In Domesday: the Inquest and the Book (DIB) I challenged a consensus of 800 years standing that the production of Domesday Book was the aim of the Domesday inquest. Through a radical re-examination of the Domesday texts and the nature of the inquest, I argued that the inquiry of 1086 was a different enterprise from that of the book, the one being a communal information gathering exercise, the other a private administrative process. As is the way of the modern world, a complex argument was soon translated into tabloid terms: ‘It was Bill Wot Didn’t Do it!’ In what was little more than an aside, I had tentatively suggested that the aftermath of the revolt against William Rufus in 1088 was a possible context for the production of the book and that Rannulf Flambard, the Peter Mandleson of his day, was the probable moving spirit behind it. The sometimes furious debate that followed publication in 2000 concentrated almost exclusively on the date of Domesday Book.

The debate goes on; I contribute a further pennyworth myself in the discussion of the date of Domesday Book below. The point, however, is subordinate to a much wider and important one. Of none of the inquests of the later Middle Ages is it possible to say that it had a purpose; articles of enquiry were always diverse, were often changed, and not infrequently abandoned for completely new ones as the participants responded to circumstances. It is clear from contemporary accounts and the surviving texts that the Domesday inquest was no different. Domesday Book was undoubtedly conceived as a register of one kind or another, but, regardless of its date – whether it be 1086/7 or later – its concerns were not necessarily those of the process that gathered the data. My examination of the documentation of the inquest led me to suggest that its subjects were indeed otherwise. They were broadly two. The first was a drive to maximize royal income as manifest in an audit of the king’s estates and regalia, most notably a review of the geld. The second was a reassessment of the military service owed by the tenants-in-chief.

The geld and knight service are still purposes that dare not speak their name and have thus been studiously ignored by critics. However, the principle has (I think) been accepted: it is not possible to squeeze the Domesday process into a single bottle. That perception is the conceptual starting point of this book. The notion of a seamless Domesday process, from inception in 1085 to completion of Great Domesday Book in 1087, has had a profound effect on how Domesday data have been viewed and interpreted at all levels of analysis. Examination of the physical forms of the texts should, it might be supposed, be entirely empirical. And yet palaeographical and codiological studies have been largely concerned with demonstrating the application of a fully-formed purpose. There was only one game, it is presumed, and each player kept his eye on the goal. The examination of every item of Domesday data has been, to a greater or lesser degree, similarly confined. Mutually exclusive perceptions of a single purpose have led to reductionist arguments and contradictory conclusions. The upshot has been been the singular lack of consensus that is apparent in almost all areas of Domesday studies.

Teleology can be fun, but in the study of history it is incompatible with rigorous enquiry. Decoding Domesday proposes a radical reappraisal of Domesday data in terms of the aims of the various processes that amassed them. From the start the texts are examined as artefacts in their own right – no satellites here: all texts are equal – and their sources and concerns are explored. Some of the results are surprising. A hitherto unsuspected survey of royal churches, for example, is identified for the first time and the missing account of Winchester is uncovered. Other processes like the geld inquest are better known, but are accorded their own integrity as concerns. The method in its turn leads to new insights into hoary old controversies such as the nature of ploughlands and the meaning of waste and leads to reassessment of the limits of Domesday data. Above all, it results in a new appraisal of the scope of the Domesday texts. Domesday Book came to be perceived as an exhaustive survey of land, but it cannot be what it sources were not: it was compiled from inquest records in which the focus was less lordship and land than the more limited service and soke.

The structure of the book largely reflects this programme. By way of introduction, it commences in ‘Domesday Past and Present’ with an account of changing views of the Domesday processes over the centuries, with especial emphasis on the underlying assumptions of analysis in the last hundred years. The book continues in chapters 2 and 3 with an examination of the Domesday texts and their interpretative possibilities and then an overview of the inquest process and the production of Domesday Book. The interrelationship between the forms of the texts and the procedures of the inquest provide the background to the detailed discussion of content that follows. Here the organizing principle is that of the Domesday Book itself. The borough and county customs are often the first item of information in each county. They are accordingly examined first in chapter 4. Rural estates follow. There is no entry form that is common to every county surveyed, but the types of information recorded fall into a small number of categories. These have been grouped in  chapters 5 to 8 in an order that approximates to that found in the Prologue to the Inquisitio Eliensis that purports to record the questions asked by the commissioners, thus:-


