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Response to Review no. 216

It is now eighteen months since the publication of Domesday: the Inquest and the Book (DIB) and over three years since I finished writing it. I therefore welcome the opportunity to reply to criticisms of the book and, also, if I may, reflect on my own reactions to its conclusions. Stephen Baxter’s review is the longest and most detailed to date, but, for me at least, it is instructive to read it in combination with earlier reviews by Emily Albu and John Palmer. All are complimentary on various aspects of the book – I am flattered that they consider it required reading for the period. Nevertheless, they reject what they see as the main arguments of the book, the detachment of the production of Domesday Book from the Domesday inquest and its late date. There are interesting points here, some of which I might well have addressed more fully. But it seems to me that none of the reviewers has entirely thrown off the preconceptions of the prevailing orthodoxy that I have been at pains to uncover. The dead hand of historiography casts a long shadow. In the following I shall attempt to highlight some of the key concepts that have informed my analysis.

It may seem odd to those who see the business of history as largely confined to straightforward historiographical review that my conclusions took me by surprise. Albu avers that I have revised Round’s analysis of the making of Domesday Book, and Palmer seems to think that Orderic Vitalis inspired my re-dating of the process. In fact, neither is correct. From the start, my focus was the original Domesday texts rather than later views of them, be they twelfth-century chronicle accounts or twentieth-century historians’.

Reading what the texts actually say is far more instructive than the commentaries on them. Interpreting the Domesday ‘terms of reference’ or ‘articles’ is a case in point (see DIB, 113-17). The list of questions preserved in the prologue to the late twelfth-century Domesday text collection from Ely known as the Inquisitio Eliensis (IE) has long been used as evidence that the compilation of Domesday Book was intended from the start of the Domesday inquest, for they appear to inform virtually every entry. True, but try this little parlour game: compare the articles with accounts of tenant-in-chief’s holdings preserved in the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis (ICC), a text that was produced in the course of the Domesday inquest but which precedes Domesday Book itself, and give a good reason why it could not have informed the geographically arranged text found there. The so-called articles make no reference to fees; and at best they tell us that the inquest was about the lands of tenants-in-chief, not about how the account of them was to be organized.

At best, for there must be serious doubts about the IE text. As I pointed out at length, its diplomatic (and surely no Domesday scholar can now ignore the formulae of the text) can be firmly placed between the forms of Little Domesday Book (LDB) and the Great Domesday Book (GDB) account of Yorkshire, and its failure to mention demesne livestock must suggest that it was drawn up after the decision to jettison this information. Of course, pace Baxter and Palmer, I do not deny that there must have been articles of some kind (see DIB, 116). King William, as much as Charlemagne, clearly indicated what sorts of information that he wanted. There is indeed one form of words in the inquest texts that points to a prime concern. The statement of ploughlands in the summaries (Hec terra sufficit x carucis) is identical in the five circuits in which it is found, and here surely are the words of government (‘The summaries were one item of information that can be said to have been specifically requested from the commissioners in the language that survives’ – DIB, 183). Significantly, however, they are not reflected in the IE prologue. Whatever its origins – and my speculations are only that – the Ely text clearly does not preserve a record of the articles of the Domesday inquest.

Reading the texts can be an unsettling business. Galbraith, and those who would defend his legacy, set much store by the Domesday ‘satellites’ as sure evidence that the aim of the Domesday inquest was the production of Domesday Book. In reality, the texts are only such with the eye of faith. The Liber Exoniensis (Exon) is no exception here. Palmer says I am embarrassed by it. Well, I would be quite ready to introduce it to a maiden aunt if I had one. As I have argued at length (DIB, 173ff), Exon is not a compiled text, that is, each section is not written from a number of sources like Domesday Book (LDB and GDB) or ICC. It represents the first writing down by the Domesday scribes of the evidence provided by the tenants-in-chief, or something very close to it, and its form is a function of data collection and thus irrelevant to the production of Domesday Book. This is really a simple point: if you ask lords about their estates the answers will relate to their fees. You simply cannot use that as evidence for how the data were subsequently to be organised or used.

There are no intrinsic connections between most of the texts and this must be our starting point. It is gratifying to see that Baxter recognizes the probability that they must often have been produced for their own purposes. Unfortunately, however, it is all too often true that we cannot perceive what those purposes were, especially with the more fragmentary ones, what I term ‘the schedules’, and the best we can do with these latter is ignore them in the analysis of the Domesday process.

The wider point, though, is liberating. If we do not have to see GDB as the only aim of the inquest, then we can begin to appreciate what its various activities were. Curiously, none of the reviewers seems to have fully appreciated this. I have argued that demesne exemption was certainly one of its pre-occupations. It seems difficult to me to interpret the ploughland data in any other way given that the geld was reimposed after the Domesday inquest (DIB, 237). But, I maintain, its principal concern was knight service (DIB, 239-40). No one has commented on this. Is it really the cause that dares not speak its name? Service has long been ruled out of court on the grounds that that it is all-but-absent in the Domesday texts. Well, there’s the rub. Is it really conceivable that a major survey of the lands of the William’s tenants-in-chief should not be interested in the service that each owed to the king? Now we have a context in which it is possible to say no. If, as I contend, the inquest was about information gathering, then we might not expect its concerns to be explicit. The rest is down hill. We can perceive that in the summaries and LDB the manor, however defined, is a proxy for service in the inquest (as opposed to Domesday Book), and it figured large in the proceedings. This is precisely what Orderic saw as the purpose of the Domesday inquest in what is the first surviving account of the purpose of the enterprise. Please note that I do not start with Orderic, but only finish with him!

