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Economy of England at the Time of the Norman Conquest

John McDonald, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia

The Domesday Survey of 1086 provides high quality and detailed information on the inputs, outputs and tax assessments of most English estates. This article describes how the data have been used to reconstruct the eleventh-century Domesday economy. By exploiting modern economic theory and statistical methods the reconstruction has led to a radically different assessment of the way in which the Domesday economy and fiscal system were organized. It appears that tax assessments were based on a capacity to pay principle subject to politically expedient concessions and we can discover who received lenient assessments and why. Penetrating questions can be asked about the economy. We can compare the efficiency of Domesday agricultural production with the efficiency of more modern economies, measure the productivity of inputs and assess the impact of feudalism and manorialism on economic activity. The emerging picture of a reasonably well organized economy and fair tax system contrasts with the assessment of earlier historians who saw the Normans as capable military and civil administrators but regarded the economy as haphazardly run and tax assessments as “artificial” or arbitrary. The next section describes the Survey, the contemporary institutional arrangements and the main features of Domesday agricultural production. Some key findings on the Domesday economy and tax system are then briefly discussed.

Domesday England and the Domesday Survey

William the Conqueror invaded England from France in 1066 and carried out the Domesday Survey twenty years later. By 1086, Norman rule had been largely consolidated, although only after rebellion and civil dissent had been harshly put down. The Conquest was achieved by an elite, and, although the Normans brought new institutions and practices, these were superimposed on the existing order. Most of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy were eliminated, the lands of over 4,000 English lords passing to less than 200 Norman barons, with much of the land held by just a handful of magnates.

William ruled vigorously through the Great Council. England was divided into shires, or counties, which were subdivided into hundreds. There was a sophisticated and long established shire administration. The sheriff was the king’s agent in the county, royal orders could be transmitted through the county and hundred courts, and an effective taxation collection system was in place.

England was a feudal state. All land belonged to the king. He appointed tenants-in-chief, both lay and ecclesiastical, who usually held land in return for providing a quota of fully equipped knights. The tenants-in-chief might then grant the land to sub-tenants in return for rents or services, or work the estate themselves through a bailiff. Although the Survey records 112 boroughs, agriculture was the predominant economic activity, with stock rearing of greater importance in the south-west and arable farming more important in the east and midlands. Manorialism was a pervasive influence, although it existed in most parts of England in a modified form. On the manor the peasants worked the lord’s demesne in return for protection, housing, and the use of plots of land to cultivate their own crops. They were tied to the lord and the manor and provided a resident workforce. The demesne was also worked by slaves who were fed and housed by the lord.

The Domesday Survey was commissioned on Christmas day, 1085, and it is generally thought that work on summarizing the Survey was terminated with the death of William in September 1087. The task was facilitated by the availability of Anglo-Saxon hidage (tax) lists. The counties of England were grouped into (probably) seven circuits. Each circuit was visited by a team of commissioners, bishops, lawyers and lay barons who had no material interests in the area. The commissioners were responsible for circulating a list of questions to land holders, for subjecting the responses to a review in the county court by the hundred juries, often consisting of half Englishmen and half Frenchmen, and for supervising the compilation of county and circuit returns. The circuit returns were then sent to the Exchequer in Winchester where they were summarized, edited and compiled into Great Domesday Book.

Unlike modern surveys, individual questionnaire responses were not treated confidentially but became public knowledge, being verified in the courts by landholders with local knowledge. In such circumstances, the opportunities for giving false or misleading evidence were limited.

Domesday Book consists of two volumes, Great (or Exchequer) Domesday and Little Domesday. Little Domesday is a detailed original survey circuit return of circuit VII, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Great Domesday is a summarized version of the other circuit returns sent to the King’s treasury in Winchester. (It is thought that the death of William occurred before Essex and East Anglia could be included in Great Domesday.) The two volumes contain information on the net incomes or outputs (referred to as the annual values), tax assessments and resources of most manors in England in 1086, some information for 1066, and sometimes also for an intermediate year. The information was used to revise tax assessments and document the feudal structure, “who held what, and owed what, to whom.”


The Domesday tax assessments relate to a non-feudal tax, the geld, thought to be levied annually by the end of William’s reign. The tax can be traced back to the danegeld, and, although originally a land tax, by Norman times, it was more broadly based and a significant impost on landholders.

