In Our Time: The Domesday Book

After a bit of a hiatus J and I once again listened to an In Our Time episode with our Sunday breakfast. As the programme itself is now on hiatus until late September we’re cherry-picking interesting looking recent(ish) episodes we haven’t listened to yet. Today we picked out the one on The Domesday Book from mid-April this year. The Domesday Book is a great survey of the land and land-holdings of England produced in 1086AD for William the Conqueror’s administration. The original manuscript still exists, and was still being referred to until relatively recently. The three experts on the programme were Stephen Baxter (Kings College London), Elisabeth van Houts (University of Cambridge) and David Bates (University of East Anglia).

They started, as always, by giving us some context for the subject at hand. In this case that meant a brief overview of the changes the Norman Conquest had made to the people of England. The Anglo-Saxon England of the 11th Century was one of the richest countries in Western Europe, which made it a tempting target for would-be rulers like the Danes and William the Conqueror. After William won at Hastings he used the rhetoric of legitimacy to establish his new regime, and to dispossess the Anglo-Saxon nobility of their lands. He declared himself to’ve been Edward the Confessor’s legitimate heir, so anyone who fought on the side of Harold was a traitor and thus their lands were forfeit. Although the aristocracy was almost completely replaced the underlying structure of the administration was not – the country was still organised into shires and hundreds within them. This was most efficient for William as it was already a working taxation system.

It’s not known why William decided to conduct this survey. Bates suggested (slightly tongue in cheek?) that one of the inspirations for it might be the biblical story of Augustus Caesar’s survey (which leads to Jesus being born in a stable). It probably served multiple purposes including valuation of everyone’s landholdings for taxation purposes, and for feudal purposes (how many men at arms each lord needed to provide and such like). It’s also important to remember that England was now part of an empire – William also ruled Normandy and had recently conquered Maine in modern day France. The focus of the empire was more on the French side of the channel – England’s role was provider of revenue and other resources. A comprehensive list of what there is to squeeze wealth out of would be useful in that context.

Once decided on it all happened very quickly – this is one of the impressive parts of it, that the 11th Century administration was capable of surveying the entire country and producing a (large) book with a summary of the data within seven months. The starting point for the data collection was the shire & hundred system. Possibly the major tenants (the lords etc) had provided overview details of their holdings as a basis for the detailed survey. The data was collected from each hundred via meetings with the villagers of the villages in the hundred. This was a multi-lingual event, the villagers would speak Anglo-Saxon, the higher levels of society & the clerks and data collectors probably were French speaking and this oral testimony would have then been written down in Latin.

After the data was all collected in documents for each shire or collection of shires this was then summarised into the final document (organised feudally by landholder rather than geographically as the original documents were). The Great Domesday Book contains the majority of the country, and was written by a single scribe. There is also the Little Domesday Book which was written by several scribes and covers Suffolk, Norfolk and (I think) Cambridgeshire – this isn’t duplicated in the other book, possibly because it was sufficiently well written and organised to make re-summarising unnecessary. Some large towns (like London and Winchester) are missing – there is space left for those as if the scribe expected to come back to it later. And also most of the north of the country is missing – North Yorkshire, County Durham, Northumberland and most of Cumberland. This is probably because they weren’t part of the shire & hundred system.

The information recorded in the Great Domesday Book does vary across the country, but generally always includes land ownership and value at three points in the present & recent past. Firstly, the state of affairs on the day of King Edward’s death (in January 1066) – which is intended as the last legitimate point of Anglo-Saxon rule. Secondly what happened to the land after the Conquest in late 1066. And finally who owns the land now, and what it’s worth. This gives a good sense to the historian of what happened in the country after the Norman Conquest. It was also very useful for settling disputes in later centuries about who controlled what land – a bit hard to claim “my ancestors always had” if clearly written down in 1086 was something else.

