McLuhan Meets the Master: scribal devices in Great Domesday Book

The National Archives, 17 September 2011


The publication of a facsimile of T. S. Eliot’s typewritten manuscript of The Waste Land was a literary sensation in 1971. It was a revelation, at least for the general public, that the work was not created whole but came into being through a protracted process of recension. Eliot himself, of course, was central to the process. Crossings out, re-arrangements, and re-writings are everywhere. But it was the role of Ezra Pound as redactor, editor, and critic that caught the imagination. Laid bare for the first time was the making of a modern masterpiece.

The episode is a comforting one for me, and I suspect it may be so for you too. We, as Domesday scholars, are not the only ones who obsess about manuscripts. The autograph is always of especial importance: it gives a unique insight into the mind of the author and its minutiae are thus invaluable clues to its workings. I make no excuse, then for proposing to take a look at the layout of the GDB. We now know that the scribe of the work was no mere abbreviator. He conceived of its form, in so far as it differed from what went before it, and had to struggle with his data to realize the programme that he had set for himself. It is in its own right a masterpiece. The workings of its originator’s mind tell us as much about his aims as the society that he sought to represent.

The historiography is, of course, daunting. In 1986 David Bates listed some 1847 works in his Domesday bibliography; there are many thousands more today. The study of the manuscript has itself almost become a sub-specialty. There have been extensive examinations of the materials employed. Discoveries have continued to be made, as Nancy Bell has demonstrated this morning. We now know so much more about scribal preliminaries. Detailed studies of prickings and rulings have been of fundamental importance to understanding the chronology of writing. The order of entries has long been recognized as an indication of the sources employed and the stratigraphy of writing has more recently provided an insight into the developing understanding of his materials by the scribe. It may seem that there is little more of worth to say. However, at the risk of appearing to be the archetypical über-Domesday geek, I want to suggest that one area has been relatively ignored. I shall argue that the GDB scribe used certain conventions in the way in which he laid out his work which indicate the sources that he employed and, by implication, the status of the land described.

Some thirty years ago both Henry Loyn and Sir James Holt drew attention to the utility of the manuscript in terms of its layout. GDB, arguably unlike its sources, was written for reference; it was designed as a database. As such it had state of the art finding devices and data retrieval systems. Yes, it was sensibly set out. In the first place, it was divided into handy county divisions and an index was provided at the beginning of each to provide a guide to landholders. A two-column format was adopted at the outset. The primary purpose was no doubt efficient use of the parchment, but the visibility of the data was probably also a consideration. Several devices were used to draw the eye to the important information. Chapters were numbered and the headings were written in red ink in large rustic capitals, while the names of individual manors were entered in similar capitals in black and highlighted in red. It was, then, a simple matter to find out what any particular lord held in a shire or check up on the details of any particular estate that he held.

This format is more or less consistently maintained throughout GDB. Its utility was such that an attempt was retrospectively made to mark up LDB in the same way. Loyn and Holt were right to point out these characteristics, but there are also other scribal conventions which are equally significant that escaped their notice. Early on in the drafting of the Yorkshire folios, the first in GDB to be compiled, the scribe decided to annotate his text to indicate the tenurial status of lands. Initially, he affixed a marginal MNR, for manerium, ‘manor’, then a simple M, to manorial entries. Soon, he began to mark berewicks with marginal B, and in the course of writing Lincolnshire he decided to distinguish sokeland too with an S. He kept up the conventions throughout Circuit VI – Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Huntingdonshire – and into Circuit III – Middlesex, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire – before abandoning them half way through Bedfordshire. Throughout the place-names of subordinate entries, neither capitalized nor rubricated, were undifferentiated from the body of the text.

All that is obvious from a cursory inspection of the manuscript. What is less appreciated is that the scribe also distinguished manorial entries from the rest by using a square initial capital letter as opposed to a rustic one for subordinate entries. The usage is quite deliberate, for on two separate occasions, significantly in the Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire folios, he changed one form to another. It is, then, the more interesting that, unlike with marginal M, B, and S, the scribe continued to use square and rustic capitals with purpose in different contexts throughout GDB. The account of the bishop of Worcester’s hundred of Oswaldslow in Worcestershire, written some midway in the compilation of the work, will serve as our first example.

