Friday, August 04, 2006

Domesday Book

To honor the fact that Domesday Book is now online via the National Archives website, here is a short bit on Domesday and colonialism, a slimmer version of which found its way into Hybridity, Monstrosity and Identity:

In talking about the Norman subjugation of England, there is good precedent for seeing writing as inextricable from the project of conquest. An anonymous author contributing to a version of what is now called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle insisted that William the Conqueror was so enamored of documentation that he would not allow a single cow grazing in his new possessions to go unrecorded. William orders the great accounting of English land and wealth called the Domesday Book to ensure that the land and its contents are transformed into and possessed as text:
1085. The king had much thought and very deep discussion with his council about this country -- how it was occupied or with what sort of people. Then he sent his men over all England into every shire and had them find out how many hundred hides there were in the shire, or what land and cattle the king himself had in the country, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire. Also he had a record made of how much land his archbishops had, and his bishops and his abbots and his earls -- and though I relate it at too great length -- what or how much everybody had who was occupying land in England, in land or cattle, and how much money it was worth. So very narrowly did he have it investigated, that there was no single hide nor virgate of land, nor indeed (it is a shame to relate but it seemed no shame for him to do) one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out, and not put down in his record; and all these records were brought to him afterwards. [EHR 2 168]

Domesday is here figured as a colonial device, transforming into the permanence of writing a Norman hold on the land that extends to every mill, farm, and beast, down to the single pig. The conquest began in blood at Hastings, but the English author of this entry makes it clear that it continued through more abstract, symbolic, but nonetheless deeply wounding modes. No text, of course, no matter how penetrating, can in fact provide the kind of all-encompassing account that the chronicler describes and to which, perhaps, Domesday actually aspired. Time itself would have to be brought to a standstill for oxen and swine to be registered permanent Norman data. In attempting to capture the sheer diversity of England into a single register, the Domesday project reveals both a sangfroid and a hubris that deeply troubled the English chronicler, a writer who clearly believes that the project's effects will be efficient, profound, and enduring. Perhaps that is why, according to the Dialogue of the Exchequer, the native English christened the book Domesdai, "judgment day": in its penetrative gaze "it seemed to them like the Last Judgment described in Revelation" (M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record 18). By 1085 the foreign-born king and his compatriots were transforming England in ways that could never have been anticipated two decades earlier.


Eileen Joy said...

What's the difference between the Domesday Book project and the U.S. Census coupled with the U.S. income tax codes?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Richard: try a poll tax to raise some funds.

Eileen: not much! Had lunch with Sylvia Tomasch at NCS, who -- inspired by contemporary surveillance theory (apparently a wide and rich field of study) -- told me about her research into medieval surveillance, following some very interesting lines.