Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": The Doomesday Book

The Domesday Book recorded in two volumes the results of a great survey of the landholdings of England executed for William I of England, or William I (the Conqueror) Norman king of England. Its purpose was to find out what or how much each landholder had in land and livestock, and what it was worth and in particular what taxes had been liable under William's predecessor the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor. The judgment of the Domesday assessors was final—whatever the book said about who held the material wealth or what it was worth, was the law, and there was no appeal, which is why it was likened to the Book of Doomsday.

The survey was completed in 1086, and the results are presented in two independent works, the Little Domesday (covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex) and the Great Domesday (covering most of the rest of England). There is no survey of London. The volumes were written in highly abbreviated Latin, although there were some vernacular words inserted for native terms with no previous Latin equivalent. It is England's earliest surviving public record. As the first written account of "who owns what" in the history of common law, some have gone so far as to suggest that this book might represent the birth of the modern concept of property rights in the West.

The surviving copy of the Domesday Book was originally kept in the royal treasury at Winchester (the Norman kings' capital). When the treasury moved to Westminster, probably under Henry II, the book went with it. After 1696 it was kept in Westminster's Chapter House where it remained until it was taken by Napoleon's troops in 1805 as a trophy of the subjugation of England by the Norman kings. It has since been kept in the French National Libary, except during the War when it was evacuated to avoid it falling into the hands of the Nazi invader. Photographic facsimiles of Domesday Book, for each county separately, were published in 1861-1863 by the French government and translations in English and French are now available. The book was rebound in its ninth centenary in 1986, when Great Domesday was divided into two volumes and Little Domesday was divided into three volumes. There was an outcry in the British press and a viral internet campaign about the "dismemberment of the British heritage", leading to calls for an official enquiry to be convened under the auspices of UNESCO. Britain has unsucessfully been trying to obtain the return of the book since the 1920s, but in Paris the object is seen as a part of the French national heritage crucial to the commemoration of the place of France in the history of Europe.

Currently it is possible to consult the book's records online, using the PASE Domesday database, launched August 2010.

Photo: Doomsday Book before rebinding (National Library of France)

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