Lordship, Land, and Service

y [the pre-Conquest holder] held



Pre-conquest lordship

a [the tenant-in-chief] and b [his tenant] hold

Post-Conquest lordship

for a manor


The manor and service

The Vill and Taxation

In x [the place]


Names and places

z hides/carucates of land

The hides, the geld, and local government

it has never gelded

The forest and inland

There is land for p1 ploughs there

The ploughland

The Economy and Society

In demesne


The demesne

there are p2 ploughs and l livestock


There are v villagers there


c cattle, s sheep, and g goats


There is pasture and a church

Manorial appurtenances

It was and is worth w pounds


It is waste


The Communities of the Shire

The vill/manor measures f1 x f2 furlongs


The vill

In h hundred

The hundred

The men of the shire say

The shire

c claims this land

Disputes and Legal Action

There follows a chapter on the ‘Beyond’ of Domesday, the use of its data to reconstruct the fabric of English society before the Conquest. The book concludes with an overview of the nature of the Domesday enterprise and its legacy.

Throughout reference has been made to the manuscripts of Domesday Book, available in facsimile in the Alecto edition, citing the recto or verso of the relevant folio. To this has been added the unique entry identifications of the Phillimore edition of the text. The Alecto translation has been used unless otherwise stated and images of folios, at varying scales, have been taken from the Alecto facsimile. For the other Domesday texts the standard editions have been used, although the various manuscripts have been consulted where appropriate. I have acknowledged translations where they are available and I have used them, but otherwise I have silently translated myself, transcribing significant words and phrases where the meaning is obscure or the import technical.

The reading of texts is the most important exercise for the historian. The secondary literature on Domesday Book is immense and I have not been able, nor indeed willing, to review the historiography in detail. Nevertheless, I have not been able to ignore pioneering works by the likes of Round and Maitland in the late nineteenth century, and reference will frequently be found to earlier analyses that have defined the shape of the debate. Inevitably, some of the arguments presented here have been pre-figured by earlier writers. Round, for example, thought that Little Domesday Book was a dry run for Great Domesday (I would, of course, suggest another context) and Douglas was convinced that Domesday Book was, if not an afterthought, then certainly post hoc. I have noted these concurrences where they have come to my attention. However, most of the secondary sources cited have appeared in the last forty years or so. In part this reflects current debates and fashions, but mostly it is a function of a recent renaissance in Domesday studies. The novocentenary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and of the Domesday inquest in 1986 stimulated a renewed appetite in the subject that the completion of the Phillimore edition of Domesday Book and, above all, the publication of the Alecto facsimile were able amply to satisfy. The outcome has been a plethora of new insights which command close attention and consideration.

Domesday studies have been likened to one of the more abstruse branches of nuclear physics. In an age in which television historians decry the smallmindedness of academic history, it is salutary to remember that Einstein did not publish either his Special or General Theory of Relativity in a twelve part prime-time series. Domesday studies may not be so earth-shattering (and some will say a good thing too), but they demand equally technical discussion. In what follows, I have tried as much as possible to relegate the hard-core anorak material to the footnotes where it can be safely ignored if you so desire. But there is no denying that many of the concepts employed are complex. Some stem from method. In rejecting a single Domesday process, I have had to jettison simple reductionist arguments. Where scholars have seen the ploughland, for example, as either a tax assessment or a measure of land, I have had to accept it as both within a wider concept of a process of assessment. Inevitably a moving target is more difficult to hit than a sitting one. Other difficult ideas are simply inherent in eleventh-century society. From a modern, as indeed from a thirteenth-century, perspective, lordship was identified with land. There was no such simple equation in 1086. Domesday England was still an essentially tributary society (albeit one which Domesday Book was soon to change for ever). There the familiar poles of the public and the private, of taxation and service, of freedom and thralldom can no longer be clearly discerned. Reconstructing something of that world in its own image rather than our own is a difficult task by any standards; it is the ultimate aim of this book.

Decoding Domesday will be published in 2007 by Boydell and Brewer.