Sources for the study of deserted medieval settlements – Domesday Book

One of the first times many settlements are recorded is in 1086 and the Domesday Book. But it is not that simple….. The Domesday Book can be difficult to interpret and does not directly record villages but manors – areas of landholdings that may, or may not contain a nucleated settlement, or several dispersed (and not separately recorded) settlements. A number of manorial names also cannot be traced down to the modern day – are these deserted settlements that where depopulated so early (not long after Domesday) that they fail to be recorded in the later records, or has such a dramatic change in name occurred with no account of the change? This blog looks at the evidence from the Domesday Book that has been used by the Beresford’s Lost Villages website, examines some of the challenges this presents and gives some examples of the complexity of this record.

There are several different transcriptions of the Domesday Book. The one that has been used by the website is that published by Philimore. This is available as printed-copy but it has also been digitised by the Domesday Book Project (see The computer files and data from the project are available for download from the University of Hull data repository.

The Domesday Book was compiled on the order of William I in 1086. The data in the Domesday Book are recorded by landowner, then manor. As the basic unit of measurement, the manor was never defined in the Domesday record. It does not directly equate to a settlement, but more to a unit of land, however it is usually linked to the vill (village) in which it was located. The result is that each vill may constitute part of several different manors, and therefore have more than one record in Domesday. These separate manors within the same vill may also have a number of different landowners. Land in outlying areas may also be included under the name of the manor to which it is attached. This can mean that land and people may be recorded as located in one particular area but might actually be located at a distance. Land under one entry within Domesday may also record several vill names.

Here is a typical example of a Domesday entry for the deserted settlement of Lasborough in Gloucestershire.

‘Hugh also holds Lasborough from the Bishop himself. Leofwin held it. 5 hides, In lordship 1 plough; 5 villagers and a priest with 2 ploughs. 7 slaves. The value was £10; now 50s.’ (Moore 1982: 30,2)

Domesday Book Gloucestershire entry for Lasborough
Domesday Book Gloucestershire entry for Lasborough

The main unit of measurement used in the Domesday Book as a whole was the hide. The Saxon hide was a theoretical unit of land required to support a family farmstead, but by the Late Saxon period, it had become a unit of taxation and hence was a fiscal unit rather than signifying a specific area of land. So at Lasborough above the taxation value was 5 hides. In the old area of Danelaw (much of northern England ) the measurements are given in carucates, the Danelaw equivalent to the hide.

A number of different aspects of the landholding were recorded in the survey. These include the number of ploughlands and a formula referred to as ‘land for x ploughs’. The number of ploughs that are recorded is thought to signify the amount of agriculture being practiced at the time of the survey. The ‘land for x ploughs’ provides us with a figure of the agricultural potential of the manor, although the actual amount of land that was farmed may be different as is signified by the differences in the ‘land for x ploughs’ and the number of ploughs recorded in each manor. The meaning of the ‘land for x ploughs’ value has been much debated (Harvey 1985, 1987, Higham 1990).

The to-be deserted settlement at Brackenborough in Lincolnshire shows the complexity of the Domesday record. There are two entries for Brackenborough, both in the lands of Alfred of Lincoln. The first entry reads:

‘In Brackenborough 1 bovate of land taxable. land for 2 oxen. Ranulf, Alfred’s man has 1 plough. 4 villagers with 1/2 plough. A jurisdiction of Alvingham. Meadow, 10 acres’ (Morgan and Thorn 1986: 27,23)

The second entry follows straight after:

‘In this village Eadric and Hoc had 6 bovates of land taxable. Land for 14 oxen. Ranulf, Alfred’s man, has 1 villager and 10 freemen with 2 ploughs. 4 parts of a mill, 2s; meadow, 18 acres. Value before 1066, 16s; now 40s’ (Morgan and Thorn 1986: 27,24)

As Brackenborough is in Lincolnshire, here we have recording in the Danelaw equivalents – and in this case bovates – a sub-division of carucates – there were 8 bovates to a carucate. The first entry is an area of land at Brackenborough but belonging to the manor of Alvingham. The second entry is for the manor of Brackenborough. So altogether at Brackenborough there are 7 bovates of taxable land recorded. The ‘land for x ploughs’ in both these cases is also a smaller division – one plough was equivalent to 8 oxen so in the first entry there in essence is land for 1/4 plough and in the second entry land for 1 3/4 ploughs – so in total land for two ploughs. However it is clear that in the first entry there are more ploughs than land for ploughs as 1 1/2 are recorded. In total the land had the potential (land for x ploughs) of 2 ploughs but there were actually 3 1/2 ploughs in action.

