Domesday, the fiction of tenure, and the internet
Domesday was originally kept with the royal treasury at Winchester. From the early 13th century, it travelled round with the King, or was housed at Westminster. From about 1600 it was kept in this wooden, iron-clad chest, which had three different locks whose keys were divided between three different officials. In 1996 it was brought to The National Archives, Kew. Last week, it went online.
William the Conqueror introduced and enforced the fiction of tenure - that all his subjects held their lands as his tenants. In 1086 he memorialized his ownership in the Domesday Book. Showing an efficiency that eludes modern bureaucrats, William's men fanned out across England and made exactingly clear in Domesday what he owned - everything from castles to duckponds. They also identified the people who lived in the kingdom. Governments today are no different. They all seem to have a Domesday mindset.
William’s book was a step backwards since he claimed he owned everything, but it would eventually be a step forward since describing property in words is an essential step to having rights to it and William's tenants would gain those rights as we wrote here.
We take owning property and documenting ownership for granted, but it does not occur in all parts of the world. That lack makes people vulnerable, and often prevents them from making a living.
Domesday's move to the internet was made possible by Professor John Palmer of Hull University and his son, Matt Palmer. John worked on the project for 25 years, obtained the funding to make it a reality and “transformed its handwritten parchment pages into a database with searchable indexes, a detailed commentary and the ability to organise all its statistics in a tabulated format”. Its rich information about medieval life is available once you sign up for the Athens User Account.
Domesday is available at the National Archives, too, but in a way it’s still under lock and key - you have to pay £3.50 to get the page you’d like to see.