Yes, it is true that knight service does not appear in Domesday Book. But that begs the question of the relationship of the Book to the Domesday inquest. Of course, the production of the abstract was one of a number of activities and it does not necessarily reflect the concerns of others parts of the process. It is simply not good enough to say that ‘the awe with which the Inquest was regarded by contemporaries makes it difficult to credit that no permanent record was planned by the Conqueror’ (Palmer). Even if he did (and there is little evidence of that notwithstanding the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler’s assertion that ‘all the writings’ were brought to him), it will not necessarily tell us what else he thought of. Exactly where it fits in comes down to a matter of hard dating. This, of course, has dominated the reviewers’ comments, and yet they have failed to follow the argument.

It goes without saying that the evidence is equivocal; there would not a problem otherwise. So, we must start with a firm understanding of possible relationships between texts and additions to them, whether they be originals or copies. I have much to say about this in chapter 4, but here I can do no better than refer you to a recent lecture in which I addressed the problems directly. In The Domesday Texts I point out how the failure to understand the logical categories of terminus post quem and terminus ante quem has bolstered an authorial analysis of the texts with all its attendant baggage. This is succinctly exemplified by the Pyrford entry noticed by Galbraith (and resurrected by Palmer in the notes that accompany his Domesday Explorer). A firmly dated charter indicates that the assessment of Pyrford was reduced in mid 1086, and the fact that the new assessment was inserted in the margin of GDB has been taken as proof positive that the Surrey section was written by the same date. Fine, but hang on. The charter provides a goodish (if not conclusive) terminus post quem for the addition, but hardly a terminus ante quem for the text into which it was inserted. Think about it and if you still disagree, see my proof that the text of Domesday: the Inquest and the Book was also written (by me) in 1086 too (DIB, 88n)!

The same logic could be applied to the famous colophon at the end of the LDB. An addition by a scribe who did not otherwise contribute to the body of the text, it states that ‘Ista descriptio (this there survey) was compiled in the year 1086 from the incarnation of our Lord and the twentieth of the reign of King William, not only through these three counties but also in the others’. Baxter may be right that the common sense view is that the actual volume (LDB) was written in 1086. But it is not a (Galbraithian) common sense shared with Round or a number of other scholars more fully aware of the force of that ista. I hope that I have provided more than enough compelling evidence to demonstrate that the accounts of at least Norfolk and Suffolk were compiled from a geographically arranged source akin to ICC. Whatever its date, LDB is a secondary production.

As a production, again as I have argued at length, it had a profound influence on the forms of GDB. Here the argument depends on a long and technical analysis of the forms of GDB (DIB, 186-223). I long ago argued that the account of Circuit VI, the northern counties, was written first. There is a great uncertainty of forms and expression that is unparalleled elsewhere, and it at least seemed plausible to me that this was probably characteristic of a scribe who was finding his way, a conclusion with which Caroline and Frank Thorn largely concur. Palmer, however, dissents on the ground that it is based on an unspecified weakness of the ploughland formula argument, and concludes that there is no evidence that Circuit VI was compiled first. Well, I agree that the developed terra ad x carucas formula is an insufficient argument on its own (it is found in ICC after all). But it is far from the only evidence I cite. Palmer does not mention my analysis of rulings, textual links, marginalia, or of later forms that only appear postscriptally earlier on. This is all standard codiological analysis and cannot be simply dismissed out of hand.

There are weak links in the arguments (freely admitted), but not where Palmer would like to put them, between Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire. This is, of course, essential in the interpretation of the references to Earl William. I accept that Chris Lewis’ analysis is not watertight, but it is as strong as these things come. Yes, it is partly based on twelfth-century evidence, but this is the material we have to work on. If we reject it, we would have to throw out much of our dating for the period as a whole. The Huntingdonshire reference (in an entry that is unusual but not unprecedented in form in Circuit VI) occurs at what I perceive to be an early stage in the writing of GDB and as such is an important indication of date of composition, a conclusion in no way vitiated by the Thorns’ analysis of the production of Domesday Book (the fact that the Domesday scribes compiled from multiple sources that were not always in front of them emphatically does not prove that the inquest was still under way).

