The ploughland and the plough: some further thoughts on a Domesday conundrum

Cornell, USA, 17 November 2002


I am delighted to be here for the twenty-first annual Haskins Society conference. Over the years Haskins has been a wonderful forum for scholars, especially those from Europe, to meet and exchange ideas in a welcoming and friendly atmosphere. So, it is with a little apprehension that I propose to return your hospitality by talking about taxation. In England we experience a certain reticence about mentioning financial matters. And I the more so than most as someone who is incapable of filling in his own tax return. But Domesday and taxation is my subject and all I can say in mitigation is that it was one that was of the utmost importance to William the Conqueror in 1086. I’m afraid that you will have to grit your teeth.

          The statement ‘land for so many ploughs’ is at once the most simple of formulation and the most complex of Domesday problems. The formula is found in most Domesday entries but not all. It is absent in LDB in its entirety and is rare in the Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, half of the Shropshire, and the Lancashire folios of GDB. And yet it answers to none of the so-called articles of inquiry preserved in IE. It is ostensibly an estate statistic, and yet in the North it is assessed upon the vill and the twelve-carucate hundred. It normally exceeds the number of available ploughs, but in a large minority of estates there were more ploughs than ploughlands, the phenomenon known as ‘overstocking’. In some areas it resembles a real measure of land, while in others it is closely related to the assessment to the geld. Finally, despite its prominence in Domesday the ploughland has not been recognized in either earlier or later records.

          The ploughland is a nightmare for the tidy-minded. Hitherto all attempts to square these circles have been inconclusive. Two broad schools of thought have emerged. We shall call them the realist and the nominalist. Realists have taken the ploughland phrase at face value, it is a measure of land. For Maitland it represented the extent of arable in 1066, but for most proponents of the realist school, the datum was 1086 and the referent the yardland in contradistinction to the fiscal hide, the unit of taxation. Nominalists, by contrast, see the ploughland as a further fiscal assessment. For Hart it represents a Danish carucation or an earlier hidation. But again the preferred referent is 1086; Stenton and more emphatically Harvey are of the opinion that it is the assessment for a new tax to replace the geld.

          By and large it is the nominalists who have made the running. Their case is based upon the improbability of ‘overstocking’ and the patent artificiality of many ploughland figures. The plough team was a capital intensive asset which required extensive maintenance, not so much an annual service as feeding through the winter, and it is thus inconceivable that more teams were kept than were needed. The ploughland cannot be an actual measure of land. As an assessment no overall system can be found in the various figures that GDB presents - ploughlands are variously based upon hidation, working ploughs, or simple estimation - but this is in the nature of assessments: principle gives way to expediency where homogeneous taxes are assessed upon heterogeneous economies. The Domesday commissioners used the economic indicator that most closely represented the wealth of the society they were assessing.

          As elegant as this critique is, it does not explain why East Anglia and the West Midlands were apparently not reassessed and, more critically, why there is no trace of the supposed new assessment after the Domesday survey. Realists have further countered that the objections to the ploughland as a measure of agricultural potential are misconceived. Higham has argued that overstocking can be adequately explained by the inefficiencies of land exploitation in a landscape of dispersed settlements, while in areas like Northamptonshire seemingly artificial patterns of assessment have been shown to be firmly grounded in agricultural reality. However, the realists have in their turn failed convincingly to explain why the data were collected. Their best shot seems to be that the aim was to improve agricultural yields by identifying areas of inefficiency. Now there’s a notion for you: the Conqueror as Farmer William.

          Neither side has been able fully to convince a wider audience. I want to suggest today that that is because the terms of the debate are misconceived. If the realists and nominalists are agreed on anything it is that the Domesday inquest was an executive process, it was about decision making. In these terms, the dichotomy of the real and the fiscal is absolute. The result is the impasse that I have tried to describe. At the outset I reject the premise. As I have argued at length elsewhere, the Domesday inquest was less about decision making than collecting information to inform decisions yet to be made. It was an essentially information gathering process. In this context we don’t have to think in terms of either/or. It is surely a truism that all taxation must ultimately be based in a commonly agreed reality. Otherwise, at least in England, you get poll tax riots and defenestration. But whatever base you use for assessment it is only that, a common ground from which negotiation can proceed. The real and the fiscal are not mutually exclusive but different stages in a process of assessment. This is the context in which the ploughland begins to make sense.