There is an extensive literature on the Norman tax system, much of it influenced by Round (1895), who considered the assessments to be “artificial,” in the sense that they were imposed from above via the county and hundred with little or no consideration of the capacity of an individual estate to pay the tax. Round largely based his argument on an unsystematic and subjective review of the distribution of the assessments across estates, vills and the hundreds of counties.

In (1985a) and (1986, Ch. 4), Graeme Snooks and I argued that, contrary to Round’s hypothesis, the tax assessments were based on a capacity to pay principle, subject to some politically expedient tax concessions. Similar tax systems operate in most modern societies and reflect an attempt to collect revenue in a politically acceptable way. We found empirical support for the hypothesis, using statistical methods. We showed, for example, that for Essex lay estates about 65 percent of variation in the tax assessments could be attributed to variations in manorial net incomes or manorial resources, two alternative ways of measuring capacity to pay. Similar results were obtained for other counties. Capacity to pay explains from 64 to 89 percent of variation in individual estate assessment data for the counties of Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Wiltshire, and from 72 to 81 percent for aggregate data for 29 counties (see McDonald and Snooks, 1987a). The estimated tax relationships capture the main features of the tax system.

Capacity to pay explains most variation in tax assessments, but some variation remains. Who and which estates were treated favorably? And what factors were associated with lenient taxation? These issues were investigated in McDonald (1998) where frontier methods were used to derive a measure of how favorable the tax assessments were for each Essex lay estate. (The frontier methods, also known as “data envelopment analysis,” use the tax and income observations to trace out an outer bound, or frontier, for the tax relationship.) Estates, tenants-in-chief and local areas (hundreds) of the county with lenient assessments were identified, and statistical methods used to discover factors associated with favorable assessments. Some significant factors were the tenant-in-chief holding the estate (assessments tended to be less beneficial for the tenants-in-chief holding a large number of estates in Essex), the hundred location (some hundreds receiving more favorable treatment than others), proximity to an urban center (estates remote from the urban centers being more favorably treated), economic size of the estate (larger estates being less favorably treated) and tenure (estates held as sub-tenancies having more lenient assessments). The results suggest a similarity with more modern tax systems, with some groups and activities receiving minor concessions and the administrative process inducing some unevenness in the assessments. Although many details of the tax system have been lost in the mists of time, careful analysis of the Survey data has enabled us to rediscover its main features.


Since Victorian times historians have used Domesday Book to study the political, institutional and social structures and the geography of Domesday England. However, the early scholars tended to draw away from economic issues. They were unable to perceive that systematic economic relationships were present in the Domesday economy, and, in contrast to their view that the Normans displayed considerable ability in civil administration and military matters, economic production was regarded as poorly organized (see McDonald and Snooks, 1985a, 1985b and 1986, especially Ch 3). One explanation why the Domesday scholars were unable to discover consistent relationships in the economy lies in the empirical method they adopted. Rather than examining the data as a whole using statistical techniques, conclusions were drawn by generalizing from a few (often atypical) cases. It is not surprising that no consistent pattern was evident when data were restricted to a few unusual observations. It would also appear that the researchers often did not have a firm grasp of economic theory (for example, seemingly being perplexed that the same annual value, that is, net output, could be generated by estates with different input mixes, see McDonald and Snooks, 1986, Ch. 3).

In McDonald and Snooks (1986), using modern economic and statistical methods, Graeme Snooks and I reanalyzed manorial production relationships. The study shows that strong relationships existed linking estate net output to inputs. We estimated manorial production functions which indicate many interesting characteristics of Domesday production: returns to scale were close to constant, oxen plough teams and meadowland were prized inputs in production but horses contributed little, and villans, bordars and slaves (the less free workers) contributed far more than freemen and sokemen ( the more free) to the estate’s net output. The evidence suggested that in many ways Domesday landholders operated in a manner similar to modern entrepreneurs. Unresolved by this research was the question of how similar was the pattern of medieval and modern economic activity. In particular, how well organized was estate production?

Clearly, in an absolute sense Domesday estate production was inefficient. With modern technology, using, for example, motorized tractors, output could have been increased many-fold. A more interesting question is: Given the contemporary technology and institutions, how efficient was production?

