Harvey, Sally. Domesday: Book of Judgement

Harvey, Sally. Domesday: Book of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. 335. $55.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780199669783 (hardback).
Reviewed by: Craig M. Nakashian, Texas A&M University-Texarkana
In The Medieval Review :

Sally Harvey–noted scholar of the Domesday Book and the Norman Conquest–synthesizes a wide array of thematic approaches to the Domesday survey and produces a volume of singular value and scope. Known to legions of scholars and students of the Middle Ages, the Domesday Book would not seem to be on the surface a topic in need of a new treatment. However, Harvey’s book both complements and corrects existing historiography in such a way as to be at once familiarly accessible to scholars as well as refreshing and innovative.

Harvey approaches her work as a biography of the Domesday Book, giving consideration to the undertaking, artifact, and implication of the Domesday survey, rather than focusing on one aspect or another. This creates a strong contextualization for the creation of the Domesday, and it makes this volume an invaluable resource for the study of Domesday itself, as well as early Anglo-Norman governance.

The structure of the book reinforces the essentially biographical nature of the inquiry. Harvey has chapters covering the setting of Domesday (Winchester), the men in charge of planning and executing it (including a consideration of its potential “mastermind”), the purpose of the inquiry (coinage, valuation, taxation, and “good governance”), and the Domesday’s connection to the union of spiritual and secular power in England. With a scope as broad as this, it is unavoidable that some topics do not get treated as fully as they could or should, but the overall effect is one of consistency, coherence, and deep-seated context.

In many ways, Harvey has written two separate, but intimately connected, books. The first five chapters are a history of Domesday itself–its setting and architects–whereas the final five chapters are an overview of Anglo-Norman governing practices under William I (and William II, to an extent). While this structure does give the book a definite sense of compartmentalization, Harvey is successful in applying the broader concepts of the second half of the book to the specific examples found in the Domesday.

In her introduction, Harvey argues persuasively that the Domesday survey was launched not merely to provide information on the economic resources of England to combat a perceived invasion by the Danes in 1084, but also to signal to the realm (and to churchmen particularly) that William I was the legitimate king of England by more than simply having conquered the country in 1066. This argument firmly situates Domesday within the complex attempts by the Anglo-Normans to justify and legitimize their conquest of England, though a broader discussion of these propagandistic attempts would serve to reinforce her overall point.

In chapter one Harvey considers “the English context” for Domesday by examining the role that Winchester, and pre-existing surveys, played in the governance of the Anglo-Saxon realm. She argues that England “before 1066 [had] unquestionably specific knowledge of the lands, jurisdictional revenues and fiscal concessions granted to individual landholders, and of the receipts due from royal estates, royal gelds and dues, and coinage” (28). This breadth of fiscal knowledge was the foundation upon which that Anglo-Saxon England operated efficiently. In this context, Domesday “did not spring out of the thin air” but rather built upon the “skeletal records of liabilities of counties and estates” that already existed (31).

Chapter two (setting the stage for chapters two through five) focuses the discussion more firmly onto the Domesday undertaking itself, and how the new Norman lords of England could have compelled the largely Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish inhabitants to take part. This is an interesting and important question, and Harvey’s answer lies within the mechanisms of Anglo-Norman governmental institutions, rather than in a wholesale shift in cultural attitudes. The rest of chapter two examines how William I used the ecclesiastical power structure–primarily bishops–to oversee the governmental functions that produced Domesday. In this, William was following the approach that he had taken in Normandy of relying on ecclesiastical lords for governance–a process hearkening back to the Carolingian model of government under Charlemagne. Harvey is endorsing James Campbell’s very astute observation that Anglo-Saxon government was essentially an improved upon version of Carolingian government.

Chapters three and four consider the question of “Who Wrote Domesday” from the perspective of the resources available in the localities and the mechanisms utilized to construct the book itself. These chapters build on the arguments of chapters one and two, namely that William I was building on the pre-existing fiscal lists, as well as the Anglo-Saxon institutions and offices (such as the shire court, hundred court, and sheriffs). Harvey also discusses the importance of the hundred court and jury for later English kings, especially Henry II, and traces their rise in importance to the Domesday survey. While these arguments are not necessarily wholly new, they are fundamental to understanding Domesday, and are presented comprehensively and well.