As to why William de Warenne was not styled earl elsewhere is a revealing question, if not in the way that Baxter thinks it. Both he and other reviewers, are of the opinion that if Domesday were as late as I contend, it would have been updated: the references to the king’s wife and son are sure signs that GDB was written in the reign of William the Conqueror. Well, try that argument on the inquests written up in, say, the Book of Fees or the Red Book of the Exchequer. Throughout the Middle Ages abbreviations of sources were just that: they abstracted the material that was to be preserved (including, incidentally, dating clauses like the colophon). It is true that many were subsequently annotated, but the authority of inquest records was such that their integrity was always preserved. Now, I have been taken to task for the use of later material like this, so let me remind you of the GDB scribe’s adherence to his sources. As was the practice in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, he generally did not remove erroneous material, but ruled it through and inserted the corrected copy. His transparency here clearly demonstrates that he had to represent his sources as much as his successors did. After all, if he were writing in 1089-90 as I contend, the last thing he would want to do would be update when the aim was to bring order to the tenurial chaos after the revolt of 1088. It was not appropriate to enter material that was not in his sources. The insertion of the references to Earl William are the exception, and the Domesday scribe would surely have removed the anachronism had he noticed it.

The dating is a long and complicated argument. Sometimes, it is true, hypothesis is piled on hypothesis, here as elsewhere; in constructing a new paradigm that is sometimes necessary and I make no apologies for it. What I will say, however, is that I have never relied on a single line of argument of this kind. Thus, the careful reader will note that I never claim that LDB is dated by reference to GDB. It was earlier and that is where our evidence ends. Future work on the text (and there is much to be done), may resolve the matter more satisfactorily, but in the meantime I can only say that I cannot be sure. On balance I feel that, as the prototype of GDB, it was probably part of the same process, but it is not inconceivable that it was a separate enterprise which could have been undertaken anytime between 1086 and 1090. Likewise, I express reservation about the evidence for the involvement of Rannulf Flambard, noting in particular that the textual indications are no more robust than Galbraith’s argument for Samson (DIB, 247). These are straws in the wind that cannot be incorporated into bricks. Others can. Orderic steps in at the end of a series of intersecting arguments that are independent of him and each other.

This, I take it, is the task of the historian. His or her data are texts rather than theories, and he or she formulates hypotheses therefrom, but only follows them where they are amenable to falsification. From this distance I can now look back and see that I might have done some things differently. Baxter criticizes me for omitting some recent work, and indeed I regret that Tessa’s Webber’s analysis of the Exon hands came to my notice too late to include in the account, a great shame for it adds detail to my case and resolves some of my queries. Other works I considered not germane to my case: William may have been pre-occupied with legitimacy, as George Garnet argues, but the fact that there are TRE details in Domesday Book does not prove that he commissioned it. I was not engaged on a PhD thesis and felt no imperative to provide an exhaustive discussion of the literature.

Neither was I engaged on a monograph on pre-Conquest tenure. One of the principal argument of this book is that the Domesday texts are concerned with warland, that is land assessed to the geld, to the exclusion of inland, what is commonly understood (although not in Domesday Book) as ‘demesne’ (DIB, 189-223). Soke is integral to the problem since for the tenant-in-chief it constituted ‘land’, and, with the many reservations that I make, its transfer can be traced through the tenuit formula. I now regret that I only illustrated the point with the Leicestershire evidence (DIB, 38-9). A few more complex examples would have made the case better. Indeed, Norfolk, a test by any standards of the hypothesis that antecession was the ‘default’ mechanism in the transfer of warlands, reveals an almost mechanical transfer of soke from pre-Conquest thegn to post-Conquest tenant-in-chief (Roffe, ‘Introduction’, Little Domesday Book, Norfolk (London, 2000), 31-4). If doubts remain, you can test the evidence for yourself: I have posted lists of thegns distinguished by the tenuit formula, and their post-Conquest successors for half of the counties of England (more will follow in due course). Chapter 3 was about soke, and, although I note that comital lands, loanlands and the like were often of a different character (which is reflected in their fate after 1066), more could have been made of the matter.

I should also have written more on the data of Domesday Book. I argue, of course, that the scribes involved in the process of compiling the two volumes chucked out more and more material as their purpose came into sharper focus (DIB, 216-223). Nevertheless, what did the collectors expect to do with such a mass of data? Was it merely enthusiasm, belt and bracers, or overkill? The limited scope of the summaries certainly suggests that they were aware that they had more than they needed at an early stage. But why did they do it in the first place? Again, more attention might have been paid to the use of the data as an historical resource in the light of the new analysis. Well, yes, the book might well have benefited from such discussions. They would, however, have made it unwieldy. A full analysis of values alone, by no means as simple as Lennard makes out (vide the numerous instances where valet figures are different from, and smaller than, recorded farms), would merit a monograph on its own. To preserve the thrust of the main argument much had to be excluded. The omissions will be remedied in my forthcoming Decoding Domesday.

It may seem amazing to some that, despite over two hundred years of scholarship, there is still debate about the nature of the Domesday inquest and Domesday Book. However, it seems to me that, short of the discovery of a more discursive source – a narrative account of the business of the meeting at Salisbury in August 1086 would do nicely – there will probably never be absolute certainty as to what it was all about. It is of the nature of the inquest as a procedure that the purpose of the Domesday enterprise cannot be reconstructed from its records alone. In DIB I have suggested a new and, I believe, coherent way of looking at the problem, but my underlying aim has been to widen the terms of the debate. I hope that I have at least been successful in that. I am grateful to all the reviewers for focusing my mind on the further problems that have thereby arisen.