All three experts were keen to talk about how much more there is recorded in the Domesday Book than just the dry facts of land value and ownership. It’s a great source for the social history of the time, and for stories about individuals. Elisabeth van Hout talked about what we can glean from it about what happened to the women who were widowed in the Norman Conquest. You can see the patterns of marriages (mostly like forced) as a way of conveying land in their names to new Norman lords. At lower levels of society there’s at least one story where the land is in 1086 by a Breton soldier who has it by right of the woman he fell in love with (this is the only time the word “love” is used in the survey – I think she said it was in the Little Domesday Book).

There is also a lot of evidence about the effects of the imposition of the new Norman regime on the country. The Harrying of the North is the best known example of land being laid waste after the Conquest but there are also many other smaller scale examples. Baxter explained that laying waste to the land means the destruction of the property – burning buildings and land, killing livestock, taking away or destroying grain stores. This leaves the people who live off that land with no food, and no way to replace it. In towns this destruction of property was often partly intended to clear land for the new castles and cathedrals that William was building to assert his authority and control his new territory. The entries in the Domesday Book show the reduction caused to property value even a decade or two after the land in question was laid waste.

William the Conqueror probably never saw the completed work – he left England for his lands on the continent with a lot of money raised through taxing the English “as was his custom” (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) in 1086 and never returned (he died in 1087). As I mentioned at the start the Domesday Book was used as a reference in land disputes for many centuries afterwards, even down to relatively modern times. And it was also used in the late Middle Ages by villagers who wanted to prove they had the privileges accorded to a royal manor in 1086. In several cases villagers would club together to buy an excerpt from the Domesday Book which they hoped would demonstrate their status – often they were wrong, but obviously would’ve had to pay anyway.

An interesting programme – I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the Domesday Book since we did a project on it at school in 1986 – it was a country wide thing, generating a new “Domesday Book” 900 years on from the original. I thought it was up online now, but I think that may’ve been transitory which is a shame (although I haven’t searched very hard so I may be wrong).

In Our Time: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a poem by the 19th Century English poet Edward Fitzgerald which is a loose translation of several quatrains attributed to the 11th Century Iranian poet Omar Khayyam. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Charles Melville (University of Cambridge), Daniel Karlin (University of Bristol) and Kirstie Blair (University of Stirling), and they talked about both what is known about the original Persian verses and author as well as Fitzgerald’s version.

The programme started with Melville giving some brief context for Omar Khayyam. He lived in what is now Iran in the 11th Century AD, during the time of the Seljuk Turks. During his lifetime and in the initial period afterwards he was best known as a mathematician and scholar. He wrote an important treatise on geometry and was involved in revising the solar calendar so that it once again matched the seasons of the year. Melville said that this time period in Iran was a transition to a more conservative society and a return to the core values of Islam, and the quatrains attributed to Khayyam are out of step with this attitude. The first mention of Khayyam writing poetry comes 60 or 70 years after his death, as part of a denunciation of him as a heretic by holding up an example of a quatrain he supposedly wrote which contained heretical views. There isn’t actually any hard evidence that Khayyam wrote any of the quatrains associated with his name, but by the 15th Century there are manuscripts of collections of Persian quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam. He may’ve written some of them, Melville explained that making up snippets of poetry was a sort of parlour game in the court circles that Khayyam moved in during his life. All three experts agreed that it was reasonable for Fitzgerald to believe that the manuscript he had contained at least a core of quatrains written by Khayyam and others that had later been attributed to Khayyam.

Edward Fitzgerald was a privileged member of the British upper class who lived in the 19th Century. His mother was one of the wealthiest women in the country, and the family took the Fitzgerald name because of a bequest from one of her relatives. He was educated at a public school in Bury St Edmunds, and went to Cambridge University at a time where he met people such as Tennyson. However he was also self-taught, and most of his knowledge of English literature & poetry came from his own wide reading. He is a sort of counter-example for the increasing professionalisation of writing and publishing during the Victorian period – self-taught, rather eccentric and wealthy enough to just publish his writing without needing to submit it to a publisher etc. Despite all his advantages he did not have a particularly happy life. His childhood wasn’t terribly happy, in particular his mother was rather distant. He didn’t marry young, and when he finally did marry it quickly became clear that it had been a terrible mistake for both parties. At around the same time his closest male friend, Cowell, went to India for two years and Fitzgerald felt abandoned – this was a time period (the 1850s) when there was a reasonable chance that Cowell would die in India. When Cowell left he gave to Fitzgerald a copy of a manuscript of Persian poems, the quatrains of Omar Khayyam, and Fitzgerald flung himself into learning Persian and translating these poems.

