Domesday TV with Stephen Baxter

One strangeness of the whole Siena trip that I couldn’t really have anticipated was that I met someone who shared acquaintance with Dr Stephen Baxter, of KCL and reported here in the past, and then suddenly Stephen was news. I wouldn’t say I know Stephen well but we have exchanged draft work and argued a great deal about moneyers, and so on, and our interests overlap at the question of how aristocrats get into and maintain a position of control. Nothing too unusual. But when I returned from Siena it was to find that he was all over the Internet and being called “telegenic” by the Guardian, because of a programme he’d done for the BBC that was broadcast shortly after I returned, on Domesday Book.

Stephen Baxter with a replica of the Domesday Book at Kings College London

Stephen Baxter with a replica of the Domesday Book at Kings College London

The programme appears to have gone down well with those who saw it: I have no television and didn’t get around to checking the BBC’s Watch Again service until much too late, but a clip is still there (I can’t embed Flash video on WordPress, and the BBC appear to be wise to VodPod-equipped browsers, so you’ll have to watch it from their page) and they have a fairly extensive web-page up in support of it. The clip is good TV and makes splendid use of Cambridge’s Round Church, so I have to love it, but Stephen’s historical impact is rather greater here than it suggests, because he seems to have weighed in with his own take on a long-running controversy, one of early medieval history’s most guilty secrets: we don’t know what Domesday Book was actually for.

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

It’s not that there are no theories, you understand. I’m not going to go into this in detail here, not least because I’m going to link to others doing so, but it’s been supposed to be a land survey, a tax-list, an inventory of feudal lordship and a few other things besides. All of these explanations, however, are hampered by the fact that the surviving manuscripts are recorded with several different levels of detail that show that each ‘circuit’ of inquisitors were working to different standards, and that substantial pieces of the kingdom, most especially London (which would, of course, have been incredibly difficult to survey and might have had some special tax provision via its Cnihtengild or similar… but, still) are not covered. Also, some precursor texts like the Inquisitio Eliensis include more information than any part of the ‘finished’ Book, so why collect that if it wasn’t going to be used? There’s too many sorts of information included for any one of the purposes that have been suggested and not enough of any one sort of information for it to have actually worked for any of these explanations. I used to think, therefore, that the best answer was probably that the text we have was written up only after William the Conqueror’s death, when the whole purpose was redundant anyway, and so simply doesn’t answer to it because it was never going to be used. And then, of course, it would have been impossible to use it for that anyway so we’d never know.

David Roffe

David Roffe

A little while back, however, an independent scholar by the name of David Roffe started to put about an idea that the reason the texts and the apparent purposes of the inquiry that generated them don’t match up is that the texts we have were not generated by the inquiry. He argues that the inquiry of 1085 was very simply aimed at raising a huger-than-ever-before geld to pay the army that would be required to fend off an imminent Danish invasion. This all unrolled well enough, and the invasion never came—bonus! But Domesday Book is not, argues Roffe, [edit: and helpfully explains in a comment below after which I revised this paragraph] the text of that inquiry but a later piece of editing, probably for more local administrative purposes—he fingers Ranulf Flambard for Great Domesday, at least. Now, obviously this has not met with universal acceptance, and it doesn’t diminish the problem of what the much more detailed Little Domesday was for, but it can’t be denied that it would explain a few things. (His argument is set out in full on his webpage here and in his 2007 book Decoding Domesday.)

A page from the Exon Domesday

A page from the Exon Domesday, a separate survey of Devon and Cornwall that seems to have been part of the same project as the Domesay Book

Now, however, Stephen joins the fray, fresh from having superintended the addition of the huge amount of data on persons alive “tempus regis Gulielmi” to the equally huge Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England database. This gives him perhaps as good a perspective as anyone has on what’s in the text, and his argument is now that the book was a political exercise making it clear to his baronage that, well, he Knew Where They Lived, a process of record that they were prepared to entertain because the record itself gave them security of tenure. He has a lengthy blog post on the BBC’s World History site here where he explains himself. This too is pretty convincing, to me at least. I wonder if in fact one couldn’t go further—indeed, if Stephen didn’t in the programme—and see it as a nationwide propaganda exercise, intended to demonstrate to all to what depth the king ruled his country by inquiring into every last detail of it, ensuring that nothing was hidden, making him akin to the Final Judge, the one in charge of, you know, Doomsday… and of course, creating governmentality. Too glib, perhaps. What is odd about this programme and blog post, though, is that this is a pretty major piece of scholarly development, and like Roffe’s, it is basically being carried out on broadcast media. I assume that print publication is also in the works but by the time it emerges, the debate will probably have moved on. This is, I think, something fairly new for early medieval studies. I have no idea how it and the TV programme will be scored in the Research Excellence Framework! but then, neither does anyone else… I think this is encouraging, anyway, not only that TV (and “telegenic” TV at that) can be made from fairly abstract historical debate, and then that historians of the full calibre are willing to do that kind of work in this kind of forum, where people can actually see what we do and get excited about it.

Part of the manuscript of the Inquisitio Eliensis

Part of the manuscript of the Inquisitio Eliensis

The only thing, the only thing that bothers me about this really, is that the BBC and other sources more widely appear to have picked up the idea that the whole of PASE is Stephen’s baby. I believe he is now its coordinator, and I don’t doubt that he did the bulk of the Domesday work, but it’s been going rather longer than he’s been at KCL, I know several of the other contributors and indeed did some of the technical mangling of data that means it contains moneyers’ names myself. I don’t blame this on Stephen at all, I’m sure it’s the Beeb being sloppy, but all the same I feel a little narked on behalf of the people who gave their working lives to this project for years. Databases don’t get you jobs, we have found. Of course, with this kind of coverage, maybe that’s set to change…

Still! Never mind that. While attempting to see if anyone had illegally loaded the Domesday program onto Youtube, I instead found this small extra chunk of Stephen visiting a traditional parchment maker and this may serve many of you and interest still others, although it would be slightly easier to watch had I not seen too much of the revived Dr Who, I’m sure some of you will know what I mean. I commend it to the house, anyway.

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4 responses to “Domesday TV with Stephen Baxter

  1. Domesday Book as royal propaganda is an notion that has been around for many years (vide Galbraith, Holt, Garnett, etc). I think we need clarification of Steve Baxter’s thesis here. For my part, may I point out that I have indeed added my pennyworth to what Great Domesday Book was about? I have argued (in, for example, Decoding Domesday, Boydell 2007) that it was probably drawn up by Rannulf Flambard as an administrative aid to restoration of the status quo ante after the tenurial chaos of the revolt of 1088. I do not, however, preclude a later date, indeed any time up to 1101 in fact. I might also add for the record that I see the inquest as much about, inter alia, service as taxation, my main point being that we must resist reductionist interpretations. If you are looking for a glaring gap in the Roffe thesis (as indeed in almost every other analysis if you ask me), it is the date and purpose of Domesday Book volume 2, Little Domesday Book. It was clearly the model for Great Domesday, but what else do we know about it? Now, there’s a real mystery.

  2. Cullen Chandler

    Nice video. I suppose it’s legal to use it in class, for legitimate educational purposes.

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