Doing Things beside Domesday Book
By Carol Symes
Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, Vol. 93:4 (2018)
Introduction: Domesday Book is the collective name attached to two different bodies of text. Colloquially known as “Great” and “Little” Domesday, they represent successive documentary phases of the inquest undertaken by agents of William the Conqueror in 1086. The more famous (also known as “Exchequer Domesday”) is a condensed edition of the inquest’s results. The other is an earlier artifact, a “circuit survey” (in the parlance of Domesday historiography) comprising more detailed information gathered from the East Anglian shires of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex.
In the past decade or so, a growing body of scholarship has established that analogous surveys of England’s other regions were also prepared, and eventually became the exemplars abbreviated and anthologized by Great Domesday’s chief scribe. Thereafter, however, only the surveys contained in Little Domesday were preserved—perhaps to make up for these specific counties’ absence from Great Domesday.
The reasons for this absence, and the time frames of these two copying campaigns, remain mysterious. Until quite recently, 1086 was the accepted dating of the entire documentary project, from the collection of data to the writing of Great Domesday. But if we acknowledge that this codex was based on (now lost) surveys, its execution must have stretched well beyond the lifespan of the Conqueror, who died on 9 September 1087. Even if the scribes of both the Great and Little Domesday texts were working concurrently, it is unlikely that William saw the completion of either before he sailed for Normandy in October 1086—never to return to his conquered realm.
Top Image: The original Great Domesday and Little Domesday of 1086, seen in the museum at the National Archives, Kew, England. Photo by Andrew Barclay / Flickr