The chapter has of late excited much interest since it appears to have been largely drafted by the church of Worcester itself. Much hay has been made from the observation: here surely was an attempt to ‘to cook the Book’. In reality, it is no more than what we used to call a seigneurial return. Each tenant-in-chief was required to provide an account of his lands at an early stage in the Domesday inquest. Normally such accounts were checked against the verdicts of the hundred jurors and, in the process, they were re-arranged. Here, however, it was incorporated wholesale into the Domesday text, probably because Oswaldslow was a private hundred. It is thus that the chapter is, exceptionally in Worcestershire, arranged by manor, that is just as one would expect of a report compiled by the lord. Nevertheless, the Domesday scribe imposes his own formatting. The first manor to be described is Kempsey. Since it is at the beginning of the account, the scribe used an ornate drop capital to introduce it. Thereafter, however, the caput of each manor is signalled by a square I while subordinate entries are distinguished by rustic capitals throughout. Where he nodded, as in the Wick Episcopi and Overbury entries, the scribe changed a rustic I to a square one.

The seigneurial returns of many religious houses influenced the form of their corresponding chapters in GDB, if not so drastically as here, because they too tended to have private jurisdictions. But if the account of the lands of the church of Worcester be considered exceptional, then we can take a second example from the terra regis in Staffordshire. Penkridge was a smallish manor in the south west of the county which consisted of the caput itself in Penkridge and a further six ‘members’, probably berewicks, in the surrounding settlements. The initial letter of the Penkridge entry, here an R for ‘Rex’, is square in form, while those of the appurtenances are rustic. The same convention is used in the account of each manor throughout the chapter.

For a third example from the lands of a tenant-in-chief, we can turn to the Leicestershire folios, probably the last to be written, Geoffrey de la Guerche held the manor of Melton Mowbray with eight members in the surrounding area. Again, the caput is marked by a square capital and the dependents by rustic ones.

In these three examples, taken from different stages in the writing of GDB, the distinctive letter forms reflect manorial structure. The convention is widely used where there are extensive manors and is therefore common in the lands of the king and the church throughout GDB. It can be a useful indicator of tenurial ties where they are not otherwise explicit. Otherwise, the device may denote groups of manors or holdings within larger units. In the Wiltshire chapter of the church of Glastonbury, for example, the now familiar letter forms are used to distinguish the manors of the church from its loanlands. So, Langley was a demesne manor and is so marked with a square initial I. Thegnland in the same place held by Urse, Roger, and Ralf is described in a sub-entry signalled by an enlarged rustic D of the opening phrase De eadem terra…, while what looks like a manor in Langford held by Edward in 1086 and two unnamed thegns in 1066 is entered in a separate entry introduced with a rustic I. The visual effect is one of a discrete tenurial group - a demesne manor in Idmiston marked in the usual way, which follows, signals the start of a second - which is apparently every bit as deliberate as the layout of manors in the folios of circuit VI.

This particular usage is of especial interest, for it highlights a phenomenon which is only otherwise widely attested by the so-called ‘multiple manor entry’. Two or more interdependent manors are frequently described together throughout Domesday Book, but the form is usually confined to dependent tenements in the same place. Wider groups are occasionally noted, as, for example, in Taunton in Somerset, but are not generally explicit. The use of distinctive letter forms can thus indicate a hierarchy of tenure where it is not otherwise apparent. It can, by extension, be an important indicator of the status of people in 1066. However, it must be doubted that this was the primary function of the devices. Not all textual groups so defined have an obvious tenurial identity. Richard fitzGilbert’s chapter in the Surrey folios is a case in point. The account proceeds more or less geographically, hundred by hundred, but within each the manors in demesne are distinguished from those that were enfeoffed. The start of each group is marked by a square capital and subsequent entries within it by a rustic capital. So, for example, the land of Robert de Watteville, a man of Richard, in Tandridge Hundred starts with an unidentified manor, probably Warlingham, and includes a further two manors in Chelsham and Farleigh.

 These estates were close to one another and they may conceivably have been constituted as a tenurial group in 1086. It should be noted, however, that each had their own demesne ploughs at that time and they were held by different lords in 1066, in this case probably two king’s thegns. It is, then, perhaps more likely that the use of capitals reflects the sources that the scribe employed. This is certainly apparent where he followed a discrete schedule. The account of the lands of the bishop of Hereford provides a prime example. The chapter commences with two parcels of land held by the bishop himself in the form employed in the terra regis that it follows. A rubric then announces that the following lands were held by the canons of Hereford. The first entry in this section is of the form ‘In Lulham…’ and is marked with a square initial I; the succeeding entries are in the same form but commence with rustic capitals. Here the account is explicitly different from what went before and the initial letters reflect the fact. The list probably reflects a subdivision of the bishop’s return or an entirely separate one by the canons.

