Understanding why William the Conqueror commissioned Domesday Book (DB), his great survey of the English kingdom, in 1086 has always been difficult. The survey fails to disclose its objective, and it has seemed to lie well beyond the routine capacity of government of the period to collect and process information. English scholars have faced the latter difficulty head on. Since the 1890s the main line of Domesday research has been based on the belief that if historians knew how the survey was made, they would be in a strong position to understand why the Conqueror ordered it. This approach has generated its own subfield in manuscript studies, and its classic theory, created by V. H. Galbraith, was dominant down into the 1990s. The conference that in 2011 provided the occasion for the papers in David Roffe’s and K. S. B. Keats-Rohan’s Domesday Now: New Approaches to the Inquest and the Book was called in the face of the breakdown of this old consensus and the failure of a new one to emerge. In Galbraith’s view (V. H. Galbraith, The Making of Domesday Book ), DB was a feudal register. Galbraith believed that the inquest collected the information about the lordships of the tenants-in-chief in each shire. Clerks then merged this information at the shire level, and then at the circuit level. At the end, a single clerk merged the circuit reports into a single text, DB, which displayed the land division that had followed the Norman Conquest. In 2000 David Roffe rejected Galbraith’s model of the inquest and replaced it with a complex process based on later, better-documented inquests in the twelfth and especially in the thirteenth centuries (Domesday: The Inquest and the Book ). Whether or not this new model is an appropriate tool to use in the late eleventh century is an open question that no one seems anxious to face. Deploying Roffe’s model disturbs seriously the Domesday firmament. Roffe argues that the proceedings began as a response to the weaknesses in the Normans’ position revealed by a threatened Viking attack. The first stage was an inquiry into the royal demesne and then the lands of the great lords. Only later, once the initial problems had been dealt with, did a royal clerk abbreviate the information collected earlier. In the process, he jettisoned information no longer necessary, so that DB says nothing explicitly about the concerns that originally called for the inquiry. Roffe had therefore to tease evidence on this matter out of indirect evidence. His conclusion: William had wanted to raise the geld and remodel military service. This summary is too brief to convey the breadth of Roffe’s scholarship. More is at stake than interpreting DB as an administrative afterthought. Roffe has always been as interested in the light DB can throw on eleventh-century society as on how the book was made. Roffe’s work on soke dues (old public dues paid by the peasants to the lord of a territorial soke) suggests that a much looser form of the manor existed in the east than has been thought. His theory on the late arrival of feudal tenure requires that Anglo-Saxon land law governed the Norman settlement until 1086. His claim that the survey’s manorial values represent soke dues, if correct, means that DB’s values do not provide the true value of the land, and a massive body of economic evidence disappears. Given the importance of the theories at issue, one might expect that the papers would focus on Roffe’s scholarship, but the momentum of the field played a big role in generating the topics. While the conference was clearly divided, several of the papers sprang from the ongoing research interests of the participants, and Roffe himself is the largest example of this rule. He dominated the proceedings in terms of pages produced (over one-third of 310 pages). In a lengthy first chapter, Roffe discusses recent scholarship on DB and gives his reaction to it. The coverage is thorough, although it varies in detail on other theories; and the topical discussions are interesting, especially when Roffe takes on economic historians who ignore his conclusions. Two weaknesses and a technical problem are apparent. First, Sally Harvey’s recent book (Domesday: Book of Judgement ) on DB receives only limited response from Roffe. Second, with one limited exception, neither the book nor its chapters contain bibliographies, a serious flaw in its utility. Finally, the pages separated from the cover of the review copy. The quality of the papers is good. Their topics fall into the usual two groups—attempts to mine the contents of the survey to answer questions about eleventh-century society and inquiries into how DB was made. Three chapters belong to the first group. Two have the same subject, in fact. They are new investigations of the old claim that, following the conquest, individual Normans received the lands of particular Anglo-Saxon antecessors. Both papers are aimed at Robin Fleming’s arguments (Kings and Lords in Conquest England ) that the granting of lands to Normans was often messy and that in some regions territorial grants replaced grants based on antecession. Ann Williams, deploying Roffe’s ideas on the nature of pre-conquest lordship and soke, shows that grants based on antecession appear to have governed land transfers in several villages in Cambridgeshire where Fleming had discovered disorder, and K. S. B. Keats-Rohan finds that the same principle lay behind Count Alan’s acquisitions of land in the south. Regarding the north, Keats-Rohan reaches the same conclusion for his great territorial bulwark of Richmond, but here her conclusion seems to rest on a concept of functional antecession as opposed to tenurial succession. The count’s defensive district was preceded by a pre-conquest marcher district. Andrew Lowerre’s chapter is a very useful guide to the sorts of questions different electronic versions of DB can answer. It is also an introduction to a new digital database that he is developing which will make possible the creation of distribution maps of the information in the survey. Lowerre then uses an early form of this tool plus various statistical tests to raise serious questions about Roffe’s radical claim that DB omits most demesne land from its description of the countryside. Overthrowing this contention would be very good news for economic historians. The remaining chapters deal with the making of the survey or its later history, and they mostly spring from existing questions or interests of the scholars. Ian Taylor (chap. 5) argues inventively for the novel proposition that Domesday’s account of East Anglia was the product of an earlier, separate survey. Frank Thorn, who is important in the field for his excellent editorial work on the text and his associated scholarship, provides a pathbreaking attempt to characterize the style of the Domesday clerk by looking at his vocabulary, and he raises old but important concerns about the degree to which the clerk’s vocabulary fit rural society. In chapter 8 Pamela Taylor provides an effective rejoinder to recent suggestions that some tenants-in-chief cooked the books by adding information to the record that favored them in some regard. She looks at the returns of bishops, who were in the best position to use this type of self-help, and finds few potential examples of such intrusions in the text. Howard B. Clarke, pursuing a long-standing interest, convincingly argues that two post-1086 surveys from Evesham were abbreviated from Domesday shortly after its creation, clear evidence for the utility of its core information. Three of the chapters bring the reader closer to the scholarly fray. J. J. N. Palmer, a pioneer in digitizing Domesday, provides an enlightening article about his attempt to create a searchable edition of the extended (unabbreviated) Latin text and the maddening difficulties that the project entails. He also uses an early version of this tool to show that circuit returns were no figment of Galbraith’s imagination. Sally Harvey also provides a short discussion of the role of oaths in the inquest, and she concludes that they humiliated the Anglo-Saxons who provided them. How this conclusion fits with her recent theory that DB was an attempt to offer reconciliation to the conquered is unclear, but her concept of the inquest is certainly a rejection of Roffe’s claim that the inquest was simply a fact-finding inquiry to be followed by negotiations. Roffe provides an example of an argument based on the diplomatics of the text, a type of argument that he has developed, in the last chapter of this group. Here he attempts to show that the Domesday clerk’s use of capital letters can reveal the different types of sources from which he drew his information (as opposed to the idea that he worked from one class of document, the circuit returns). His flagship example, the use of different types of capitals to distinguish manors from non-manors in the east, seems secure as an example of capitals having significance, but this pattern disappears outside the east. Thereafter capitals begin to signify a variety of possible sources on the basis of analogy. DB is famous for tricking scholars with ignis fatuus patterns that come and go. Scholars have usually maintained that a pattern needed to be common to bear weight. Roffe’s theory that the Domesday clerk developed the diplomatics of the text while abbreviating it frees Roffe from the need to accept only general patterns in the text. The reviewer finds a number of Roffe’s insights persuasive, but he worries about relying on discontinuous patterns nevertheless. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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