Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Census and Domesday Book

As I filled in my census form yesterday it struck me, as it did ten and twenty years ago, that I was rather surprised how general the questions were, and indeed there is much that might be asked of one that is already in the public domain, and there would be no harm or intrusion in asking. That does not mean that I favour big government - I don't by any means. I do wonder,
and possibly worry, what modern government can conjure out of such points as whether we consider our health to be very good, or good or whatever. Conversely why not ask which denomination of Christian we consider ourselves to be. Our qualifications are matters of public record - why not ask us for them? I suppose I am feeling frustrated on behalf of future generations of historians.

Fortunately for us pursuers of the past the people behind the census do not fear the Divine retribution visited upon King David when he held a census of his kingdom.

Mercifully such fears did not deter King William I from commissioning Domesday Book, which celebrates its 925th anniverasry this year. Now that is a lot more interesting than the current Census form..., and given its date a lot more remarkable than anything modern government comes up with.

Much as the Domesday survey shocked the author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by its meticulous enumeration, to produce such a detailed digest of information in so short a period by local enquiry is a tribute to the complexity and sophistication of the governmental and social processes of late Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England. One feels a respect for the process which produced Domesday which one does not feel for any of census results from 1801 onwards.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the 1166 enquiries of King Henry II into feudal rights and the Quo Warranto hearings of King Edward I in the 1270s did not yield so succinct a result - becuase there was too much information to process. Given the practical difficulties of life in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries it increases respect and admiration for what our ancestors did achieve.


A page from the Berkshire section of Domesday Book, with the King's lands Terra Regis enumerated begining with Windelsora - or as we know it, Windsor

Image: London Weekend Break.net

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