The Staffordshire folios provide a second example. At the end of the king’s chapter there is a cursory account of thirty-three parcels of land, all of which commence with a rustic letter. As a note at the end indicates, these estates were waste; ploughland figures were supplied postscriptally for the first fifteen entries, but otherwise only the TRE lords are noted. Wasted lands are recorded in much the same form in the Yorkshire terra regis and the account of the hundred of West Derby in Lancashire exhibits similar characteristics. It seems clear that the survey of the royal demesne in the North included an extra article on waste. The lists are evidently drawn from separate schedules of the same.

Perhaps, then, the distinctive use of capitals in Richard fitzGilbert’s Surrey chapter is primarily related to a hundredally arranged schedule akin to ICC, the main source of the Cambridgeshire folios. There are certainly other characteristics of the diplomatic of the Surrey folios – notably the se defendit formula - that echo that famous source. This conclusion, in its turn, may suggest that manorial structure was not the primary referent of distinctive letters forms in Circuits VI and III and elsewhere. The sources of the data for manorial structure provide the decisive evidence here. In the north, at least, initial returns were geographically arranged as in Cambridgeshire: GDB incorporates three of them – the accounts of Rutland, Axholme and the vills that belonged to York - directly into the text. The make-up of manors, fully articulated in GDB, was evidently derived from separate schedules like those in the Yorkshire Summary. That the scribe employed lists of this type to order his text is indicated by the odd mistake. In the Lincolnshire folios, for example, his source told him that the Haythby was soke of Peterborough Abbey’s manor of Walcot on Trent but he mistakenly attached it to the account of Walcot by Threekingham fifty miles to the south. It is not unlikely that the distinctive letter forms were related to schedules of this kind.

The minutiae of scribal practice, then, probably lead us most immediately to the sources of the GDB text. These in their turn not only indicate the records that the inquest generated but also its concerns. We have already noted some that are not otherwise extant in the Domesday corpus or have not been previously identified. Nevertheless, in so far as schedules encompass lands with a common identity, whatever that might be, the device can also be a marker of status. What we make of any particular case will depend on local circumstances. Some will undoubtedly be mistakes. We cannot assume that the three corrections we have noted are the sum total of the scribe’s errors. Nevertheless, it is clear that his usage is generally purposeful. I shall illustrate the interpretative possibilities of the data and its potential for a deeper understanding of the society of late eleventh-century England through a case study.

Grantham nestles in a valley at the confluence of the River Witham and the Mowbeck in the Kesteven division of Lincolnshire. In 1086 it was held by William the Conqueror in succession to Queen Edith. There were 111 burgesses there, but the estate was constituted as a large manor with an extensive soke extending into no less than eighteen of the surrounding villages. The church of St Wulfram’s was held of the king by Bishop Osbern of Salisbury and was a rich foundation with a parish that was coterminous with the soke, almost the whole of the two wapentakes of Winnibriggs and Threo. Grantham has all the characteristics of a type of estate dating from the earliest period of Saxon settlement if not before. It has been widely held, not the least by myself, to be a typical ancient multiple estate.

A detailed examination of the Domesday account of the manor indicates that it was anything but. Letter forms provide the decisive clues. What is immediately apparent is that the scribe experienced considerable difficulties in writing the account. He seems to have found his first attempt at describing Grantham itself unsatisfactory, for he deleted the entry and only subsequently entered the present text after he had written up the rest of the account. Unlike in his normal practice, he entered the soke in three distinct sequences each separated by a blank line. The five entries of the first section are explicitly said to be soke of Grantham. Nevertheless, they all exhibit characteristics of manorial entries. Whereas in the normal course of events, one would expect rustic initials and undifferentiated place-names, all but one of the initial letters are square in form, all the place-names are rubricated and four are written in rustic capitals. Finally, the last, Great Ponton, is marked with a marginal M and S, a TRE lord is recorded as is the norm for a manorial entry, and it is stated that ‘This land is now soke of Grantham’.

Great Ponton had clearly been a manor in its own right in 1066: its lord had been Queen Edith. The peculiarities of the account of Grantham begin to make sense. The soke of this former manor can be identified as the second section of the sokeland belonging to Grantham in 1086 which immediately follows the Ponton entry. Beginning with a rubric that acts as a summary, the account is self-evidently derived from a separate schedule and, unlike the land in the first section, its forms are entirely consistent with dependent lands. In all ten entries, the initial letters are rustic in form and the place-names are not distinguished from the rest of the text. The third section, consisting of a single parcel of land in Skillington, is identical in form, but its tenurial context in 1066 is unclear.

