How do you feel when you answer the phone and someone asks you to take part in a survey? Do you decline as politely as possible, or do you just hang up? Or, like a friend of ours, do you say, “Hold on a minute, I’ll get my wife,” and then leave them dangling for half an hour?
In England, back in the Middle Ages, one particular survey was not quite so easy to evade. The Domesday Book was named by the people of Britain, because they felt it resembled the Biblical Day of Judgement. Beleaguered by endless interrogation, obliged by law to answer every question fully and truthfully, and painfully aware of what they stood to lose, they had good reason to believe that their world had come to an end.
One of my favourite books is Michael Wood’s ‘Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England’. He gives an overview of the country before the coming of the Normans, and he uses the Domesday Book as well as other historical sources to give a detailed and personal view of people’s lives both before and after the great survey took place. Life was hard even before the Normans arrived – famine, disease and poverty were facts of life for rural communities – but it was about to get harder still.
How much do you know about medieval England at the time of Domesday? Do you think your ancestors might have participated in the great-grandfather of all questionnaires?