TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 May 2012
This is a comparative review between the original 1986 edition, titled `Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England', and the 2005 `The Domesday Quest: In Search of the Roots of England'. In short, I would recommend anyone wanting to read this book to buy a copy of the original, and I explain why at the end. In the meantime, I comment on some of the book's contents.
In his revised 2005 preface, Wood informs us that the book was originally written for the nine-hundredth anniversary of Domesday, but, in a newly-devolved union, "now that almost two decades have passed ... it is plain that England and Great Britain have gone through more dramatic and far-reaching changes than could ever have been foreseen in the mid eighties." But this preface is virtually the only substantially-modified part of the new edition, and even here, using the word `substantial' is an overstatement.
In his introduction Wood states that, "The argument of this book is that some of the fundamental traits in English culture - for instance, marriage, property and inheritance customs, and what has been termed `English individualism' - are rooted earlier than Domesday." He argues that Domesday Book can assist in presenting "a view, inevitably selective, of the thousand-year period from the late Roman world ... to the fourteenth century ... a series of close-ups of certain landscapes, certain places and characteristic medieval societies." And this is what he then proceeds to do.
His known admiration for the Anglo-Saxon state is made manifest in part one's third and fourth sentences: "The Normans were relative newcomers to the European scene, descendants from pagan Viking adventurers who had settled in the Seine valley in 911. The Anglo-Saxons on the other hand had created one of the great civilisations in the Dark Age `barbarian' West." (You can sense the implied `mere' that Wood would like to have placed as the fourth word of the first of these sentences.)
The argument over the original cause for Domesday to be compiled will always rage. Wood sees the book being "born, not out of a dispassionate enquiry into the land of England, but out of military necessity. The king's greed was proverbial ..." and he was threatened at this time with the threat of a strong invasion from Denmark. After all, Wood points out as evidence for his view, the last question asked by the Domesday commissioners was whether there is potential for more revenue to be had from each manor.
The book is divided into three parts: 1. The Saxon and Celtic Past; 2. The State before Domesday; and 3. Domesday and After. Part one of this book's mission is to gauge "How much ... was society changed by these [Saxon, Viking, Norman] cataclysms, and how much persisted quietly and unrecorded from earlier periods? How much is the society and structure depicted in Domesday the product of Normans, Vikings, Saxons, Romans, Celts, Iron or Bronze Age people?" It's a tall order, and one that he could not hope to adequately fulfil.
After exploring examples from Berkshire, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, and Wiltshire, he concludes part one with the view that, "the social structures of the late Roman world need not have been destroyed by the English - indeed it is most unlikely that they were. What emerges in c.AD600 in southern Britain is a Germanic culture which has taken over a native culture, adapted its forms of lordship and servitude to suit its own, and lived side by side with its people for long enough to blur its racial identity."
Part two - the heart of the book - sees how the Viking invasions transformed Anglo-Saxon society, re-organising it in detail: crucially, this required close administrative oversight; more control and more taxation; the creation of the shire, hundred, and manor systems; mintings and recoinages; courts and hidage assessments, in other words the basis of much of what later became the English way of doing things.
The third and final part sees Wood tell three different tales about three different parts of the country - Devon, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire - as he tries to unravel subsequent events in the creation of the national character. He postulates many suggestions but does not come up with much certainty. These case-studies, whilst very useful and full of insight, are nevertheless marked by much speculation. This is the weakest part of the book because the subject is so huge.
In his epilogue Wood attempts to bring the story up to date in only a few pages, but the arguments - stimulating and controversial though they are - need much further elaboration to be credible, an opportunity perhaps missed by the author in the publication of the new edition, but one he perhaps grasped in a different way through his subsequent `The Story of England' series and book. Another missed opportunity for the new edition is the failure to include new evidence, such as that provided by recent DNA studies that tend to confirm his view about Anglo-Saxon assimilation into a numerically larger Celtic society.
Although all the colour plates of the 1986 edition are reproduced in the new one, what's missing are the original's useful maps and illustrations; maps of, for example, population density or maps elaborating on the local landscapes referred to in the text, often ably assisted by aerial photographs. This, above all else, is why I recommend the potential purchaser to buy an original edition, for the text remains almost completely word-for-word unchanged. Moreover, the new edition even lacks an up-to-date bibliography.