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The Domesday Book

The Domesday Book... The envy of every taxing authority since 1086. The ultimate rate book. The key to successful government by Norman kings. The mother lode upon which the Department of the Exchequer became the first organized department of English government. The precursor to your local property tax. The origin of your tax assessor’s favorite expression, “We’ll take it out of your hide” — hide being a measure of land in old English law. For this we have the Danes to blame. In order to raise tribute to buy peace with the Danes, who had the nerve to invade early medieval England from time to time, the Saxon King Ethelred the Unready (979-1014) instituted the tax of Danegeld, which was a tax imposed on every hide within the realm. When tribute ceased to satisfy the marauding Vikings, the Danegeld was used to raise British naval forces to defend the coastline. In time, the Danegeld surpassed the Danes in its unwelcome effect on home and hearth.

The Domesday Book offers an unparalleled look at the legal, social and economic fabric of English society in the late 11th century. Historian Robin Fleming called the Domesday Book “the most comprehensive, varied and monumental legal text to survive from England before the rise of the Common Law.” Noted historian Thomas Hinde said of the text, “Alongside the Bible and the Koran, Domesday is probably one of the three best-known titles of the Western World.” The first printing from the original manuscript was begun in 1773 and completed 10 years later. A second printing occurred in the middle of the 19th century. Finally, almost 900 years after the Domesday survey was completed, the Public Record Office undertook a conservation and rebinding project that included production of a facsimile of the unbound sheets using modern color technology. Due to the fragile surface of the plates, the print run was restricted to 2,000 complete sets, of which only 1,000 sets were available for purchase outside Great Britain. Willamette’s J.W. Long Law Library is fortunate to have one such set in its rare books collection.

Sad to say, the Danes and the Danegeld weren’t the only threats to Anglo-Saxon peace and prosperity. Hastings, 1066. Goodbye to the Saxon King Harold and bonjour to the Norman invader William the Conqueror. The time was ripe for that universal threat: tax reform. Updates to property ownership and assessment values began in 1081 and were completed in 1086. The all-comprehensive property survey of the realm was recorded in the Domesday Book, consisting of two volumes, later described as the Great Domesday Book (covering 32 counties) and the Little Domesday Book (covering three counties). Why the name Domesday? No one is quite sure. Dome referred to judgment and Domes-Days referred to law days. In all likelihood the property inquiries of landowners occurred on Domes-Days, hence the survey became known as the Domesday survey. For certain, everyone was doomed to pay the Danegeld long after the pesky Danes ceased their annoying raids.

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Willamette Lawyer | Spring 2006 • Vol. VI, No. 1  
Willamette Lawyer | Spring 2006 • Vol. VI, No. 1  

Raising the Bar - The Professionalism Program at WUCL: Since 1996, outstanding members of Oregon’s bench and bar have gathered at the Colleg...