National Myths

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Domesday Economy: A New Approach to Anglo-Norman History by John McDonald and G.D. Snooks
    Oxford, 240 pp, £27.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 19 828524 8
  • Scottish Literacy and the Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland by R.A. Houston
    Cambridge, 352 pp, £27.50, December 1985, ISBN 0 521 26598 3
  • A History of the Highland Clearances. Vol. II: Emigration, Protest, Reasons by Eric Richards
    Croom Helm, 543 pp, £25.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 7099 2259 0

These well-worn lines of Kipling’s encapsulate an enduring feature of the popular English concept of national history – its cosiness. Because of the remarkable quantity and quality of local documentary sources covering more than nine centuries, the historian of England is able to identify with them, and to throw the mantle of Victorian law-abiding domesticity over the past. There is an unspoken agreement, not so much among professional historians as among their public, to minimise serious disagreement, whether arising from political, religious or economic differences, to fail to recognise the fragility of much of the consensus, or the pressures of the state bureaucracy, when these were enabling the country to remain at peace, and to play down the seriousness of the issues when there was internal war. The only civil war to be popularly recognised as important is that between 1642 and 1646, a relatively unbloody outbreak, and much of the general interest in it is absorbed in re-staging its battles in fancy dress: much less attention is paid to the second Civil War, perhaps because the Cavalier share was less marked and the issues nastier. The Medieval periods of internal war are not re-staged, perhaps because of the sheer discomfort of full armour. Yet one of these may well have been caused by reaction to the effective and extractive bureaucracy which created Domesday Book. These unpleasant episodes do not disturb the clack of the little mills of English historiography. Only when we turn to late 19th-century labour issues is there a large enough body of committed opinion among people who know well that their great-grandfathers were workers, and who wish to see the issues of power, class and status through ancestral eyes, and also a popular desire to stress conflict. Even then, the area of conflict is usually narrow: the struggle between the male labour force and employer. The struggles of the lower middle class for financial security, or of working women for expression, are ignored. English history as received is nostalgic, harmonious and extraordinarily insular.

Insularity can very easily be explained as a by-product of the splendid documentation. Why should study be deflected abroad when there is this wealth of material at home? From the 12th century onwards it has been recognised in particular that Domesday Book is a document of remarkable thoroughness and system, a bureaucrat’s treasure. For the last ninety years or so historians have tried to evaluate its information, and to translate its brief but systematic entries into an understanding of economy and society. Early approaches were rather in the nature of lucky dips: for a general picture, methods of handling large amounts of facts and a statistical theory capable of putting them together have been necessary. The mistakes made by the lucky-dip technique of the powerful amateur J.H. Round, in whose lifetime these amenities did not exist, reinforced by the absolute certainty of his style, have biased students of history for several generations against trying to use Domesday Book for economic analysis. McDonald and Snooks have set out to apply modern technology and well-established statistical techniques to decide whether it can be so used. Working on two counties only, and assuming that the practical purpose of the extensive enterprise of its compilation was to make sure that the King would extract all that he could of geld, they show that there was a close relationship in 1086 between the resources of a manor and the values recorded in Domesday, and a similar systematic relationship between the values and the tax assessment. The statistical evidence here is strikingly consistent. In so far as the principle of a close relationship between tax and value was departed from, it was in a slackening-off for the richer manors. The authors assume that the richer manors were those held by the more powerful barons – surely a major research project is still needed to ascertain this? – and that this ‘regressive’ feature was political caution by the King, but it may have been just a manifestation of the Biblical text: ‘to him that hath shall be given.’

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