Little Domesday, Norfolk
the text of a lecture delivered at the Assembly house, Norwich, 31 May, 2001
How many rooms (don't count the bath room)? Outside loo? Religion? Compare that with this:-
Sutton [near Stalham] was held by Eadric of Laxfield TRE as 3Ĺ carucates of land; there have always been 6 villans and 17 bordars, and 2 ploughs in demesne and 3 ploughs belonging to the men, woodland for 60 pigs, 39 acres of meadow, a salt pan, and 2 horses. Then there were 23 wild mares, now 7. Then there were 13 head of cattle, now 22; then 9 pigs, now 23. Then there were 180 sheep, now 200; and 4 beehives. And there are 2 sokemen and 12Ĺ acres and one church and 10 acres (LDB, 179v).
Tony Blair's 41 questions in the 2001 census pale into insignificance. The passage comes from the Norfolk section of Domesday Book, and I think that any estate agent would be justly proud of that description. To what extent it falls within the Trades Description Act is another matter - no loos, notice - and one that has generated much debate in the last 200 years. Be that as it may, there are over 1590 entries of this kind for Norfolk and some 29600 for the whole of England. Some contain greater detail than others, but together they make up an extraordinary account of the realm of England in 1086. In the vast majority of cases Domesday provides not only the earliest notice of places in the historical record, but also the most comprehensive survey of each of them produced in the Middle Ages.
Norfolk is one of the most fully described shires. The account of most of England is entered in volume one of Domesday Book, known as Great Domesday (GDB). This is largely the work of a single scribe and he adopted a disciplined approach to his data. Entries are identified by place-names, but within each county it is landholding that organizes the account: chapter by chapter the estates of the king and each tenant-in-chief are set out in a concise and economical fashion. Norfolk, by contrast, is entered in volume two, Little Domesday (LDB), along with Suffolk and Essex. The volume is the work of seven scribes in all, and its formal organization is much the same as GDB's. However, it is far more expansive in its detail. Statistics are given for 1066, 'later'(when the land was acquired), and 1086; changes in title are described in detail; the status of the peasants and their local allegiances are minutely recorded; above all there is a careful account of demesne livestock that is unparalleled in GDB.
At times the sheer volume of information is overwhelming. Nevertheless, this has not deterred local historians. They have made assiduous use of the data. From the time of Blomefield onwards, the Norfolk Domesday has not only provided them with the starting point for the manorial history of the county, but also defined its structure. It has been the datum of social and economic histories of Norfolk, and it has enabled a reconstruction of the machinery of local government, the vill, leets, and hundreds of the county. More recently, it has been used to recreate the landscape itself. Mapping of settlements and resources has provided a vivid picture of how the land was exploited and has afforded vital clues to the origins of settlements. Computer analysis of the vast data sets has helped to put flesh on these distributions and elucidate the nature of the interaction between the inhabitants and their environment.
We can now look back on over 250 years of study of the Norfolk Domesday text. The literature is vast. As my grandma might have said, it must be all known now. So why a new edition of the text? Well, clearly the opportunity has been taken to correct old errors, incorporate new identifications of both places and people, and adjust the translation in line with the current understanding of eleventh century society. A map of settlement, tenure, and resources at a hitherto unprecedented scale has also been provided. We have striven to achieve the most up-to-date edition possible, the while striking a balance between scholarly integrity and ease of use. All of this you would expect of such a project. Where it breaks new ground, however, is in the provision of an integral facsimile.
The Domesday text was published in Record Type in 1783. But in recent years it has become increasingly clear that on its own this printed edition, and the translations based on it, can be misleading. By and large it is a good text, and it is true that there can generally be little ambiguity about the number of pigs, for example, recorded for any particular place. But once one begins to ask what they signify, then problems arise. I started somewhat frivolously with the English census, and indeed Victorian historians were all too keen to make the comparison. We now know that the Domesday inquest was less a systematic survey of England, than the stake that certain lords had in it. To assess the significance of its data, we have to study the forms in which they are represented - the diplomatic as it is known in the trade - and that can only be done by consulting the text itself. Layout, interpolations, changes in hand, differences in expression all hint at sources and processes that have hitherto been unsuspected.
Where access to the MS has always had to be limited, all of this can now be readily studied with the publication of a state of the art facsimile. Alecto Historical Editions issued GDB in 1986, and I think it is true to say that the event has seen the start of a revolution in Domesday studies. With the publication of the Norfolk text, along with the rest of LDB, Domesday Book in its entirety can now be consulted, and we can begin to take stock of the whole work. The Norfolk text will, I think, play a key role in a radical reassessment of Domesday Book and the data it contains. My own studies of the text have already suggested that it has important things to say in at least two key areas, namely, the purpose of the Domesday inquest and the impact of the Norman Conquest upon English society.
