The English countryside had been intensively worked since Roman times. There were probably about seven or eight million acres tilled at the time of Domesday. Unlike other parts of north west Europe, where vast areas of wilderness remained, there was little land left for new colonisation. Except in the far north of England it was difficult to travel for more than half a day without making human contact.

Meadow, pasture, woodland and ploughland, some of the geographical features recorded in Domesday Book, also provide useful information about local economies. Stock rearing was important in the south west. In the entries for Cornwall many references to pasture are made. Entries for Devonshire identify areas that provided common grazing rights, sometimes with up to 30 or 40 acres of pasture. Land is sometimes recorded in units such as furlongs or acres. At other times it is documented according to how many animals the produce of the area could support. In one entry for the land of the King in Norfolk, pasture for 1,000 sheep is recorded. ‘Meadow’ often referred to land susceptible to flooding as it was next to water. Although usually measured in acres this is sometimes recorded according to the number of oxen it would feed. Entries suggest areas of meadow stretching across the country from Wiltshire in the west to the Fenlands in the east. In entries for this area links can be found between produce and landscape. On the land of Bishop Osbern in Gainfield Hundred in Buckland, Berkshire a dairy farm with 220 acres of meadow produces 10 weys of cheese.

Woodcutters fell trees for building ships on the Bayeux Tapestry.  By special permission of the City of Bayeux.  Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century
Woodcutters fell trees for building ships. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th century; by special permission of the City of Bayeux

Woodland is also recorded in various ways in Domesday. Entries include 'wood for fuel', 'wood for fences' and 'wood for salt-pans'. In other instances it is recorded as food, such as in Lydbury, Shropshire where the Bishop of Hereford held enough land to fatten 160 pigs.

Wasteland is another feature of the landscape that is recorded in Domesday, often referring to land no longer cultivated. In the border counties of Hereford and Shropshire land had sometimes been laid to waste as a result of Welsh raids before the Norman Conquest. In other instances land laid to waste after 1066 is recorded as creating space for the King’s forest. The word ‘forest’ was used to describe tracts of land that were not necessarily wooded but were reserved for the King and his barons to hunt deer. While hunting was a sport enjoyed by Anglo-Saxon Kings, it was particularly popular among the Norman nobility. Forest law was introduced under the Normans, providing for the protection of deer and the appointment of forest officials.

Domesday entry for Ringwood, Hampshire.  Catalogue reference: E 31/2/1 f.39.  Digital Images and Translation reproduced by kind permission of Editions Alecto Limited
Domesday entry for Ringwood (link to transcript). Catalogue reference: E 31/2/1 f.39. By kind permission of Editions Alecto Limited.

Domesday provides many details of the New Forest in Hampshire. While the creation of this large forested area provided land for the King’s sporting activities, its value decreased. In this entry for the Ringwood Hundred the land was assessed as 28 hides for taxation purposes in 1066. In 1086 only six hides are recorded as giving a financial return as the remainder now lay in the forest.

Most people were dependent on the land in some way for their livelihood. Domesday suggests that arable farming was particularly important. Over 80,000 references to plough-teamsglossary icon are made. It is now thought that the 'open field' system, with land divided into strips that were alternately left fallow, existed in some places in Anglo-Saxon England. The need to maximise the productivity of land due to population growth, as well as the Norman emphasis on centralised control, contributed to the growth of the system. By the 13th century it was established in many areas of England.

Men plough with oxen.  Anglo-Saxon calendar, 11th century.  By permission of The British Library.  Cotton Tiberius B. V, Part 1.
Men ploughing the land. Anglo-Saxon calendar, 11th century. By permission of The British Library.

As the plough-team worked its way across the land the characteristic 'ridge and furrow' pattern was created. An iron coulter, positioned behind the wheels, dug into the soil. The wooden mould board pushed the earth outwards, building up ridges on either side.