When Joscelin threw the book at Alan

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Domesday Book: a complete translation

Edited by Dr Ann Williams and Professor G H Martin

Penguin pound;30

Twenty years after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror gave orders for the most detailed survey of a kingdom before the modern age. Although he probably never saw the finished product, the Domesday Book was a vivid demonstration that information is power: it proved no more possible to contest its decisions than to contest the Last Judgment, and it was invoked in legal disputes as recently as the 1980s.

For historians, the Domesday Book is invaluable, but until now it has been possible to buy the text only in individual county volumes. Now a new translation has been published in one volume, offering a unique picture of an early medieval society.

Most entries list who holds what land and how much it is worth, but sometimes the commissioners found themselves in the middle of a local dispute and duly took down the details. At Dean in Bedfordshire, they recorded, William Speke was granted the land by King William "but William de Warenne, without the king's writ, disseised (dispossessed) him and took away 2 horses from his men and has not yet returned them. This the men of the hundred attest." So there.

At Alderleigh in Cheshire, "there is land for 6 ploughs. It was waste and is now in the earl's forest" - a pattern repeated in many of the Cheshire entries. Ivedon in Devon is listed with land for one plough and "half a villein", which sounds drastic. Lincolnshire is full of disputes - "The shire says that Joscelin ought to have them, not Alan" - and usefully tells us how much each Riding pays and who gets fined for breaches of the peace.

Most of the detailed early drafts were cut down by the original compilers for reasons of space, but they have survived for Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk in "Little Domesday", which describes the villages right down to the number of livestock and even individual beehives. Norfolk must win the prize for the best Norman baron's name: Eudo fitzSpirewic.

The Domesday Book is not just an inventory: there are stories in it which provide wonderful material for active learning in English, drama, geography and maths and history. This is one historical text which should be in every school.

Sean Lang is editor of Modern History Review

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