Emily Albu

title.none: Roffe, Domesday: The Inquest and the Book (Albu)

identifier.other: baj9928.0102.019 01.02.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Emily Albu, University of California,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Roffe, David. Domesday: The Inquest and the Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xix, 282. 45.00. ISBN: 0-198-20847-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.02.19

Roffe, David. Domesday: The Inquest and the Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xix, 282. 45.00. ISBN: 0-198-20847-2.

Reviewed by:

Emily Albu
University of California

Three late-twelfth-century manuscripts preserve this famous preface to the "Inquisitio Eliensis," commonly assumed to summarize the plan of the Domesday inquest and Book: Here follows the inquest of lands, as the king's barons made it, to wit: by the oath of the sheriff of the shire and of all the barons and their Frenchmen and of the whole hundred, of the priest, the reeve, six villagers of each village. In order, what is the manor called: Who held it in the time of King Edward? Who now holds it? How many hides? How many ploughs on the demesne? How many of the men? How many villagers? How many cottars? How many slaves? How many free men? How many sokemen? How much wood? How much meadow? How much pasture? How many mills? How many fish ponds? How much has been added or taken away? How much, taken together, it was worth and how much now? How much each free man or sokeman had or has. All this at three dates, to wit in the time of King Edward and when King William gave it and as it is now. And if it is possible for more to be had than is had. -Translation by Roffe

But was Great Domesday Book the logical and intended end of the inquest? David Roffe aims to dissolve this assumption of Domesday studies by treating inquest and Book as distinct enterprises, each occasioned by specific historical conditions.

Only at the end of chapter three does he remind us of the circumstances that must have provoked King William to authorize the inquest of 1086: Expecting an imminent invasion by King Cnut of Denmark, William was billeting large numbers of troops in England. Believing that he might need these forces there for some time, the king wanted a new survey to assess the resources at his disposal. Thus the inquest. But Roffe argues that the Book does not embody the assessments made in anticipation of that invasion (which, in the event, never materialized). Again the reader has to wait for an explanation of motivating factors. Only in the last few pages does Roffe offer a plausible impetus for the production of Great Domesday Book (GDB), which he sees as a specific response to the political upheaval of 1088. The widespread rebellion of that year so disrupted land tenure that the king needed a written record of royal estates and lands recently wrested from his loyal tenants. By this time, of course, the king was William Rufus, his father having died the previous year. But agents of the young king could put to good use the data collected, for another purpose, by agents of his father.

Roffe might have presented these arguments in more detail at the outset. An explanation there would have oriented nonspecialists in Domesday studies, alerting those readers more fully to the significance of his claims and preparing them for his minute studies of the inquest and Book. In any case, an earlier summary of the full argument would have eased this reader's task.

The heart of Roffe's book is a detailed analysis of inquest and Book, now uncoupled and separately defined. Roffe reviews what can be known about the inquest, arguing contra Maitland that this survey had its origins in Old English society and was not a Norman import. So he traces the evidence for Anglo-Saxon inquests, thereby highlighting the sophistication of pre-Conquest governance in England. He moves forward in time as well, comparing this inquest with others including that of 1258, the Ragman inquest of 1274/5, and the abortive survey of land tenure attempted by Edward I in 1279/80. Essentially the 1086 inquest, too, gathered information and recorded tenure, seeking the arable potential of the land and so the potential for taxation. But Roffe explores equally what it did not do: It did not aim to serve as a register of disputed titles, he argues, nor did it mediate competing claims to land. Its aims, he insists, were more modest, though this sometimes seems a fine distinction since assuredly "it was a source of authoritative evidence for subsequent action" (p. 54).

Roffe proceeds to examine details of the inquest. Searching for the mastermind behind the process, he looks at the candidates previously proposed, agreeing that it must have a single author. He explores how the sheriffs and their men collected data, insofar as we can tell from the scanty sources. Finally, he describes the vital role of the commissioners, representatives of the king, and the settlement of disputes over land title, from which the king might profit. Roffe insists that "the resolution of disputes was no part of the Domesday commission" (p. 168), but inevitably they arose in the course of the survey. Sometimes the crown felt compelled to intervene, especially when there was possibility for gain. "Justice was at once the duty of the king," Roffe notes, "and a lucrative prerogative" (p. 165).

