June 21 (Bloomberg) -- When it comes to collecting huge amounts of personal data, the National Security Agency had an ancient and illustrious model. One of the first iterations of the idea can be seen in the National Archives in London, in a special chest that looks like it was meant for a pirate’s treasure. Its parchment pages are worn, but still perfectly legible for those who can decipher its 900-year-old Latin script.
Its ominous name -- the Domesday Book -- is derived from the medieval spelling of doomsday and refers to the belief that its contents were final and without appeal, like the supposed judgments of the Lord at world’s end.
Its purpose, however, wasn’t to pronounce on the fate of souls, but to record more quotidian information about property. The 2 million handwritten words in the 900-plus-page book represent an attempt to list every sheep, slave, house, barn and tract of land in 11th century England, and to establish who it was owned by or rather, who could have use of it, under the king.
It is the paradox of private property that only a public record, open to all, can prove ownership. The Domesday Book was such a record and it has set a standard and a methodology for registries ever since. It is an essential element of the development of property as a primary building block of our economic system. The dusty property ledgers that still reside in city halls, and now their online equivalents, are descended from the Domesday Book.
The tomes began to be compiled and written in 1086 by William the Conqueror, two decades after his band of Normans came over from France and conquered England in 1066. The book was expanded and revised under his son, William II. Its purpose was to tell the monarch what he owned, and thus could tax or use. The king’s men went far and wide, and attempted to write down everything of value, down to individual pigs.
As with so many key historical developments, war or the threat of war was the impetus for its creation. After William conquered England, the Danish in Scandinavia were threatening to try to force him out. William needed to know how much tax revenue he could raise, and how many knights he could call on. The barons and churchmen who had rights to land or other property didn’t own it in the modern sense; they had use of it at the king’s pleasure, in return for services. They, in turn, made land and property available to more common people, again in exchange for certain duties.
All these relationships are recorded in the book. By modern standards, it is both very detailed -- individual livestock is often recorded -- and primitive. Land is often measured in “ploughs,” which is the area a team of eight oxen could plow in a day.
Although it was produced for the crown, over time, the book and its edited successors and copies became references for anyone involved in a property dispute. People would talk of “going to the book.”
In his “Concise History of the Common Law,” the historian Theodore Plucknett wrote that during the Middle Ages, the Domesday Book “was so respected that it was called simply ’the record,’ so great was its authority. The land was described county by county, village by village, the owners and their subtenants were listed and their holdings valued, even the farm stock was recorded, with a view to settling clearly the rights of the Crown and the taxable resources of the country.”
The book belongs to a long line of events and developments that created the concept of “property” in the contemporary sense, meaning something that can be bought, sold and freely traded for money. Today, people are accustomed to the idea of ownership and give little thought to the various legal and conceptual developments that made it possible. Along with public records, there was the creation by governments of standardized systems of measurement. There were also cultural changes. Over time, people began to think of ownership as a right, rather than part of a web of mutual obligations.
The Domesday book was originally two works, the “little Domesday Book,” which covered Norfolk, Essex and Suffolk, and the “Greater Domesday Book,” which covered the rest of England and parts of Wales, but not London, which had its own set of records. The volumes, produced before the advent of printing presses, required exquisite care -- which is perhaps why they still exist. Over the centuries, they have resided in the royal treasury and the Palace of Westminster. Careful procedures had to be followed to consult them. The special chest that guards the volumes today was created relatively recently -- in the 1600s -- and was closed with three locks, whose keys were kept by three separate officials and all had to be present to gain access to the book.
There is now an online version -- displaying both the original handwritten Latin and a translation in modern English - - that can be searched for information about properties in England or Wales.
(Alex Marshall is the author of “The Surprising Design of Market Economies,” and a senior fellow at Regional Plan Association in New York City.)
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