Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Domesday England

Steve Muhlberger
One of the most remarkable products of the Norman Conquest of England is the record known as Domesday Book (pronounced like "doom," not "dome").  It was created near the end of William the Conqueror's reign, when he decided that he need to know more about the country he now ruled, in particular its taxable wealth. As soon as he began granting out English lands to his followers, there were been arguments about who owned what. In between putting down revolts and repulsing attacks on his territories, William had much of his time occupied in sorting out such problems.

In early 1086, he decided that a great survey of England was necessary to the workings of his government. When William spoke, his officials listened, and so by the end of the year, Domesday Book was largely finished, as finished as it ever got.  It is a unique record of an eleventh-century country as seen by a government that was quite powerful by the standards of the time -- a snapshot of England as the taxman saw it.

Or rather, since the surveyors asked about past conditions, two snapshots: one of England in 1086, another of England in 1066, on the day, as the clerks put it, when king Edward the Confessor lived and died:   England on the last day of peace that Anglo-Saxon England enjoyed, and what conditions were like after twenty years of Norman rule.

I hope by this point in the course that you no longer feel that England before 1066 was a backward, barbaric place. Even so, the prosperity of England in 1066 is quite remarkable. In the eleventh century, all of western Europe was experiencing the beginning of commercial prosperity.  England in 1066 seems to have been ahead of the crowd in this development.

Already England could boast of several important cities that lived largely on trade and industry. These cities were not big by our standards. The largest, London, may have had 15,000, about a third of the size of North Bay. Other cities were smaller: York had 8 to 10,000, Norwich, another trade center, something over 5,000.  By our standards these are tiny places, but there were no western European cities outside of Muslim Spain that had much over 20,000 people, and they were all in Italy.  As things went in 11th c. Europe, England had some vital urban centers. Even the smaller towns were significant economically. There were thirty-two with 1,000 or more people [Chibnall, 148], and they constituted  a commercial network that would suffice for England until the fourteenth century.

One fact that shows the prosperity and commercialization of the English economy is the quality of its currency. Since the tenth century, the coinage all over England had been uniform, based on the silver penny.  Royal efforts to maintain control over purity and weight were very successful.  It was the best currency in western Europe at the time, testimony to royal power and to the existence of trade. It was also an encouragement to commercialization and trade, as a stable currency always is.

What was this trade? Domesday book does not address this question directly. From archaeology we know that Norwich produced pottery and York iron, and there is plenty of evidence for clothmaking, one of the early manufactures of Western Europe.  Wool was already a well-established agricultural product: domestic animals are recorded in the assessment of manors, and sheep are by far the most numerous.

Commercial prosperity in England, as elsewhere in medieval Europe, was necessarily based on agricultural prosperity. Domesday Book shows us a country that, by the standards of its time, was well developed. Almost every place that exists in England today was already settled in 1066. There was no great untapped wilderness.

There were extensive woodlands, but they were a resource that was watched and managed.  The king had the largest share in this management, because he controlled the "forest."   The forest was not a woods. The word "forest" is derived from the Latin "foras", outside, and signified a royal park system outside of the normal administrative framework of the kingdom, where agriculture, woodcutting, or other exploitation was allowed only under the strictest regulation. William the Conqueror is famous -- or notorious -- for creating more forest, and savage laws against poaching, but no one thinks he invented the idea of forest.

Agriculture in 1066 is only shown in passing in Domesday Book. Arable agriculture, that is plowing fields to grow grain was very important, and the surveyors were especially charged to find out how many plowlands and plowing teams there were for each manor. But fishing was a big business in some areas, and livestock was very important. Besides sheep, pigs were the most important animal raised for meat. The woods were used to provide acorns and other feed for pigs. Surprisingly, there were almost no cows kept: only enough, it seems, to breed oxen to pull the plows -- horses were seldom used for farm work at this time. So England had no Devon cream and no Cheddar cheese.
What cheese there was, was probably made from goat's milk.

The High Middle Ages -- the period from A.D. 1000 to about 1350 is known as a period of technological innovation down at the farm. One innovation that can be demonstrated from the Book is the use of mechanical mills to grind grain into flour. There were something like 6,000 of these establishments in England in 1066. This far more than Roman Britain would have had, even though Roman Britain was probably more populous and more prosperous. In Roman times, grain was ground by slaves using hand mills.

In all we have a country that is far from backward. It would be interesting to know how many people lived there. But since this is a taxman's survey, we have only a list of people who paid taxes or were assets attached to the estates of taxpayers. There are 268,984 such people mentioned, almost all of them male, none of them children. We can guess that there may have been two million people in all of England. Today there are about 48 million.

The wealth of this country was very unevenly distributed. Over 25% of the land was held by great church corporations. A very small number of lay magnates held another quarter. For instance, in Surrey, a shire in the earldom of Wessex, Harold of Wessex held about 10% of the land, King Edward about 8%, Queen Edith, Harold's sister, about 4%, other earls about 5% The church held about 30% of Surrey, and all the other landholders together about 45%.