Roffe helpfully summarizes the steps of the inquest: Thus far the analysis of the Domesday inquest has proceeded in terms of processes, namely, the collection of data, executive action, the formulation of reports, and finally, the production of Domesday Book itself. Two stages have been identified in the garnering of evidence. Initial sessions were held in local centres and were overseen by the regular personnel of local government. Their brief was limited, being confined to, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon chronicler, 'how many hundred hides there were in the shire, or what land and cattle the king himself had in the country, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire'. Thereafter, further sessions were held in regional courts before commissioners who were charged with receiving presentments from tenants-in-chief on the resources of their estates. Executive action, notably the resolution of disputes, was thereby set in train in a process which was to continue independently but in parallel with the ongoing Domesday inquest. In the meantime reports of one sort or another were drawn up and sent to a central point, and GDB was subsequently abbreviated from these materials. -P. 224.

While this inquest produced friction and hostility, Domesday Book soon gained the status of a valued authority as liber regius, the king's book. Roffe sketches its use, including citations up to the present day. The first testimony to its use for authenticating a land holding comes from a writ of 1099-1100, providing the terminus for its completion. It is Orderic Vitalis who leads Roffe to the rebellion of 1088, the resulting chaos in land holdings, and the notorious man -- Rannulf Flambard, chaplain to William Rufus -- whom Roffe suspects as instigator of the project intended to preserve the king's record of the status quo ante.

Whoever acted as agent and overseer for Great Domesday Book, it was a single main scribe, as others have noted, who organized the records from thirty counties into a single volume. Roffe observes the habits and considerable abilities of this compiler, who was learning as he worked. By marking the ways that the scribe modified his systems of notation and organization, Roffe's study helps to reconstruct a tentative chronology of the writing. This had been obscured by the book production since the quires were sewn together in a different order than the one in which the scribe composed them. With meticulous care Roffe unscrambles the chronology of completion and succeeds at least in identifying the early quires.

Having challenged the assumption that this completed Book was the intended end of the inquest, Roffe can then forsake the concomitant belief that all other Domesday texts must be ancillary to GDB. In this way he elevates the potential importance of Domesday texts traditionally considered mere "satellites." He especially rehabilitates Little Domesday Book (LDB), executed by a team of scribes who recorded the accounts of Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. Recovering Round's 1895 argument that LDB was the prototype for GDB, Roffe sees it as essentially volume I of the two-volume DB. So with East Anglia treated in detail in LDB, the scribe of Great Domesday Book could use this as a model for his simplified accounts of thirty other counties, as he also probably wrote with the Liber Exoniensis in front of him. This and other Domesday texts -- including the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis, the Inquisitio Eliensis, Bath A, and the Crowland Domesday -- Roffe considers here, taking each as an important product of the inquest and significant in its own right, each with its own distinct focus and use. In particular, while LDB and GDB concentrate on the tenant-in-chief with his lands and their resources, the inquest itself and its earlier records, on the other hand, center on the geld.

Roffe has not written a book for the curious nonspecialist who wants a learned introduction to Domesday studies. This is a technical work that assumes considerable familiarity with the concepts and language of land tenure in medieval England. Still, there is intriguing material here even for the uninitiated. The footnotes, for example, offer nuggets like the observation (p. 7, n. 28) that Domesday aficionados consciously or unconsciously promote the "mystique" of Domesday by always omitting the definite article. Its use -- as in "the Great Domesday Book" -- betrays the writer as an interloper. On a more profound level, there is the reminder (p. 63) that the geld served not only the recipient but also those who rendered geld, by demonstrating their title to the land, for instance, and of course by distinguishing them as free participants in the society and therefore not servile. In its origins, furthermore, the assessment and payment of geld developed from a sense of the common good, most notably for defense against an invader. The irony in its payment to William the Conqueror, therefore, cannot have been lost on the irate recipients of William's inquest and those who called inquest and book Domesday.