Brackenborough Deserted Medieval Village, Lincolnshire. Copyright Google Earth.
Brackenborough Deserted Medieval Village, Lincolnshire. Copyright Google Earth.

As can be seen from the examples above other resources recorded at Domesday include population. The population of each manor is recorded as numbers of different classes of population which do vary in terminology and meaning in different regions. In the Phillimore translations villagers are equivalent to villeins, freemen are equivalent to sokemen and smallholders to bordars in other translations. Other forms of population recorded include burgesses, cottagers, slaves and priests. A villager was a member of the vill with certain burdens and responsibilities. A freeman was free from many of the burdens that rested on a villager. A smallholder had less status and land than a villager.  Also recorded in Domesday are resources such as mills, meadow, wood, woodland pasture, underwood, marsh, saltpans, livestock, fisheries etc. Again they may not be whole items. So at Brackenborough above there was ‘4 parts of a mill’ – how much this equates to is not known, if the mill was at Brackenborough or is a share of a mill elsewhere is not clear.

There has been much debate over the nature of the record presented by Domesday. For instance, the record can hide or omit settlement and population; it has been noted that the number of actual tenants in 1086 may in fact be 50% more than those recorded if a similar number of sub and joint tenancies were present in the late eleventh century as are recorded for the thirteenth (Postan 1972). Nevertheless, Domesday provides a region-wide record taken at a specific point in time which can be used to assess the extent, if not the true nature, of settlement in the eleventh century.

Lost Villages Database contents

Two items are recorded on the Beresford’s Lost Villages website: a reference to the entries in the Domesday Book Phillimore editions, and the minimum number of individuals that are recorded as belonging to that manor. The data for these sections were derived from the Domesday Explorer Project which was based at the University of Hull.

The Phillimore county editions number each of the entries in the record with a coding system. Each county edition is divided into the respective landowners, with the first (usually the King) given the number 1, and the second landowner, 2 etc. For each entry under a particular landowner, the entries are given separate numbers. So entry 2,5 would be landowner 2 and entry 5. This form of notation has been used by the website so people can be directed straight to the entry or entries about a particular manor. These details can be found in the printed versions or via the web link to the databases at the University of Hull. The Phillimore entry is prefixed with a county code to identify which county record should be used. Some settlements have since changed counties so do not appear in the pre-1974 county in which they are now placed. On a number of occasions land outside one county will be recorded in a different county.

A total minimum population figure for a manor was calculated based on the number of villagers, freemen, smallholders, cottagers, slaves, burgesses and priests. The total for each settlement has been calculated from the individual manors with the same place-name recorded under different landowners in the Domesday Book – hopefully giving an indication of a minimum population for a manor – and hopefully an indication of a size of a settlement – if this was a nucleated village at the centre of the manor – but remember that the record may not be directly recording a single nucleated settlement.

For each site that has a Domesday record a direct link is provided on the website to the Open Domesday website that provides a summary of the information, location map and a picture of the original Domesday entry.

Further Information

There are a number of online resources that may be of help to people looking at the Domesday Book:

Domesday Explorer Project –

Open Domesday –

Hull University Repository –



Harvey, S.P.J. 1985. Taxation and the ploughland in Domesday Book, in P. Sawyer (ed.) Domesday Book. a reassessment: 86-103. London: Edward Arnold.

Harvey, S.P.J. 1987. Taxation and the economy, in J.C. Holt (ed.) Domesday Studies: 249-64. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Higham, N.J. 1990. Settlement, land use and Domesday ploughlands. Landscape History 12: 33-44.

Moore, J.S. 1982. Domesday Book Gloucestershire. Chichester: Phillimore.

Morgan, P. & C. Thorn 1986. Domesday Book Lincolnshire. Chichester: Phillimore.

Postan, M.M. 1972. The Medieval Economy and Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin.