The Purpose of Domesday Book: a Quandary
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 9 (1992)
In 1086 the Normans made a survey of the English kingdom. Domesday Book, an abbreviation of the results of that survey, survives and constitutes the single greatest source for eleventh-century England. Indeed, it gives scholars a more detailed picture of the countryside and its inhabitants than is available for any other kingdom in the period, and generations of English historians have mined its folios on all manner of subjects. These efforts began before antiquarianism and have continued through all the stages of modem historical scholarship. Without Domesday, we would hardly see the English countryside except for a few snapshots. Domesday has also incited wonder as a written record, and scholars have tried to determine how it was made. Comparatively little effort, however, has been expended on the fundamental question of why it was made. A correct answer to the question is essential for two reasons. First, one can only suppose that the purpose informed the text, and scholars theoretically run the risk of misunderstanding the text if their ideas about the purpose of the survey are incorrect. Second, until its purpose is clear, Domesday will never find its proper place in the history of William the Conqueror’s reign. These are very broad subjects, of course; and my aim in this paper is to sketch the two principal theories about the purpose of Domesday and to discuss their weaknesses in the light of recent research.