Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

How the Doomsday Book Was Made

[About 1086]

ABOUT twelve years after the battle where Harold had died, the Norman leader had, we heard, taken it into his head to poll us like cattle, to find the sum and total of our feus and lands, our serfs and orchards, and even of our very selves! Now, few of us Saxons but felt this was a certain scheme to tax and oppressus even more severely than the people had been oppressed in the time of St. Dunstan. Besides this, our free spirits rose in scorn of being counted and weighed and mulcted by plebeian emissaries of the usurper, so we murmured loud and long.

And those thanes who complained the bitterest were hanged by the derisive Normans on their own kitchen beams—on the very same hooks where they cured their mighty sides of pork—while those who complied but falsely with the assessor's commands were robbed of wife and heritage, children and lands, and shackled with the brass collar of serfdom, or turned out to beg their living on the wayside and sue the charity of their own dependants. Whether we would thus be hanged or outcast, or whether we would humble us to this hateful need, writing ourselves and our serfs down in the great "Doom's Day" book, all had to choose.

For my own part, after much debating, and for the sake of those who looked to me, I had determined to do what was required—and then, if it might be, to bring all the Saxon gentlemen together—to raise these English shires upon the Normans, and with fire and sword revoke our abominable indenture of thralldom. But, alas! my hasty temper and my inability to stomach an affront in any guise undid my good resolutions.

Well, this mighty book was being compiled far and wide, we heard, in every shire: there were some men of good standing base enough to countenance it, and, taking the name of the King's justiciaries, they got together shorn monks—shaveling rascals who did the writing and computing—with reeves hungry for their masters' woodlands, and many other lean forsworn villains. This jury of miscreants went round from hall to hall, from manor to manor, with their scrips and pens and parchment, until all the land was being gathered into the avaricious Norman's tax roll.

They cast their greedy eyes at last on sunny, sleepy Voewood, though, indeed, I had implored every deity, old or new, I could recall that they might overlook it; and one day their hireling train of two score pikemen came ambling down the glades with a fat Abbot—a Norman rascal—at their head, and pulled up at our doorway.

"Hullo!" says the monk. "Whose house is this?"

"Mine," I said gruffly, with a secret fancy that there would be some heads broken before the census was completed.

"And who are you?"

"The Master of Voewood."

"What else?"

"Nothing else!"

"Well, you are not over-civil, anyhow, my Saxon churl," said the man of scrolls and goose-quills.

"Frankly," I answered, "Sir Monk, the smaller civility you look for from me to-day the less likely you are to be disappointed. Out with that infernal catechism of yours, and have done, and move your black shado'ws from my porch."

At this the clerk shrugged his shoulders—no doubt he did not look to be a very welcome guest—and coughed and spit, and then unfurled in our free sunshine a great roll of questions, and forthwith proceeded to expound them in bastard Latin, smacking of mouldy cathedral cells and cloister pedantry.

"Now, mark me, Sir Voewood, and afterward answer truly in everything. Here, first, I will read you the declaration of your neighbor, the worthy thane Sewin, in order that you may see how the matter should go, and then afterward I will question you yourself," and, taking a parchment from a junior, he began: "Here is what Sewin told us: Rex tenet in Dominio Sohurst; de firma Regis Edwardi fuit. Tune se defendebat pro 17 Hidis; nihil geldaverunt. Terra est 16 Carucatce; in Dominio sunt 2æ Carucatce, et 24 Villani, et no Bordarij cum 20 Camels. Ibi Ecclesia quam Willelmus tenet de Rege cum dimidia Hida in Elemosina. Silva 40 Porcorum et ipsa est in parco Regis—"

But hardly had my friend got so far as this in displaying the domesticity of Sewin the thane, when there broke a loud uproar from the rear of Voewood, and the tripping Latin came to a sudden halt as there emerged in sight a rabble of Saxon peasants and Norman prickers freely exchanging buffets. In the midst of them was our bailiff, a very stalwart fellow, hauling along and beating as he came a luckless soldier in the foreign garb just then so detestable to our eyes.

"Why," I said, "what may all this be about? What has the fellow done, Sven, that your Saxon cudgel makes such friends with his Norman cape?"

"What? Why, the graceless yonker, not content with bursting open the buttery door and setting all these scullion men-at-arms drinking my lady's ale and rioting among her stores, must needs harry the maidens, scaring them out of their wits, and putting the whole place in an uproar! As I am an honest man, there has been more good ale spilled this half-hour, more pottery broken, more linen torn, more roasts upset, more maids set screaming, than since the Danes last came round this way and pillaged us from roof to cellar!"

"Why, you fat Saxon porker!" cried the leader of the troops, pushing to the front; "what are you good for but for pillage? Drunken serf! And were it not for the politic heart of yonder king, I and mine would make you and yours sigh again for your Danish ravishers, looking back from our mastery to their red fury with sickly longing! Out on you! Unhand the youth, or by St. Bridget, there will be a fat carcass for your crows to peck at!" and he put his hand upon his dagger.

Thereon I stepped between them, and, touching my jeweled belt, said: "Fair sir, I think the youth has had no less than his deserts, and as for the Voewood crows they like Norman carrion even better than Saxon flesh."

The soldier frowned, as well he might, at my retort, but before we could draw, as assuredly we would have done, the monk pushed in between us, and the athelings of the commission, who had orders to carry out their work with peace and dispatch as long as that were possible, quieted their unruly rabble, and presently a muttering, surly order was restored between the glowering crowds.

"Now," said the scribe propitiatingly, anxious to get through with his task, "you have heard how amiably Sewin answered. Of you I will ask a question or two in Saxon, since, likely enough, you do not know the blessed Latin." (By the soul of Hengist, though, I knew it before the stones of that confessor's ancient monastery were hewn from their native rock!) "Answer truly, and all shall be well with you. First, then, how much land hast thou?"

But I could not stand it. My spleen was roused against these braggart bullies, and, throwing discretion to the wind, I burst out, "Just so much as serves to keep me and mine in summer and winter!"

"And how many ploughs?"

"So many as need to till our cornlands."

"Rude boar!" said the monk, backing off into the group of his friends, and frowning from that vantage in his turn. "How many serfs acknowledge your surly leadership?"

"Just so many," I said, boiling over, "as can work the ploughs and reap the corn, and keep the land from greedy foreign clutches! There, put up your scroll and begone. I will not answer you! I will not say how many pigeons there are in our dovecotes—how many fowls roost upon their perches—how many earthen pots we have, or how many maids to scrub them! Get you back to the Conqueror: tell him I deride and laugh at him for the second time. Say I have lived a longish life, and never yet saw the light of that day when I profited by humility. Say I, the swart stranger who stabbed his ruffian courtier and galloped away with the white maid, Editha of Voewood—I, who plucked that flower from the very saddle-bow of his favorite, and thundered derisive through his first camp there on the eastern downs—say, even I will find a way to keep and wear her, in scorn of all that he can do! Out with you —begone!"

And they went, for I was clearly in no mood to be dallied with, while behind me the serfs and vassals were now mustering strongly, an angry array armed with such weapons as they could snatch up in their haste, and wanting but a word or look to fall upon the little band of assessors and slay them as they stood. Thus we won that hour—and many a long day had we to regret the victory.

by Edwin Lester Arnold

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