Look closely at this extract from Domesday Book, and see if any words look familiar, then read the translation below.
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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.
What can we find out?
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.