Domesday Law

Historian Fleming finds roots of English Common Law in the medieval Domesday Book

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

In her recently published book Domesday Book and the Law: Society and Legal Custom in Early Medieval England , Prof. Robin Fleming (History) offers legal and historical scholars a new avenue to trace the development of English Common Law from a perspective three generations earlier than other legal sources.

The subject of her work, William the Conqueror's survey Domesday Book , is a hefty accounting of about 40,000 manors in England in 1086, some 20 years after the Norman invasion of England. "Half of the land in England changed hands after the Norman invasion," Fleming said, "and William held a kingdom-wide inquest to determine just what people had."

The results were written up as the final authoritative record of property ownership at the time, hence the name "Domesday" - "Doomsday" in modern English, meaning "day of final judgment."

While there are no law codes or books by lawyers dating from the 12th century in England, Fleming said, she found "huge amounts of legal information in Domesday Book. " No one had considered it as a legal text before, she said.

Fleming said the original document contains over 3,000 short legal narratives and is "the most monumental legal text to survive in Europe before the later 12th century." The book also contains large amounts of inquest testimony and sworn statements, giving view to the customary law of the day and how it was beginning to develop into the 13th century's well-known Common Law.

Prof. Robin Fleming (History) with the Burns Library's Domesday Book facsimile. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Fleming offered an example of this type of legal narrative: "If a Welshman killed a Welshman, the kinsmen of the slain man gather and rob the killer and his kinsmen and burn their houses until the body of the dead man is buried on the morrow around mid-day. Of this plunder, the King [receives] a third, and the kinsmen have the other two-thirds."

Fleming also included a detailed index for Domesday Book in her publication, a feature that will enable students and researchers to identify and develop specific topics, such as "Women in the Law" or "Royal Officials Who Broke the Law" in that historical period.

"One of the reasons scholars have not appreciated the fact that there was so much legal information in Domesday is because the survey contains massive amounts of evidence for other things - the numbers of pigs in England in 1086, the numbers of slaves, every lord's tax assessment and so forth," she said. "An index of the text's legal terminology and legal action is critical for making Domesday's legal evidence accessible."

Fleming, who began her research for her book in 1993, examined the original Domesday Book at the Public Record Office in London. She noted that a facsimile of Domesday Book has been purchased by the University's Burns Library and is available to medieval and legal researchers in the facility's reading room.

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