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Domesday: The Inquest and the Book

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Domesday Book is the oldest and most precious of the public records, but historians still disagree on its purpose. In arguing that the writing of Domesday Book was no part of the Domesday survey, this book proposed a solution to a riddle that will change our perception of the Norman Conquest and Norman kingship.

EVERYONE HAS HEARD of Domesday Book. In the English-speaking world of today it may not be so sharply perceived as, say, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, it exists as a subliminal presence at the beginning of our common history. Mark Twain made good use of this fact, to considerable comic effect, in Huckleberry Finn.

My, you ought to have seen old Henry VIII when he was in bloom. He was a blossom. He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning. And he would do it just as indifferent as if he was ordering up eggs. ‘Fetch up Nell Gwynn,’ he says. They fetch her up. Next morning ‘Chop off her head!’ And they chop it off. ‘Fetch up Jane Shore,’ he says; and up she comes. Next morning, ‘Chop off her head’—and they chop it off. ‘Ring up Fair Rosamun.’ Fair Rosamun answers the bell. Next morning, ‘Chop off her head!’ And he made every one of them tell him a tale every night; and he kept that up until he had hogged a thousand and one tales that way, and then he put them in a book, and called it Domesday Book—which was a good name and stated the case. (Chapter 23)

Twain’s understanding of the origins of Domesday Book might be eccentric, but there can be no doubt that it struck a chord in his readership. Why this should be generally so is a complex story. There is clearly much to be said for a good name; ‘Domesday Book’ is as striking as the Tibetan Book of the Dead (or, come to that, H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon), and such a sonorous title is bound to guarantee some degree of celebrity. But this begs the question: how did Domesday Book come to merit its name?

It does not seem to have been founded in any defining ideology, for authorities of one sort or another have done little to bring the work into a sharp focus. It has always been perceived as a document of the first importance, but the very fact prevented the emergence of any consensus as to its significance. In the later medieval and post-medieval periods it was used by polemicists as a stick to beat their opponents with, and in the modern world it has become the subject of often equally acrimonious academic debate. Agreement has never persisted long enough to find its way into school textbooks (or analysis has been too technical to warrant inclusion).
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