First of all, purpose. There are two contemporary accounts of the Domesday inquest - the 1085 annal of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and a note written by Bishop Robert of Hereford. Both expand on what was recorded, but neither says why. It may seem curious to you that such a major exercise did not leave any record as to why it was undertaken. Well, that was typical of most national inquests in the Middle Ages, and so historians have turned to how the Domesday inquest was conducted to provide a clue.
Here there is a greater body of evidence. It is clear from Domesday Book itself that much of the information, but not all, was provided by the various communities of the shire. We hear of jurors of the vill, hundred, and shire as well as 'Englishmen' and Frenchmen'. However, the evidence that they gave was somewhat short of what we have in Domesday Book. They knew about title to land, assessment, status, and apparently value, but not much else. Details of ploughs and population, horses, cows, and goats, churches, mills and pasture, and the like were provided by the lord and his men. In Norfolk there is a reference to the day on which Robert Malet was 'inbreviated', that is the occasion on which he had all of these details for his Norfolk fee entered into the official record.
So much has been clear. From thereon, we enter murkier areas. A source known as the Liber Exoniensis, Exon for short, appears to be something like the sort of record that was produced from the combined presentments of the shire, the hundreds on the one hand and the tenants-in-chief on the other. Exon is a collection of various documents, but it mainly consists of an expansive account of the West Country which was undoubtedly the main source of the corresponding sections of GDB. Thus, it has been forcibly argued that this was the normal type of record that was produced and that it was a stage in the production of the final record that is GDB. This was an elegant formulation, for at once it explained an apparent anomaly. Why is the second volume of Domesday so different from the first? Historians had long been confused by it. Now there was a ready explanation. Like Exon, and unlike GDB, LDB contains details of livestock, and the conclusion seemed clear: LDB was a 'circuit return', a first draft, that was never abbreviated and written up in the final volume.
The point is crucial, for it allows an important conclusion: the production of GDB was the aim of the Domesday inquest. And this perception, in its turn, has informed the notions of the purpose of the Domesday process. They are various. The imposition of the rule of written law, recognizing and completing the Norman settlement, or the imposition of the Norman yoke if you prefer, taxation, record keeping, and a host of other reasons have all been put forward as explanations.
With differing views of the nature of Domesday Book, this has been the consensus on the purpose of the Domesday inquest for the last forty years or so. And very neat it is too, except for the fact that Exon was not the only form that 'the returns' took. If it was clearly the source of the GDB account of the south western counties of England, so was the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis, ICC for short, the source of the GDB account of Cambridgeshire. It, however, is not arranged by landholding like Exon and Domesday Book, but geographically by hundred and vill. Which, then, Exon or ICC, was the exception? Here diplomatic has proved of great importance. It shows that ICC-type sources lay behind at least 17 of the counties described in GDB.
That is not all, and here is the killer blow. Diplomatic also shows that LDB was preceded by an account organized by hundred and vill too. The Norfolk text is vital here. Although it proceeds by chapters devoted to individual tenants-in-chief, there are items of information that relate to vills embedded here and there, most noticeably the record of how much each vill, 'whoever holds there', paid in tax for each pound owed by the hundred. The forms of the entries in which this type of information is given are very close to those of ICC, and it seems clear that they were derived from a geographically arranged account of Norfolk of a similar kind.
Well, this is all Domesday rocket science. What does it all mean? I maintain that the good old Norfolk Domesday, along with the accounts of Suffolk and Essex, was not a draft that was inadvertently missed out of GDB. Rather it was the prototype for that document: it was the first bash at compiling the register that was Domesday. How so? Well, as a compilation from a geographical source, it was one remove from the typical product of the Domesday inquest, and it can be shown that its forms - diplomatic again - had a profound effect on the early folios of GDB. Together they constitute a single editorial programme. What is now volume two of Domesday Book is rightly volume one!
I would argue, then, that, Exon notwithstanding, our texts tell us that there was a marked disjunction between the production of Domesday Book and the Domesday inquest which brought to light the details from which it was compiled. I wont bore you with the details of dating, but it now seems clear that Domesday Book was a product of the reign of William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror. I have argued elsewhere that it was probably compiled after the revolt of 1088 to act as an administrative aid to inform the settlement.
We can put Domesday Book on one side. Divorcing it from the Domesday inquest helps us greatly, I think, in understanding what was happening in 1086. We can best start with the business of the inquest as a procedure. To many historians it was a decision-making device and was an arm of the executive. The king demanded a new tax, say, and the inquest was the means by which he assessed it, no argument please. This can be shown to be a misconception. In itself the Domesday inquest decided nothing: if you look at the Norfolk folios, for example, disputed land is normally held by the aggressor. Its aims were more modest. Like all inquests it was merely intended to establish communally agreed fact. In other words it presupposed subsequent negotiation. Put starkly, it was the starting point of the business in hand rather than the end.
