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CD-Rom: The Domesday Book

Domesday Explorer: the Great Domesday Book on CD-Rom Phillimore, Shopwyke Manor Barn, Chichester, West Sussex PO20 6BG, pound;350

When the Domesday Book was taken around medieval England, it needed a cart to itself. Now, in its state-of-the-art electronic form, it can slip into your pocket. With the publication of Domesday Explorer , this most famous piece of medieval accountancy has been transcribed and reproduced in a searchable electronic form for the first time.

All the pages of the original, handwritten by a single, unknown scribe, have been scanned and reproduced, and the entire text has been placed on the disc in translation.

John Palmer of Hull University, who led the historians working on the project, says it remains unique as a historical record. Never since has anyone sought so exhaustively to list every piece of property and wealth in a country. When it was commissioned more than 900 years ago, chroniclers claimed that "not one ox, nor one cow, nor one pig" escaped the teams of assessors who gathered information about the value of the lands conquered by the Normans.

Such was the definitive nature of this financial census that it was used as a reference work by rulers and judges for hundreds of years. Many estates, although changing owners, stayed intact for centuries afterwards, and the county boundaries detailed in Domesday remained more or less unchanged until local government reorganisations in the 1970s.

But if you browse through the disc, or at least its translated pages, you begin to glimpse an entirely different social order, one that is much more complex than you might have imagined. For example, while you might have guessed that the largest part of the population were peasants, the Domesday Book specifies 18 grades of peasant.

The translation also shows that slavery was still common in England, largely as an overhang of the Anglo-Saxon social order, which had been overthrown by the invasion of William the Conqueror 20 years earlier. Almost within a generation, slavery disappeared from English society. The Domesday Book doesn't interpret or comment. It simply provides list after list, showing who owned what, what type of value was attached to the land and what type of people were working on it.

The CD-Rom has been criticised as a solution in search of a problem. But a project such as Domesday Explorer plays to the strengths of the medium, making the most of its vast storage capacity and almost instant searching potential, plus the visual representation of the elegant pages of the original and other clickable ways of navigating the information, including maps.

  • The picture shows a portion of the Domesday Book on CD-Rom
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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