Chapter five tackles the question of who could (and likely did) serve as the “mastermind” of the Domesday project. Harvey does an excellent job presenting and then arguing against the traditional figures put forward previously before persuasively arguing in favor of Ranulf Flambard–a royal cleric who would later rise to prominence (Harvey argues because of his role in Domesday) under William II, eventually becoming bishop of Durham in 1099. Flambard make sense as the mastermind of Domesday, not the least of which because of the overtly propagandistic nature of the project. The survey was a very “Norman” document that sought to make clear (by essentially eliminating Harold Godwineson as a king) that William I was the completely legitimate successor to Edward the Confessor, rather than the head of a band of “landed pirates” (to use Harvey’s colorful terminology) (108).

As mentioned above, the second half of the book is a valuable overview of Anglo-Norman governance under William I, and how the Domesday survey fit into it. In chapter six, Harvey addresses the financial apparatus underpinning Domesday, with a specific eye towards the coinage and treasury. After arguing that William I stabilized the currency at a relatively high value for pennies, and made up the difference with additional taxes on remintings, she examines the various mechanisms within Domesday for counting payments–by tale, by weight, and by assaying. The chapter ends with a valuable appendix on the use of gold payments in Domesday, assaying and blanching, and translations of silver payment phrases.

Chapter seven tackles one of the most pernicious issues within Domesday–the definition and usage of values for property. She addresses the confusion over the fact that some of the estates in the survey “rendered” more than they were “worth” (163). She gives a very useful historiographical overview of current arguments before staking out a moderate position–essentially arguing that the demesne property “was a vital constituent of the ‘value’,” but the “bulk of manorial cash revenues came from peasant agriculture”–including those subservient to the demesne as well as freeholders and sokemen. She thus answers the “value” versus “render” question, “the higher ‘renders’ usually cover those newly augmented dues from rents and jurisdiction that were being levied over and above the more customary rents and services due to the demesne” (165). Similarly, in attempting to untangle the argument over whether the values recorded in Domesday represented only the cash payments from rent or the net value of the demesne, she takes a middle-ground approach, finding that the demesne value did play a role, as did the transferred surpluses of the small holders, but that the valuations did not take into account household consumption, thus a reasonably wealthy holding could report no “income” after expenses. Harvey then summarizes her findings with the following basic definitions: the value represented “the [traditional] payment–on various terms–made to the listed tenant-in-chief or tenant for the use of the land”, whereas the render represents “payments currently demanded by the king, a tenant-in-chief, or his intermediary” (202).

Chapters eight and nine cover how Domesday interacted with taxation and the role of the royal office holders. The coverage of taxation demonstrates William’s attempt to solidify the tenurial revolution that he established after Hastings. Domesday helped to make sure that the great magnates did not impose an ever-increasing share of the financial burden onto the peasantry, and thereby prevented them from “consolidating the immunities that they had begun to carve out in England” (235). The treatment of the royal office holders both reinforces their importance before and during the survey, but also explains that, despite controlling the inquiry, Domesday looked into some of their more “dubious” activities. In this, Domesday presages attempts by the later Anglo-Norman and early Angevin kings to keep tabs on their royal officials.

The final chapter places Domesday in the broader context of relics, ordeals, anathema, and other ecclesiastical and spiritual penalties in English judicial affairs. It also serves to reinforce the other themes that Harvey introduces in the book- namely William’s claim to the English kingship and his sensitivity to demonstrating that he was the rightful heir of Edward the Confessor (though Harvey deems this claim to be “fiction”) and that Domesday book had the purpose of giving “the impression of a changeover based upon some sort of principled order” (326-327).

In addition to the text, Harvey includes several images and tables, which is very helpful, but considering the nature of the project (establishing a lifecycle for Domesday), additional visual evidence of Domesday itself would have proved useful and would have opened additional avenues of inquiry in terms of style, structure, and material(s). The book lacks a bibliography, which is understandable considering the scope of the topic, but still would have been a valuable tool for the reader had it been included (though this is somewhat ameliorated by an extensive list of abbreviations at the beginning of the book). Overall, this is an eminently readable and important contribution to our understanding of Domesday book, and the Norman approach to governance in eleventh century England.

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