The manor and soke of Grantham, as represented in Domesday Book, were, then, post-Conquest creations. In 1066 the estate would seem to have had been confined to Grantham itself and four further parcels of sokeland. The forms of these entries, however, suggest that they too were or had formerly been akin to manors. No TRE lords or tenants are recorded, but the text does provide clues that they were held by thegns who owed service to Grantham. The first piece of evidence comes from an entry in the Lincolnshire clamores. There it is recorded that ‘Northmann son of Merewine had 7 gardens in Grantham of which the soke belongs to the same place, but the gardens themselves belong to Gonerby’. Norman son of Merewine was the brother of Abbot Wulfketel of Crowland and his land in Gonerby was one of the four sokelands of Grantham in 1066. No other tenants can be positively identified in this way, but the account of Grantham itself hints at their existence. It records that there were there ‘80 tofts, less 3, of the sokemen of the thegns’. Significantly, there was a high degree of tenurial heterogeneity in Grantham, evidenced from the twelfth century onwards, with at least five lords holding land there which belonged to their rural manors. A tenurial profile of this kind is not typical of the rural soke and it would thus seem that the sokemen of Grantham were men of thegns who held manors in the surrounding countryside.  

It is clear from all this that sometime before the Conquest Grantham was not a manor with a seigneurial borough attached, but something more akin to a county borough. The context in which it came into being, and its subsequent transformation into a soke, is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that Grantham was a young settlement in 1086: as Domesday Book indicates, it had no fields of its own and what territory it had was squeezed into the corner of the minor settlement of Houghton. Like Rutland to the south, it was, presumably, a dower estate, but the queen was not the sole power in the town nor did she dominate the area. The earl of Mercia was the predominant presence in the surrounding countryside and he was represented in Grantham itself by the manor held by Kolgrimr, the queen’s reeve and a man of Earl Morcar. The borough looks like a joint enterprise and can probably be dated to the early 1050s when Earl Leofwine began to establish a network of service in Lincolnshire independent of the power centres of Lincoln and Stamford. Siward of Northumbria, the local earl, was in all likelihood its target and it thus became redundant after Earl Tostig became earl in 1055.

The anomalous letter forms in the account of the soke of Grantham alert us to a complex history to which the Domesday scribe was apparently privy. What sources were at his disposal is unclear: the level of detail goes beyond that of the immediate concerns of the Domesday inquest as the expansive description of Grantham itself illustrates. The fact goes to show, nevertheless, that the survey of the royal demesne was very different from that of the tenants-in-chief that followed it. Distinctive letter forms may often hint at processes that cannot be recovered. What is clear is that they have meaning. They need to be noticed and taken seriously, the more so when they do not conform to what might be expected.

If I had time, I could talk about other devices, such as blank lines and the paragraphos, which were employed by the scribe to layout of his text. They too are used with purpose and are also an eloquent testimony to sources and the like. But I do not have time, so I shall move to a conclusion. As a child of the sixties, and with a nod in the direction of Marshall McLuhan, I conclude that the medium is the message, or at least an important part of it. Our editions and translations of GDB are all deficient in failing to recognize it. Farley, in the editio princeps, came closest in trying to represent the forms of GDB. But even with the resources of Record Type, he could not, or chose not to, differentiate square letters from rustic. The reprint of his text has done even more violence to the manuscript by suppressing blank lines to save space. The Alecto translation recognized the importance of the general layout, preserving blank lines and folios alike, but again fails to represent differences in initial letters.

This failure to recognize scribal conventions is one of the reason that it is proposed to set up a Domesday Texts Project. This initiative aims to produce a new edition of GDB, along with all the other texts of the Domesday corpus. Amazingly for such a major corpus, only a small part is available in a fully extended Latin text and none of that is machine readable. The new edition will remedy the omission. All variations in the hands, such as additions, deletions, and interlineations, will be represented, along with variant letter forms, rubrication, marginal marks, and the like. The resulting text will represent both content and form in a searchable format. The resource, it is hoped, will do justice to a consummate scribe who too, in his own way, coded his work to organize it and load it with meaning. The Domesday text is less tentative than the manuscript of Eliot’s Waste Land, but in its own way, it is every bit as much a masterpiece of genius. We do not need to apologize for engaging with its minutiae.


©David Roffe 2011