The basic format of the original poems is that each is a standalone piece consisting of four lines, or perhaps two lines each of which is split into half. In the original Persian collections they are organised alphabetically based on the the last rhyme of each. One of the experts (Melville?) suggested that in some ways they occupy the same sort of cultural niche as limericks do in British verse (except without the expectation of them being rude, that limericks have). They’re short pieces with a defined format that you might expect people to just make up on the fly. As well as a particular meter they also have two possible rhyming schemes – one is AAAA (ie all four lines end the same way) and the other is AABA. Melville said that this is a traditionally Persian form of poetry, pre-dating the rise of Islam, and although it has this defined format it’s much less rigid and formal in structure than Arabic poetry.

Fitzgerald’s translation of these poems is definitely not a literal translation. To achieve it, first he had to learn Persian and then he translated the poems into medieval Latin. From there, he translated them into English. He also organised the quatrains he picked into a single poem made up of four line stanzas. This follows an overarching narrative of “the day of life” – morning (birth), noon and night (death). Something that’s present in the original and that particularly spoke to Fitzgerald is a sense of nihilism and of needing to take your pleasures in the here & now rather than hoping for better things after death. In his letters, particularly to Cowell, Fitzgerald expressed many scandalously atheist & nihilistic views – Blair reminded us that he’s writing this translation at the time that people are beginning to question the literalness & accuracy of Bible translations, and during the time when the Origin of the Species is being written. It’s probably those elements of the poems that Fitzgerald seized on about a lack of belief in the afterlife and a hedonistic approach to the world that are the same elements that were being cited as indicators of Khayyam’s heresy back in the 12th Century.

During the programme Melville (who works on Persian history) read out some of the original Persian poetry, so we got a feel for the rhythm and rhymes of the original. Karlin and Blair both read parts of Fitzgerald’s verse (they’re English literature academics) and discussed how Fitzgerald made the unusual rhyme scheme (to English ears) work with the poem, for instance in this stanza:

None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake!”

The third line with it’s non-rhyming end is the one talking about being awry and the whole quatrain is about this seeming awryness actually being done on purpose (as it is in the poem). Fitzgerald also wove into the poem a lot of allusions to other great works in the English language – including Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible. And that all gives it a richness and connection for an English reader that a more literal translation might lack.

Initially the poem was not a success – it sold only a single copy in its first year after publication. But this copy found its way to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who liked it, and once people heard of it via them then it became an incredibly influential poem. The experts were saying that a part of its popularity was in the way it embodied a decadent, hedonistic Orientalist view of “the East” that was appealing to the Victorians (I cynically think it’s so they could have their cake & eat it – get the pleasure of the poetry and of the images it conjures up whilst assuring themselves they’re better than that). Interestingly as the poetry became influential in Britain it sparked a revival in Iran – and Omar Khayyam is now more famous as a poet in Iran that ever before. In Britain after the Second World War there has been something of a drop off in popularity of the poem – Blair suggested this is in part because of a reaction by a new generation against something that was so popular in a previous generation. Blair and Karlin both said they don’t teach it at undergraduate level – in part because it’s so difficult to categorise. Is it a piece of 19th Century English poetry? But it’s heavily based on a Persian original. Yet how can you teach it as a work by Omar Khayyam, when it’s not really known whether it was by him and even if it was, Fitzgerald’s translation is so non-literal that you aren’t really looking at the original?

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.