Heather Blurton

title.none: Roffe, Decoding Domesday (Heather Blurton)

identifier.other: baj9928.0803.010 08.03.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Heather Blurton, University of York,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Roffe, David. Decoding Domesday. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2007. Pp. xx, 374. $85.00 (hb) 978-1-843833079 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.03.10

Roffe, David. Decoding Domesday. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2007. Pp. xx, 374. $85.00 (hb) 978-1-843833079 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Heather Blurton
University of York

Any review of David Roffe's thought-provoking Decoding Domesday must begin with a reference to Roffe's earlier Domesday: The Inquest and the Book (2000). In this study, Roffe first put forth his theory that the Domesday inquest was not initiated with the purpose of the production of Domesday Book. The consensus of critical opinion has traditionally assumed that the whole point of the Domesday inquest was the production of Domesday Book. This consensus stems not only from the seminal work of such famous medieval scholars as Maitland and Galbraith, but can ultimately be traced back to the twelfth century, with Richard fitzNigel's comment that William the Conqueror: "sent his most skilled councilors in circuit throughout the realm. By these a careful survey of the country was made . . .in order, that is, that every man may be content with his own right, and not encroach unpunished on those of others" (4). This being the case, Roffe's argument, needless to say, has proved controversial.

In Decoding Domesday, Roffe restates the argument of Domesday: The Inquest and the Book and addresses the critical discussion that the argument has occasioned. He points out that nothing in the nature of the Domesday data necessarily indicates that the inquest was undertaken in order to produce Domesday Book. Arguing from the nature of medieval inquests in general, he situates the Domesday inquest in the context of Cnut's threatened invasion of 1085. The inquest, in the first instance, he argues, had the goal of raising taxes to pay the mercenary force William would need to defend his realm. In the second instance, Roffe argues, the inquest took accounts of the lands of William's tenants-in-chief with the goal of further taxation. That manors were central is an indication that they were a measure of service. The Domesday inquest is thus at base about tax and service. However, Roffe situates this analysis against the popular understanding of the Domesday process as the actions of a conquering king taking stock of his new possessions, as seemingly exemplified in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's exasperated notice that William counted every pig. Instead, Roffe suggests that the Domesday inquest attempted to gather what was common knowledge or accepted wisdom about taxation, service, and land. This information was used, he suggests, in the negotiations between the king and his tenants that led up to the Oath of Salisbury in 1086. As far as Domesday Book is concerned, Roffe writes: "None of this, however, was embodied in Domesday Book. It appears to have originally been a private document compiled for the management of the royal demesne and regalia. The tenurial chaos after the rebellion against William Rufus in 1088 is a possible context, although it is not impossible that it was written at any time up to the early years of the reign of Henry I" (27).

The central chapters of Decoding Domesday offer a reappraisal of the data from the Domesday documents in the light of this separation of Domesday inquest from the production of Domesday Book. Roffe takes the analysis right back to the beginning, leading the reader through an analysis of the Domesday boroughs (chapter 4), "Lordship, Land and Service" (chapter 5), "The Vill and Taxation' (chapter 6), "The Economy and Society" (chapter 7), and "The Communities of the Shire" (chapter 8). Some of this analysis confirms traditional scholarly opinion, some asks us to see Domesday data very differently--for population figures, for example, which Roffe postulates might be doubled from the usual figures extrapolated from Domesday Book. Although these central chapters will be of most interest to the scholar who specializes in Domesday studies, there is plenty of interest to medievalists more generally, and Roffe's clear, at times colloquial, prose is as free of technicalities as can reasonably be expected from a study of the Domesday documents. A series of tables, an appendix, and an index are further help to the specialist and lay reader alike.

In part, Decoding Domesday attempts to begin to answer the question, "What was the survey about if not the production of Domesday Book?" The answers are varied and various. One strength of this approach is that it allows for a plurality of answers: a focus on the inquest stage of the Domesday process lends itself to the conclusion that, like most medieval inquests, the Domesday inquest had a number of concerns which differ from location to location. This approach also is able to accommodate the variety of scholarly arguments that the Domesday Book has generated. Another strength is that it rehabilitates those texts commonly referred to as the Domesday "satellites." With the removal of Domesday Book as the common goal, all texts are equal, none satellites. In summation, Roffe states: "In the preceding pages I have been at pains to argue that the abandonment of the concept of a single purpose for the Domesday enterprise provides a better basis for understanding Domesday data" (306). Although this book, like its predecessor, is sure to stir controversy, in Decoding Domesday Roffe gives a stimulating illustration of how this process might proceed.