve it for ‘future generations’), all later translations/editions are based on this Farley edition.
    • In the 1860’s, the Phillimore Edition was created using a process known as photozincograph. This edition featured the ‘original’ text (i.e. the Farley edition) in Latin as well as an English translation meant to make the work accessible to the masses.
    • In the late 20th century, comes the Alecto Facsimile, which was a huge project undertaken with the National Archives and National Public Documents Office. As it was leather-bound, it was  pricey.
  • We learn a bit about the origins of the Domesday Book from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a contemporary work) which suggests that the Domesday Book was commissioned by the king (William the Conqueror) who, at his Christmas Court of Gloucester in 1085, had ‘deep speech’ with his counsel. He wanted to know how his kingdom was occupied and by which men as well as their relationship to each other and to him. The idea was that an invasion from the Danes was expected (although it didn’t happen) and he needed to know how he might raise taxes in order to fund a war. 
  • This was not a census and was  never meant to be. It also did not entail scribes roaming from village to village asking questions. The book was pulled together from existing ‘shire’ (county) ‘geld’ records ( i.e. taxation) and it was meant to be an index of who had what and where. Certain people were asked to show up at the Sessions (as usual) when certain disputes/discrepancies were resolved.
  • This led to a range of documents known as “Domesday Satellites – one example, known as Liber Exoniensis, for example, comprised the estate of records of the Bishop of Exeter. Don’t underestimate the confusion caused by translation – especially of abbreviations and if you are told by an estate agent that the property  you’re considering buy was named in the Domesday Book, think again because manor houses weren’t named as such – the records were much more interested in knowing who owned what (as well as who had owned it previously) with a view to raising the tax rates (known has ‘hides’) whenever possible, and in that respect the number of pigs and ploughs in a particular place (which was probably not a town or even an estate) were considered much more important. 
  • Finally, the book only came by its Domesday title circa 1180, when it is mentioned in the Dialogue of the Exchequer, a ‘faux debate’ between fictional master and pupil when it is apparently used as a metaphor for the Judgement Day – i.e. the last day before the resurrection when it suggests that the book will be ‘appealed to’ in this regard and can’t be ‘debated’. The assumption seems to be that the book is consulted regularly but that probably was not the case and the whole name might have been a bit of a muddle between the Latin and the English and the scribes who were tasked to draw it up as well as report back to Willem, who by the way probably did actually see it before he left in 1086 (and failed to return) although not likely in completed form. When the threat of Danish invasion disappeared, the pressure was off.

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