Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Domesday Book as structured data

Happened across this rather nice searchable version of the Domesday book from the University of Hull.

It's nice on two counts, firstly the presentation and look of the site and secondly through the way that the site developers have taken the text of the Domesday book, marked it up and created a searchable resource.

This of course only works because the Domesday book is an implicitly structured document - when the clerks went out they always asked the same questions and wrote the same things down, so that each entry had more or less the same format and organisation, making it then possible for someone 900 years later to take the information and turn it into a database.

Being able to turn pre Information Technology era records into structured data is not unique to the Domesday book, there are plenty of other potential sources from Mughal landholding ad tax records in India, through the New Statistical Account of Scotland to Poorhouse Famine and Parish records in Ireland, which are equally useful and could be used to tell a story as data.

Telling stories as data can be very powerful. The Domesday book for example records the rentable value of a parish in 1066 and in 1086. If one looks at the entry for Fangfoss you can see that the value has dropped massively - the same being true of just about every else around.

One could guess that this could be a reflection of the continuing impact of the Harrying of the North some sixteen years earlier. Certainly if one has a not very scientific look at parishes around Reading - for example Rotherfield Peppard one sees that the values of rents are the same or perhaps a little more.
With this data it would be quite a simple task to take the 1086 to 1066 rent data and plot it on a map to show how widespread this effect is - for example we would expect there to be less of an impact in areas such as Cheshire and Shropshire where the Harrying was less intense, and consequently a more normal ratio for the rent figures than the extreme case of Fangfoss ...

1 comment:

tenthmedieval said...

"With this data it would be quite a simple task to take the 1086 to 1066 rent data and plot it on a map to show how widespread this effect is - for example we would expect there to be less of an impact in areas such as Cheshire and Shropshire where the Harrying was less intense, and consequently a more normal ratio for the rent figures than the extreme case of Fangfoss..."

The computerisation of this certainly makes it easier, but that work was in fact done in the 1970s, and presented in a book called The Norman Conquest of the North by William Kapelle. He plotted two long swathes of wasted and value-lowered parishes up through the Midlands and down through Yorkshire, and while those aren't the only suffering areas the contiguity of it made a link with the Harrying pretty inarguable there. This may, alas, be one of those cases where digitisation is an expensive way to check what we already knew. But there are a wealth of further possibilities, for sure!