Book Review: Domesday

Domesday:  A Search For The Roots Of England, by Michael Wood

There is both a lot to praise and criticize about a book like this.  On the one hand, this is a book that shows a great love and attention to historical information, tracing people for hundreds of years through various tax records, and showing how a work like the initially daunting Domesday Book has a genuinely human though that is not always recognized.  This book was written in honor of the 900th anniversary of the writing and compilation of the Domesday Book in 1086, in the aftermath of the conquest of England by William of Normandy and the widespread expropriation of land to reward rapacious Norman conquerors, continuing a process of rapacious exploitation that had gone on several times in England’s history, going back at least to the time of the Romans if not before, and carried on by the Angles and Saxons and then by the Vikings afterwards.  And it is the class-based aspect of the discussion, the tedious reminders of barely concealed Marxist ideologies about the origin of capitalism, that are the most worthy area of criticism for this book, a reminder that the worldview of many scholars regarding matters of morality and economics is deeply tainted and often self-contradictory [1].

The contents of this book are generally topically and chronologically organized, and filled with gorgeous photos and insightful maps that demonstrate patterns of deep continuity as well as frequent chance, showing the persistence of some habits and some occupations in some areas for many centuries and mobility and rootlessness in other areas persisting over centuries, with changes being made at the elite level while the same basic exploitation of the same population of commonfolk continues generation after generation, sometimes increasing in pace but often showing the same patterns over and over again.  The book is divided into three parts and sixteen chapters (as well as a preface, introduction, and epilogue) that total slightly more than 200 pages of core material along with a glossary, bibliography, photo credits, and index.  The first part of the book looks at the Saxon and Celtic past that is still embedded within the Domesday Book, starting with a look at the ‘Great Survey’ of 1086, then looking at the ancient landscape of parts of England, the Roman Past, the transition to Anglo-Saxon England, and the coming of the English.  The second part of the book takes on the subject of the English state before the Domesday Book, looking at the beginnings of English government, the origins of the English state in the face of the Viking invasions of the late 9th century, the Anglo Saxon empire and its developments regarding war, land, and taxation, the roots of the Domesday Book in the impact of the Viking invasions, the relationship of money and tax through the Old English coinage, and the workforce of England on the eve of the Norman conquest.  The third part of the book looks at the Domesday Book and the period after the Norman conquest, examines the riddle of the freeborn English of East Anglia’s fens, and explores the legacy of the English individualism of the Midlands, while also giving a brief glance at the highland zone and the legacy of Domesday on the Midland peasant, along with containing an epilogue that reminds readers about the way that England has been deeply shaped by its past in ways that are hard to understand and often are unexamined.

Even if the author can be faulted for having too strong a belief in Marxist views of class, this book does give plenty of food for thought for those who are students of medieval history, especially with regards to the Norman conquest [2].  For one, the development of writing and records, of the sort of data that social historians and contemporary business managers and executives are so fond of using in their analyses is often connected to a desire for control.  The Domesday Book is a forceful reminder that knowledge is power, and that effective taxation and administration depends on an accurate knowledge of conditions, and that the desire to understand others and their conditions is often motivated in large part by a desire to exploit what one knows for one’s own advantages.  The book is also a reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same in that patterns of behavior in certain areas are often enduring and spring from distant patterns that became embedded in a given area, showing the immense persistence of cultural traits, both good and bad.  It is hard to overcome habits on a generational point of view, not least when those habits are enforced and exploited by those in power.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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