Focus on Domesday

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Look closely at this extract from Domesday Book, and see if any words look familiar, then read the translation below.

Domesday Book, Westminster E31/2/1

An extract from Domesday Book, Westminster. (Catalogue ref: E31/2/1)

Roll your mouse over the highlighted words to reveal the meaning. You may also link directly to the word entry on the glossary page.

IIII. The Land of St. Peter of Westminster
In ‘Ossulstone’ Hundred

In the vill in which St. Peter’s Church is situated [Westminster] the abbot of the same
place holds 13½ hides. There is land for 11 ploughs. To the demesne
belongs 9 hides and 1 virgate, and there are 4 ploughs. The villeins have 6
ploughs, and there could be 1 plough more. There are 9 villeins each on 1 virgate
and 1 villein on 1 hide, and 9 villeins on each half a virgate and 1 cottar
on 5 acres, and 41 cottars who pay 40 shillings a year for their gardens. [There is]
Meadow for 11 ploughs, pasture for the livestock of the vill, woodland for 100 pigs,
and 25 houses of the abbot’s knights and other men who pay
8 shillings a year. In all it is worth £10; when
received, the same; TRE £12. This manor belonged and belongs
to the demesne of St. Peter’s Church, Westminster.

Translation from the Latin version in Domesday Book,
the words in square brackets have been left out of the Latin

Why Latin?

England’s rulers spoke French, rather than English, at the time when Domesday Book was written. Latin was the language used for government documents. It was also the language of the Church. All church services were in Latin and bibles were also written in Latin. Since the scribe for Domesday Book was a churchman and it was made for the King's government, it was written in Latin. Latin was still used for important documents right up to Victorian times.

The scribe who wrote Domesday Book also shortened some of the Latin words. Books were often written in this way, as it saved space. However this fact makes Domesday Book hard to read. All numbers are written as Roman numerals.

Use your mouse to roll over the highlighted Roman numerals in this extract from Domesday Book to find out what they mean today!

13
9
25
8
12

An extract from Domesday Book, Westminster. (Catalogue ref: E31/2/1)

What can we find out?

William and his half brothers Bishop Odo and Robert

William and his half brothers Bishop Odo and Robert. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century. By special permission of the City of Bayeux.
Link to an enlarged version

For someone looking back at the Middle Ages, Domesday Book is a very important source of information. Domesday Book gives us a ‘snapshot’ of what life was like in the Middle Ages. For family historians also, it provides a useful and fascinating resource for tracing family history! By studying a few extracts we can quickly see that England was a very different place from today.

How people lived

In Domesday Book there were very few towns. Places such as Birmingham, which are cities today with plenty of businesses and wealth, were tiny manors. There were lots of meadows, pastures and woodland. There were plenty of sheep, pigs and cattle. Not all of the land was used for farming though. Some of it was woodland, forest or wasteland.

Domesday Book gives us an idea about the different types of people who lived in England. We can discover how society was organised. Most of the people were villeins, bordars or slaves and they earned their living by farming. Others lived in towns that were small by today’s standards. These people worked at different trades or had market stalls.

Normans in control

By studying Domesday Book, we can find out who controlled the land in England. In 1086 only a handful of English people held land. King William, his tenants-in-chief or the church had power over most of it. This shows us how thoroughly the Normans had taken over England by 1086.

A wealthy country

The main aim of Domesday Book was to find out how wealthy England was. The total value of the land recorded in the survey was about £73,000. This might not seem a lot today, but in the Middle Ages someone who earned £10 a year was considered to be very well off.

What Domesday Book does not show us

Domesday Book does not show us how many people lived in England. Only the heads of household are listed. No children, monks, nuns or people who lived in castles are recorded. Major cities such as Winchester and London are left out. Finally, it does not tell us what ordinary people thought, what their homes were like, or what clothes they wore. We have to use other sources along with Domesday Book, to get more idea about life in the Middle Ages.