          In elucidating to what the beast refers, we must first clear the ground by determining the importance of the ploughland in the surviving manuscripts. This is instructive. The ploughland was central to the purpose of neither of the two volumes of Domesday Book. In LDB the data are not recorded at all, but the item was clearly omitted as opposed to being unavailable. The IE summaries of Ely Abbey’s lands in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex all provide totals, indicating that the matter of ploughlands was considered in East Anglia as elsewhere. The GDB scribe clearly accorded the information more importance, but he also does not seem to have viewed the statistics as absolutely essential. In some areas he failed to enter the figures or could not find a record of them. In the Kent folios he left gaps which were never filled, and in the West Midlands he appears to have simply thought the matter otiose. In the bishop of Worcester’s chapter in the Worcestershire folios it is stated that there were as many ploughlands as ploughs and this was probably the reality throughout the area. Only halfway through Shropshire folios does he seem to have thought better of this omission and decided once more to make the ploughland explicit, thereafter generally succeeding in recording a figure of some kind or another.

          The ploughland loomed large only in the Domesday inquest, and it would seem from the summaries that it was a central item of inquiry. Twenty-four summaries survive covering thirteen shires in five circuits. Ploughlands figures are recorded in all those that are complete and are expressed in a common language that indicates that they are the reply to a standard article of inquiry. In most instances, the statistics are the only ones given for the whole fee: where assessment to the geld, value, and the like are presented in two sequences relating to the demesne and enfeoffed lands respectively, there is only one summary ploughland figure.

          The statistics from which the ploughland totals were derived were apparently presented late in the proceedings. No verdict of vill, hundred, or shire recorded in the text mentions the matter. Furthermore, the ploughland is signally absent from the schedules that appear to have emanated from the earliest stages of the inquiry, the geld inquest and the survey of the terra regis. The data first make an appearance in Bath A which, if not a seigneurial presentment, is very close to that stage in the inquiry. Significantly, in the south-east and Leicestershire the pattern of omission is seigneurial rather than geographical. The ploughland was an item of information that was evidently provided by the lord or his agent.

          In determining what he understood by the term initially we have to turn to later sources. It is untrue to say that the ploughland does not appear after Domesday. It does and significantly it is not an assessment. In the early twelfth-century surveys of the lands of the abbeys of Burton, Ramsey, and Ely ‘land for so many ploughs’ was the regular way of indicating the quantity of land in unassessed demesne; the ploughland was a non-fiscal measure of land. That is, it is as real as it gets without getting out a tape measure.

          The phrase is used in a similar context in GDB. Unhidated land in the Welsh marches was measured in carucates, the Latin translation of ploughland. The contrast with gelded land is sometimes explicit. The measurement of the lands of Clifford Castle in ploughlands, for example, seems to be a function of the fact that it 'is in the kingdom of England and does not belong to any hundred or customary due.' Even more exactly, demesne is sometimes measured in ploughlands. In Bluntesham in Huntingdonshire, for example, there was unassessed demesne for two ploughs. Similar references can be found in Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset, and possibly Rutland.

          Here, surely, we perceive a non-fiscal understanding of the ploughland. However, we cannot agree with the realist that it is always a measure of total arable or that it has no fiscal referents. Land per se was not the focus of the Domesday inquest. From the handful of references to unassessed demesne, ‘inland’ as Domesday usually calls it, unhidated land might seem a local and exceptional phenomenon. It was not. It existence is evident in all the early twelfth-century estate surveys and, outside of Hurstingstone Hundred in Huntingdonshire where inland is regularly noted, none of it can be identified in Domesday Book. Nor was unassessed land always demesne. Some, probably most, was in service of one kind or another. Many counties were lowly rated and some tenements had no liability assessed upon them. In Nottinghamshire, for example, there were typically 1 or 2 carucates per vill and there are relatively few Domesday manors compared with the neighbouring more highly rated Lincolnshire. Twelfth-century charters, however, indicate intricate subinfeudation which is every bit as complex. Much  land in Nottinghamshire, as elsewhere, does not find its way into Domesday Book.

          The demesne of Domesday Book may not have paid geld, but, but unlike inland it was exempt rather than unassessed. It came within the commissioners’ remit. Hidated land was the focus of the Domesday inquest, and this too was the referent of the ploughland. The texts are unambiguous. In the early Yorkshire folios of GDB there are entries of the form 'In Pickering there are 37 carucates of land to the geld which 20 ploughs can plough.’ That this is to be understood throughout is indicated by GDB’s sources. In ICC many entries are of a form that anticipates GDB usage; others are more expansive. Thus, it is recorded that 'In this village of Triplow Hardwin [of Scales] holds under the king 1 hide of the supplies of the monks [of Ely].......In this hide is land for one plough.’ In Exon the linking of assessment and ploughlands is the norm. Entries are of the form 'The Count [of Mortain] has a manor called Buckland, which Edmer Ator held TRE and it rendered geld for 3 hides less ˝ virgate; 20 ploughs can plough these.’

