Enlarge / Original manuscript of the Domesday Book on display at The National Archives in Kew, London. Satellite documents preserved by a Benedictine abbot named Nigel place its completion date much later than previously assumed. (credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Images/Getty Images)
At Christmas in 1085, William the Conqueror decided to commission a kingdom-wide survey of England, sending census takers into every shire to take stock both of the population and its resources: land, livestock, castles and abbeys, and so forth. The result was the Domesday Book, a tome that provided an unparalleled record of daily life in 11th-century England, long revered and studied by medieval historians. It got its moniker because the English complained that its decisions could not be appealed, just like on the Day of Judgement.
Traditionally, historians have pegged the date of completion for the Domesday Book as 1087. This puts it about one year after William decreed his survey but just before he sailed off to die (quite ignobly) in Normandy while defending his kingdom from the French. But a recent paper in the journal Speculum by Carol Symes, a historian at the University of Illinois, argues that the final book was actually completed years, maybe even decades, later than that.
Symes’ expertise is investigating how medieval manuscripts were made, and the Domesday Book is the most complicated medieval text there is. “After the Magna Carta, the Domesday Book is the most fetishized document in English history, and with good reason,” she said. “It’s one of the few medieval documents you can do data analysis with, because there’s actual data in there.”