It wasn’t called Domesday originally, you know.
It was called The Book of Winchester, though neither Winchester nor London feature in it.
It proved a useful tool for William the Conqueror: he sent his men out the length and breadth of the land to chronicle the state of each settlement as it stood, first in 1066, and then subsequently in 1086. Different scribes had different styles but the overall effect was a snapshot of England at the outset of a millennium. One that we still use today.
So where did the name Domesday come from?
Churchman and bureaucrat for Henry II, Richard of Ely – writing around a century later – says it was named: “for as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any skilful subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to … its sentence cannot be put quashed or set aside with impunity. That is why we have called the book ‘the Book of Judgment’ … because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgment, are unalterable.”*
In other words. William borrowed the gravity of last things. What was written in the Domesday Book was as open to change as God’s final judgement. And it sounds like the locals felt this keenly, because every possession, every aspect of each place seems to have been systematically recorded . How many households, how much ploughland, how many ploughing teams, how many livestock of which kinds, who owns the land.
The original books are still with us. Divided into Great Domesday and Little Domesday – the former is most of England and latter covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex – they sit in a great chest, at the National Archives at Kew. They are taken out every hundred years or so and re-bound; first in 1869, and latterly in 1986.
And even today they are incredibly special for people who live here, because like that great wooden chest, they hold secure secrets from our past. Which makes the online version of the Domesday Book even more precious. You can find it here.
Had I been alive then, I would have lived in an area called a Hundred, an administrative division. Mine would have been called Ripplesmere. And many of the names in Ripplesmere are as familiar to me as my own name. But there are some of which I have never heard.
Losfield, for example. It simply faded out of existence, though it had two Lord’s plough teams and two men’s plough teams – ech, if I recall, with eight oxen in it; though it had seven acres of meadow and was under the watchful stewardship of Eudo the Steward.
And now it is gone forever, though the cyberDomesday informs us it can be identified on the ground. Now there’s a project worth following up.
So William’s judgement was not that final, was it?
It is fortunate that what William saw as an event filled with finality of the end times was just the very, very beginning.
Written in response to Side View’s challenge: The End Of The World, which you can find here.
*ed. C. Johnson, Dialogus de Scaccario, the Course of the Exchequer , and Constitutio Domus Regis, the King’s Household, 64. London, 1950.