How Valuable a Source is the Domesday Book?
William the Bastard ordered that the Domesday Book should be complied at his Christmas court in 1085. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘E’ version, 1087, tells us ‘He (William I) ruled over England, and by his cunning it was so investigated that there was not one hide of land in England that he did not know who owned it, and what it was worth, and then set it down in his record’. The ‘Annalist of Worchester’ (early C12th) makes a detailed account of the Domesday Inquisition, telling us that ‘there did not remain in the whole kingdom of England a single hide or virgate of land or an ox or a cow or a pig which was not written in that return’. So the Domesday Book and survey would have been well known to people during its creation. Indeed the ‘Dialogue of the exchequer’ (Dialogus de saccario) (1179) tells us that ‘This book is called by the English “Doomsday”, that is, by metaphor, the day of judgement. For just as the sentence of that strict and terrible Last Judgement cannot be evaded by any art or subterfuge’ and ‘we have called this book “Doomsday”, not because it passes judgement on any doubtful points raised, but because it is not permissible to contradict its decisions, any more than it will be those of the Last Judgement.’ Clearly this illustrates that even as early as 1179, the Domesday Book had a feared reputation and was already a legend among the people of England.
In order to effectively answer this question we must first establish what type of value we are placing on the Domesday Book. Clearly the monetary value of any record or book from this time is bound to be massive, especially a Book as large and of such high quality as this, there is no doubting this. What must be examined is what the Domesday Book means to historians. The immediate answer is that the Domesday Book, and the history of its construction, is hugely important, now I will attempt to answer why.
The Domesday Book stands out in comparison to all other sources from this time. Sally P.J. Harvey states in her paper Domesday Book and Anglo-Norman Governance, ‘Many of the near-contemporary texts have suffered because all have been turned into Domesday “satellites”’. While this is mainly true, the Domesday now has a mystical importance over other texts; it is probably a well-founded practice of treating the Domesday with more attention detail and respect. By studying the Domesday Book and the Domesday survey, we are given a rare insight into Anglo-Norman society and governance. First, the speed at which the Domesday survey was completed was phenomenal, ordered on Christmas Day in 1086, it was completed by Lammas Day (1st August) 1087. Though similar survey had been complied before in both Normandy and England, none was on this sort of scale, they were usually county-wide or smaller. This, coupled with the fact that the Domesday Book is incredibly detailed, makes compiling it in such a short time remarkable, and many would argue almost impossible. It is essential to examine the sort of system the Anglo-Saxons used which existed before the Norman invasion, and ascertain how much data could have been gathered from these.
In the time of King Edward (TRE), and of King Harold, the Anglo-Saxon government was one of the most efficient and envied in Europe. The effective method of splitting the land into areas of land, ‘hides’, the geld taxation system and accurate and up-to-date records, similar to the Norman original returns. In order to gather so much data, not just in the present time but before the invasion, must have required the use of existing Anglo-Saxon Documents. This is an illustration of how detailed the Anglo-Saxon records must have been, as they give us as much data as the sections in the Domesday for after the invasion.
One of the most interesting aspects of studying the Domesday Book is seeing how well William’s Tenants-in-Chief were rewarded after the conquest in comparison to how much they helped William with the preparations for battle. Orderic Vitalis, in the Ecclesiastical History (II), we are told of William’s barons and nobles that ‘those eloquent men, who, through long years, dwelt in King William’s court, observed his deeds and all the great doing there, knew his deepest and most secret counsels and were endowed by him with riches which raised them above the station to which they were born’, in Book three of the same title he also says that they were ‘men raised from the dust’. This view, although in full praise of the barons, suggests that they would have been nothing without William’s generosity.
Warren-Hollister has made an important connection between the Tenants-in-Chief, the Domesday Book and the Ship List (Bocllein Library- Manuscript ref. E museo 93- fol. 8v). Of the top five Tenants-in-Chief, only one, William of Warenne, does not appear as having supplied William with Ships or Knights on the Ship List. Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, had a value of £3240, a considerable sum indeed. He supplied 100 ships to William’s invasion fleet. Though he did not supply as much as some of William’s Barons, personal favouritism on Williams part, coupled with extensive power within the Church made Odo the most influential figure in England, aside from William. The richest man after Odo was Roger of Montgomery. He gave 60 ships to William, and received 12 shires as a reward from William. His wealth totalled at £2078, probably due to being given profitable land or wealthy connections. The next richest is Robert c. of Mortain, who gave 120 ships to William, and was rewarded royally with 20 shires. However, his total wealth was only £1974, significantly less than Odo and Roger of Montgomery. This is an extremely important point, as it illustrates that land in itself was not the most important commodity, but what was held on that land.
The Anglo-Saxon document, The Burghal Hidage (c.911-919), recorded only details of number of hides given to the Anglo-Saxon Nobles and Earls. This provides very limited information and almost no insight into how much wealth Nobles held. The Domesday Book records not only how many hides were owned, buy how many animals, men, fisheries, building etc. etc. Obviously this makes the Domesday Book immensely valuable to historians. Not only is it hugely more detailed than any other contemporary source, but it allows us to see what bits of land were worth and where William’s Nobles got their wealth from. The wealth not accounted for in land is therefore due to other external reasons. Some of these reasons may have been personal favouritism by William, unwillingness on Williams’s part to raise powerful Normans yet higher and thus threatening his own position and how loyal the Nobles were in supporting William’s conquest. Most of the wealth would have come from land, with only a few exceptions (Odo’s Church connections for example), and the Domesday Book is the best source to gain this information from.
The process of compiling the Domesday Book was as follows; The Original Returns were compiled in small areas of lands (usually hundreds), these were then sent to be copied into a First Draft (for example, the Exon Domesday). Once the First Draft had been completed it was copied into a fair copy and sent to Winchester to be copied into the Domesday Book. Unfortunately, many of the Original Returns, First Drafts and Fair Copies have been lost or destroyed. This means that we cannot be one hundred percent sure that the Domesday Book is entirely accurate. If we had the other documents, we could check them for mistakes, or see how much of the Original Returns had been abbreviated.
It is certain that many mistakes would have been made while compiling the Domesday, and that there are many omissions. For a start large cities are often not mentioned at all, buildings in towns and villages are hardly ever mentioned, usually just a population. Some of the records for some hides omit many small details which are not omitted elsewhere. The gathering of data in the North and East of England seems particularly vague in places. Whether this was due to mistake made by the Royal Officers collecting the data or unwillingness to cooperate on the part of the Anglo-Saxon people, or just a case of the data not being available is very hard to say. Mistakes are always going to be made, and as soon as the Domesday Book was finished, it was already out of date. However, it is detailed enough to be of tremendous historical value.
By seeing how much cattle was in each area, or how many freedmen there were in an area gives us a brilliant insight into the workings of Anglo-Saxon life. We are able to work out how many ploughs a reasonably rich man would have needed to till a certain amount of land. We would not be able to do anything similar from any other documents unless they specifically stated so.
So, by studying the Domesday Book we are given a glimpse into Anglo-Norman governance and life. By studying the Domesday Book we delve ever deeper into invaluable history which helps us immensely in understanding this time. Without the Domesday Book, we would have a massive missing link, and a lot of the history that we now have would be lost to us forever.
Of course, there is also the value of the Domesday Book to the modern population of England and the UK, not just the historians. It is one of the few pieces of actual physical history left from this important period. Legend and myth have built up around the Domesday Book, so much so that most people won’t know much about it in detail, but will be able to tell you something about it. Almost nothing else from this period is as well known generally. Its monetary value is priceless; there is nothing else like it. Its historical value is also priceless, for exactly the same reason.