Roffe, David. Decoding Domesday.

Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2007.

As both an historian and an archivist, I’ve long been fascinated by Domesday Book, the oldest surviving government-produced document in the English-speaking world, ordered by the Conqueror and completed about 1087 — a surprisingly short time. It was part-census, part-inquest, compiled to establish a base for taxation and to record the pre- and post-Conquest control of the land in detail.

And even though the information it provides is highly compacted and abbreviated (and even though certain parts of the country are entirely omitted for various reasons, including London), it provides a fascinating look at the country literally from the ground up.

But in 2000, Roffe published a book questioning the assumptions of the past 900 years regarding the real motivations behind the Domesday project, and the uproar in certain corners of academia has continued ever since. This present volume is the author’s attempt to answer his critics, to evaluate relevant recent scholarship, and to expand on his earlier points with new evidence and interpretations.

His main point being, the Conqueror’s intentions behind the gathering of all that data aren’t necessarily the same as the motives of those who actually put Domesday Book together. The first thing that notion made me think of as a point of comparison is the U.S. Census, which is gathered every ten years for the explicit purpose of reapportioning Congressional representation. But the data has also been subsequently published for at least the past century and a half for the use of historians and sociologists, not to mention genealogists, whose motives are quite different from those of the Census Bureau.

The result here is a frequently technical but understandable analysis of every aspect of Domesday — how the original inquest worked, how and why the questions the surveyors asked were selected, what happened to the gathered material (there’s more than one copy, and each is a little different), how the country was divided, what the relationships were between various local authorities, the meaning of the manor and of “service,” how taxable values were assigned to land in different areas and how disputes on this matter were handled, the structure of lordship among the large post-Conquest landowners, and the effects of Domesday from a long perspective.

Some basic understanding of medieval England is necessary — this is not a picture book for answering a casual interest — but it’s really not a difficult read. I only wish some maps had been included.

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Published in: on 6 January 2016 at 4:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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