As hellish as it may sound, it was in fact merely a written record. Yet, it held so much power. It has come to be known as "The Domesday Book". As the title shows, it was perceived quite differently to many. To get an idea of what on earth we got ourselves into (yes, we said it), here is a quick video that shares a brief background of this fascinating historical record!
RENOWNED, Respected and Revered
The Domesday book is a compile of written surveys and considered one of medieval England`s oldest public record that have lived through the ages. It was completed in 1086 by the order of King William the Conqueror (the first Norman King of England). He initially assigned his commissioners throughout England to inquire how much land and resources there was and who owned it at that point of time, before finalizing those records into a book. As we uncovered, the Domesday book provided a rigid sociological structure of England during that period, as well as information on the feudal system which was of much prominence during that era. Apart from the political and sociological structure, the book gave apt descriptions of landholdings and resources of the people living in the late 11th century England.
Although it could be viewed simply as a book of records, the Domesday book held far more complexities than what it is was deemed to be. The upcoming segments of this post will address some prominent interpretations of this book through time.
the Government`s intention
Viewing the book from a solely functional standpoint, it could have been a publication purely for record keeping purposes. Taxation of the people was and still is one of the prime sources of income for the state of England. Book- keeping of such accounts is therefore paramount to the administration of any state and not much different from government processes in the present-day, such as conducting annual census surveys of many aspects of their citizens’ lives. An area of contention might arise with regards to why this manuscript of taxation records was published for public access. However, questioning that itself would be skeptical. It is also important to note that in the 11th century, much before the 19th century industrial revolution of commercialized book printing took place, a book hand-printed in Latin and commissioned by the king would not have been of easy access to the common man. Thus it seems plausible that many of the popular interpretations of the contents and intentions of the book arose as retrospective ideas.
The people`s dilemma
The public perception of the book emerged predominantly in the 12th century. This manuscript of taxation and asset records came to be known as “The Domesday Book,” A statement from the book follows that, “there was not one single hide, nor a yard of land, nay, moreover, not even an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine was there left, that was not set down in his writ”. Hence, every single citizen and even animal had its very own record in the book. This portrayed how people of England followed through to the accountability of the book.
Furthermore, due to the extreme extent of detail in the book, similarities were drawn to the biblical concept of "Doomsday", whereby details of the deeds of Christians would be placed before God for judgment.The unprecedented extent of detail in King William’s survey of his people was observed and perceived by many as being reflective of the description of “The Last Judgment,” as described in the Bible as a record of “deeds” that have been committed by Christians in their lifetime which would non-negotiability be judged by God. That is how the publication earned its name.
This association has given rise to many misconceptions that the book had intentionally been named Domesday since its inception and that the records in it were compiled for ill-intention and not as a state-driven administrative process of recording revenue and valuing assets. As seen from the above paragraph, some even tried to establish a causality between the Biblical ‘Doomsday’ and the so-called ‘Domesday’ book of records, asserting that the former inspired the latter.
Being highly complex and detailed, the makers of the Domesday book would not have imagined the possibilities of it becoming a source of inspiration for the future. In 1986, British researchers at BBC embarked on a mass documentation-project which captured images of daily life in Britain as a time-capsule-style record for future generations.
Coincidentally or not, 1986 was the 900th anniversary of the ‘Domesday’ book of records. The project was named none-other than the “Domesday project.” This offers insight into the legacy of the original publication and its intent, and how it is has been associated in contemporary ages with detailed, mass collection of data from the public.
We recall that during King William’s era, it was believed that the people of medieval England paid great respect to him, even addressing him as their “lord”. This further strengthened his power as a ruler and hence, no one else had the authority to defy or change what was stated in the book after it was completed.
The ‘Domesday’ book portrayed the vast complications of how the people viewed King William’s rule to be and even portrayed it to be a symbol of King William’s power. However, a significant shift took place over the course of the next millennium. King William’s authority was challenged and majorly defeated as Britain eventually chose a system of governance instead. Indeed power was once solely dictated by a ruler in the form of a “top-down” approach (i.e the King to the people). Whereas power is now adopted by a “bottom-up” approach (i.e the people to the parliament).
In the course of uncovering the Domesday book, we could not help but draw parallels between the book and George Orwell’s seminal piece of writing of “1984” which predicted the age of institutionalized surveillance. Retrospectively, it seems plausible that Domesday even inspired “1984” and was a lived precursor to the events described by George Orwell.
All things considered, we indeed live in a society shaped by the sheer monopoly of state-centered power and the Domesday book of records offers profound insight into the phenomenon of institutionalized control over the common man. More importantly, this is not a new phenomenon and it definitely have been existing since the time of King William the first of Britain. What makes the Domesday book genuinely exceptional is how ground-breaking it was for its time – a detailed record of the people of Britain during the 11th century. Something entirely unprecedented and perhaps what set the foundation for modern-day collection of population statistics.