We know, or at least strongly suspect, that decisions on 'the facts' were made at Salisbury in early August 1086, and with a bit of ingenuity we can reconstruct what they were. Tax capacity, that is the ability of the land to pay the tax assessed on it was certainly an issue. Throughout GDB the assessment to the geld of each parcel of land is followed by a statement of how many ploughs could plough it. I must add that the same information was collected in East Anglia, but it did not find its way into LDB. Much land had been exempt from taxation since the Conquest and here was a measure of tax shortfall. However, no demand was made for the full sum -. tax allowances were as much a feature of the C11 economy as today's - and in the event only the exemption of the lord's demesne was rescinded.
This was probably not the main business of the meeting, however, and here the Norfolk evidence is again crucial. From numerous references in the text it is clear that the commissioners took a great interest in manors. We occasionally hear of how many were granted to lords after the Conquest and more widely of land granted 'to make up manors'. All this points to the manor as a measure of service, and the fact that the number held by each tenant-in-chief was carefully recorded throughout the country in the so-called 'summaries' indicates that it was a basic concern in 1086. It looks very much as if the servitium debitum, the quota of knights owed by each tenant-in-chief, was discussed at Salisbury, and indeed that is precisely what Orderic Vitalis writing in the early C12 saw as the reason for the Domesday inquest.
More than most county Domesdays, then, the Norfolk text provides vital clues as to the nature of the business of 1086. Much of this has previously gone unsuspected. Hitherto, the Norfolk text has figured more in debates on the nature of English society and the impact of the Norman Conquest upon it. Here again, the facsimile prompts a reinterpretation. The received reading of the text paints a picture of lost innocence. Or the triumph of reason if you prefer. Before the Conquest large sokes and manors were not unknown in Norfolk, but they were relatively few in number. Society was characterized by a large body of free men, who, at liberty to choose their own lords, belonged to no manor. The Norman Conquest changed all that. Between 1066 and 1086 freedom was curtailed. Men were forced wholesale into manors and put under the power of foreign lords. LDB documents a society that had undergone radical social engineering for the benefit of a Norman elite.
Well, there is no doubt that some new manors were created between 1066 and 1086, but how justified is it to claim that the manor was a substantially new institution? A recent acute observer has noted that if the Normans rationalized Norfolk society in the way suggested, then they did not make a very good job of it: the tangle of rights that constituted manors in the C13 was hardly conducive to strong lordship. In fact, a dispassionate look at the Norfolk Domesday shows that the post-Conquest manor is as elusive as the pre-Conquest one. We hear of some free men who are attached to manors, but the vast majority are assigned to none.
Do we conclude, then, that there were almost as few manors in 1086 as 1066? The answer must be no. Rather it would seem that the compilers of LDB were simply not interested in manorial structure at either date. How so? Well, first, there is a handful of pre-Conquest references (mostly in Suffolk, it is true) to integral parts of estates that LDB portrays as unattached. Secondly, in LDB itself there is a sizeable number of instances where free men are said to have rendered 'customs' to pre-Conquest lords. It could, of course, be said that these were exceptional, although the fact that they appear mostly where title was unclear suggests otherwise. Thirdly, and most importantly, there are TRE values.
In Norfolk the valuit and valet figures were emphatically not valuations in any modern sense, or, indeed, the amount that the resources were leased for in 1086. They were simply monies paid in tribute. From Bury St Edmund's sources we know that such sums were locally called hidagium, and that they were the local equivalent of soke. Every free man had a value in 1066 and so clearly he belonged to a manor in exactly the same way as did the common sokeman of the Northern Danelaw.
There, of course, the manors are explicit in the Domesday text. But for Norfolk we cannot now even recreate the structures. I have no doubt, however, that the Normans were fully cognizant of where the dues were rendered. Soke was a reality they accepted. There were many free men held by the king who were granted out of royal estates after 1066, and new lords often juggled around their own resources in tribute and men. But by and large networks of pre-Conquest soke shaped the Norman settlement. Pre-Conquest soke lords, that is king's thegns, can be readily identified by distinctive diplomatic forms in the Norfolk text, and each conferred title, to demesne lands and tributes and services, to a single tenant-in-chief. There was no wholesale open season on free men after the Conquest: probably the majority of tenurial relationships were accepted as they were. Thus it is that feudal lordship never fully came to terms with Norfolk
Well, I have made some weighty claims tonight, and I donít doubt that you will want to examine them in detail. You will find the arguments set out in extenso in the Introduction. Whether I am right or wrong, the wider point I wish to make is that the new facsimile opens up the interpretative possibilities of the Norfolk text. There are still many treasures buried in it. With the publication of this volume at last historians have the tools to uncover them. It is over to you, now. There is much work to be done.
©David Roffe, May 2001.