In McDonald (1998) frontier methods were used to measure best practice, given the economic environment. We then measured how far, on average, estate production was below the best practice frontier. Providing some estates were effectively organized, so that best practice was good practice, this will be a useful measure. If many estates were run haphazardly and ineffectively, average efficiency will be low and efficiency dispersion measures large. Comparisons with average efficiency levels in similar production situations will give an indication of whether Domesday average efficiency was unusually low.

A large number of efficiency studies have been reported in the literature. Three case studies with characteristics similar to Domesday production are Hall’s (1975) study of agriculture after the Civil War in the American South, Hall and LeVeen’s (1978) analysis of small Californian farms and Byrnes, Färe, Grosskopf and Lovell’s (1988) study of American surface coalmines. For all three studies the individual establishment is the production unit, the economic activity is unsophisticated primary production and similar frontier methods are used to measure efficiency.

The comparison studies suggest that efficiency levels varied less across Domesday estates than they did among postbellum Southern farms and small Californian farms in the 1970s (and were very similar for Domesday estates and US surface coalmines). Certainly, the average Domesday estate efficiency level does not appear to be unusually low when compared with average efficiency levels in similar production situations.

In McDonald (1998) estate efficiency measures are also used to examine details of production on individual estates and statistical methods employed to find factors associated with efficiency. Some of these include the estate’s tenant-in-chief (some tenants-in-chief displayed more entrepreneurial flair than others), the size of the estate (larger estates, using inputs in different proportions to smaller estates, tended to be more efficient) and the kind of agriculture undertaken (estates specialized in grazing were more efficient).

Largely through the influences of feudalism and manorialism, Domesday agriculture suffered from poorly developed factor markets and considerable immobility of inputs. Although there were exceptions to the rule, as a first approximation, manorial production can be characterized in terms of estates worked by a residential labor force using the resources, which were available on the estate.

Input productivity depends on the mix of inputs used in production, and with estates endowed with widely different resource mixes, one might expect that input productivities would vary greatly across estates. The frontier analysis generates input productivity measures (shadow prices), and these confirm this expectation — indeed on many estates some inputs made very little contribution to production. The frontier analysis also allows us to estimate the economic cost of input rigidity induced by the feudal and manorial arrangements. The calculation indicates that if inputs had been mobile among estates an increase in total net output of 40.1 percent would have been possible. This potential loss in output is considerable. The frontier analysis indicates the loss in total net output resulting from estates not being fully efficient was 51.0 percent. The loss in output due to input rigidities is smaller, but of a similar order of magnitude.

Domesday Book is indeed a rich data source. It is remarkable that so much can be discovered about the English economy almost one thousand years ago.

Further reading

Background information on Domesday England is contained in McDonald and Snooks (1986, Ch. 1 and 2; 1985a, 1985b, 1987a and 1987b) and McDonald (1998). For more comprehensive accounts of the history of the period see Brown (1984), Clanchy (1983), Loyn (1962), (1965), (1983), Stenton (1943), and Stenton (1951). Other useful references include Ballard (1906), Darby (1952), (1977), Galbraith (1961), Hollister (1965), Lennard (1959), Maitland (1897), Miller and Hatcher (1978), Postan (1966), (1972), Round (1895), (1903), the articles in Williams (1987) and references cited in McDonald and Snooks (1986). The Survey is discussed in McDonald and Snooks (1986, sec. 2.2), the references cited there, and the articles in Williams (1987). The Domesday and modern surveys are compared in McDonald and Snooks (1985c).
The reconstruction of the Domesday economy is described in McDonald and Snooks (1986). Part 1 contains information on the basic tax and production relationships and Part 2 describes the methods used to estimate the relationships. The tax and production frontier analysis and efficiency comparisons are described in McDonald (1998). The book also explains the frontier methodology. A series of articles describe features of the research to different audiences: McDonald and Snooks (1985a, 1985b, 1987a, 1987b), economic historians; McDonald (2000), economists; McDonald (1997), management scientists; McDonald (2002), accounting historians (who recognize that Domesday Book possesses many attributes of an accounting record); and McDonald and Snooks (1985c), statisticians. Others who have made important contributions to our understanding of the Domesday economy include Miller and Hatcher (1978), Harvey (1983) and the contributors to the volumes edited by Aston (1987), Holt (1987), Hallam (1988) and Britnell and Campbell (1995).


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Citation: McDonald, John. “Economy of England at the Time of the Norman Conquest”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. September 9, 2004. URL