          The ploughland is clearly a non-fiscal measure of fiscal land. What it is telling us is that, although this land is paying tax at so many hides there is in fact that much land there. We can begin to perceive that the ploughland was, then, a measure of the capacity of the hidated land to pay the geld assessed upon it. Where ploughland matches hide there was a balance between field and fiscal units, while an excess indicated a surplus of land for the geld assessed upon it. Conversely, a deficit indicated over-taxation. In these terms, it is clear that the ploughland figures was most easily assessed by simply counting the number of ploughs that could work the hidated area of his manor. But where this was not possible an estimate could be made to the same end. That the ploughland in many parts of the North is conventional is irrefutable. In Rutland, for example, it is stated that Alstoe Wapentake was divided into two twelve-carucate hundreds in each of which was 24 ploughlands. In some parts of Lincolnshire the same ratio of carucate to ploughland is found in estate after estate. Why such an expedient should have been employed in the North is not entirely clear. It may have been a function of the complexity of tenure, the relative weakness of lordship, the predominately pastoral nature of the economy, or simply the prominence of the twelve-carucate hundred in the communal life of the Danelaw. Whatever, from the point of view of the commissioners, the effect was the same: the ploughland figures afforded some measure of the efficiency with which the wealth of hidated England was taxed.

          In uncovering the extent of geldable land the king clearly seems to have had in mind an increase in the yield of the geld. In the event geld was only reimposed upon the lord’s demesne (certainly by 1096, and almost certainly in 1086). Beneficial hidation and exemption of demesne had indeed made considerable inroads into tax returns but it had done so by diverting geld into the lord’s pocket. This, at least after the Conquest, was seen as the corollary of personal service, a legitimate perk if you like. Sensibilities, then, had to be observed. Even in his most avaricious dreams William cannot have believed that the ploughland figures could ever constitute a new assessment. A compromise was struck. The king assumed the right to geld over the hidated demesne while the tenant-in-chief retained the spare capacity that existed in the lands of his tenants. The ploughland figures would seem to have informed a process of negotiation.

          It is a process which probably underlies the reality of early medieval assessment in general. Hide, carucate, and sulung are all terms with areal referents that speak of agricultural practice. To be credible all taxation must be founded in fact. Equally, taxation is about people and relationships: whatever assessment is imposed upon a community must reflect agreement. The real and the fiscal are not an irreconcilable dualism but complementary quantities. The ploughland figures are the more precious because they uniquely attest a stage in a process of assessment that is otherwise unrecorded in English medieval sources. The nearest approach is the assessment of the carucage of 1198, but there only a handful of returns survive.

          What light, then, does the ploughland cast on late eleventh-century England? Clearly, it is of only limited and local use in determining the extent of arable in 1086. Were all land in England assessed to the geld, then it would presumably provide a fairly accurate measure. Here and there, indeed, it can be shown that ploughlands are directly related to the yardlands of the later medieval period. But the equation is far from the rule. A real measure of fiscal land is as uninformative as the fiscal assessment itself when its extent is unknown. At most the ploughland provides an index of minima.

            More obliquely, in conjunction with the record of ploughs the ploughland may cast light upon the extent of inland. It seems to me that overstocking, the excess of ploughs over ploughlands, is best explained by the inclusion of the ploughs of unassessed land in the account of the Domesday manor. On the overstocked Burton estates in Staffordshire the extra ploughs in 1086 correspond with the ploughs on the inland in 1114. Tenants of the warland also held inland and it would seem that the Domesday commissioners counted all of their ploughs, probably because they owed service with all of them at their lord’s hall. This is a pattern that is repeated wherever inland is noticed in later sources. Overstocking is characteristic of under-assessed shires where unassesed land is likely to be the most prevalent. The phenomenon is the best guide we have to a phantom Domesday resource.

            Given the near invisibility of inland in the Domesday corpus, this was probably not an outcome that the commissioners appreciated, let alone anticipated. By contrast, it is certain that, in demanding the statistics, they had an even more lucrative phantom Domesday resource within their sights. In the summaries preserved in GDB, IE, and Exon, the ploughlands are collected by fee and juxtaposed with geld assessment, ploughs, population, and value of the demesne and enfeoffed lands. Assessment, resources, and income are indexed against the land available providing a measure of how much the tenant-in-chief raked off from the geld. The excess of ploughlands over hides is an index of a resource that is not otherwise quantified in Domesday Book. King William used the information to divert some of the income into the treasury. What use the historian can made of the figures remains to be seen.


ÓDavid Roffe, November 2002