These days, it’s harder than ever to be invisible, anonymous. Using modern technology, it’s easy to spy on people for any number of reasons. And although we think that our government tracking us is a modern problem, the roots go back much much farther than cell phones and drones.

Over 900 years ago, in 1086, there was the Domesday Book. Commissioned by William I of England (also known as William the Conqueror), the Domesday Book was a one-time only medieval census that covered most of England and parts of Wales. It was a list of the land, animals, buildings, and people that existed at that one point in time. And it listed the people (almost all men, of course) who owned the land, animals, buildings and people.

Bust of William the Conqueror, Musée de l'abbaye de Jumièges. Photo: Philippe Alès via Wikimedia Commons

Bust of William the Conqueror, Musée de l’abbaye de Jumièges. Photo: Philippe Alès via Wikimedia Commons

Completing this massive project at a time when it was impossible to travel more than 25-30 miles per day was an incredible administrative achievement. Compiling and writing all the data that had been gathered, without the use of a computer? The first draft that was completed in 1086 included the records of 13,418 settlements.

So what was the point of all the work? Well, historians have been debating that question for years. The most obvious guess, knowing governments, is that William I wanted to know the value of the land and resources available so that he could properly tax the landholders. He also wanted to know the human resources he had available to build an army. After all, this was a time of almost constant war, so they needed an army and the tax revenue to fund that army. This theory makes even more sense because we know that Winchester and London were not included in the survey, and both were tax exempt zones. No need to count them if you can’t tax them.

I actually like another of the theories I read, but I’ll need to make sure you have a little background information. You see, William wasn’t English. He was actually the Duke of Normandy, which is a region in France. Along with several other people, he believed the English crown should be his upon the death of the childless English king, Edward the Confessor.

William became king of England after defeating his rival, the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. As the victor, William redistributed the land and resources, giving most of the land to his supporters, displacing the original landholders.

The theory I liked was that at the time of the Domesday Book, twenty years after he became king, William was concerned that his supporters may have become too settled and complacent with their new lands. It’s possible he wanted to track who owned what in case he needed to punish any rebellion from his own people.

Scan of the Yorkshire section of the Domesday Book. Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

Yeah, I can’t read it either. Scan of the Yorkshire section of the Domesday Book. Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, it doesn’t really matter why William wanted this information. The generations that came after William understood the value of the collection. They protected it for 900 years, moving it to safety during various wars, which is why we still have it today.

All that data collected centuries ago is an amazing primary resource and a boon to historians. Written in Latin, there are issues with translation, errors, and of course, interpretation of the raw data. But it’s still used today to study the culture, economy, geography and demography of the eleventh century. Archaeologists use it to decide where to look for settlements that no longer exist. And lawyers still used it in the twentieth century to settle land disputes.

So, what do you think? Are you okay with being primary source material for future historians?