Just from property holdings, we can see that this was an extremely aristocratic society before the Normans ever came.

Domesday book allows us to study the social structure of England as well as its tax base.  Governmental organization based on shires with shire courts, divided into hundreds with hundred courts -- through which the free and influential people policed the countryside, decided land disputes, and distributed the burdens of military service and taxation -- was very strong in 1066. The geld, or defense tax levied on the land, had been collected for over three-quarters of a century, so there was an assessment system in place: all the land in the country had a set tax obligation, which was recorded in documents used by the makers of Domesday Book.

The king, despite the existence of princely earls in the provinces, had the ability to get his decisions implemented. There was a writing office which issued short, efficient documents called writs that told the sheriffs and other officials what the king wanted done. England was well on the way to a literate form of government.

But beside this organization was a web of personal obligations that tied nearly every person to the service of a great landlord. England was divided not only into shires and hundreds, but also into manors.  A manor was a property whose owner enjoyed a certain amount of jurisdiction and economic lordship over dependents on his land or nearby. The classic manor is one where there is a demesne or home farm, run directly by the landlord (or an agent) for his direct profit. Attached to the demesne are plots of various sizes worked by the landlord's dependents, who owed him rent and labor services of various types. But there were many other types, some that had no demesnes, others that were so small they had no attached dependents.

So, more generally, a manor can be thought of as a bundle of rights, held by a lord, over land and over people. The lord received not just rent on the land, but service from people who were in a sense his property. These manors, whatever they looked like, were effectively governmental subdivisions of England. Geld, for instance, was assessed by shires and hundreds. But it was actually collected at the manors.

Almost everyone in England was a dependent attached to a manor.

To begin with, England was still a country with many slaves, people who were property pure and simple and who could be freely bought and sold.  Slaves seem to have been most common in heavily manorialized shires -- i.e., in shires where there were many classic manors with demesnes and peasant tenancies. They did much of the manual labor on the home farms.

Above the slaves but still in a very poor position were people who might be called cottagers. They usually had a bit of land, but no more.

The average peasant was a more substantial man, the villein. Villein is the Norman word, and implies a lack of freedom. In 1066 the same people were probably called geburs (the root of our word boor), and were counted as free. The gebur or future villein usually had a fairly large tenancy, maybe a hide, maybe only a quarter of a hide; he also had some plow oxen. To pull a plow, you needed eight oxen, four yoked pairs. The villein's possession of some oxen made him a valuable resource for the lord -- the peasant oxen, the peasant plows, and the peasant plowmen were used on the demense. Plowing service, a heavy burden, was the basic duty this class of men owed their lords. The villeins, besides plowing service and usually rent, in produce or in money or both, often owed the lord a variety of miscellaneous services.

Villeins, even when they were still geburs, although not slaves, were not free by our standards. They could not leave the manor without permission, and there were a number of other restrictions on them. In most legal manners they would have been responsible not to the public courts, but to the manor court held by their landlord.  Almost half the people recorded in DB were villeins

Above the villeins were a number of people who were technically free, who had some status in the hundred courts and the shire courts, but were still under someone's patronage.

First, There were people who had long-term leases (three generations long) on what was called thegnland. A small piece of thegnland might owe the same kind of services that a villein's plot did. A larger piece might owe military service, and the leaseholder would be in a much more honorable position in society. Still their independence was restricted.

Second, there was also a large number of people called sokemen. Sokemen were people who were free, owned their own property, and did little or no plowing for a lord, but who fell nevertheless under the jurisdiction of a lord.  Sokemen usually had to do some miscellaneous services for their lords, but not the heavy duties of a villein.

Sokemen, holders of thegnland, free men under someone's patronage, people who commended themselves to a lord, were members of the middle class, politically and economically.

On economic grounds we can put townspeople in the same class, although many of them rented their properties directly from the king, who was the lord of most boroughs.

Who were the "full citizens"? They were the lords at the top of society, the king's thegns, those who had no lord but the king, those who held jurisdiction rights, the right of "sake and soke," over their tenants, over their poorer neighbors, even over whole communities. They were rich, they were influential. They were the king's sheriffs, they rented royal estates from the king, they got special tax breaks unavailable to the bulk of the population. To call them citizens is almost to travesty the word. They were lords.

How many of them were there? Very few. I have no figure for 1066, but in 1086 there were only about 200 "tenants-in-chief," direct tenants of the king. There can only have been a few more in 1066 -- even if there were 1000 holders of sake and soke, that would be one half of one tenth of one percent of the estimated population of 2 million.

The popular institutions of England, the strong public authority of the king, did not undermine the aristocratic monopoly on power. In later times, when Parliament was fighting the King, there was a theory that England was a free country before the imposition of the Norman Yoke.  There was a Norman Yoke, as we will see later, but as far as most people were concerned, there was also, before 1066, a Saxon Yoke.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.