The Domesday Book and the Natural History of England

When one thinks of tomes outlining the natural history of England, the Domesday Book is one that doesn’t usually come to mind. However, this great book does include some tantalizing pieces of evidence surrounding the natural history of England in the 11th century.

Every student of history knows how William the Conqueror commissioned a great survey of the lands of his newly conquered domain in 1085. Yet few people know how the survey began at William’s Christmas court in 1085 or why it was important.

The great Domesday survey was designed to bring “stability” to the collection of taxes to his new domain. William’s council of ministers was constantly burdened with the disruption of taxes through many landholding disputes. This was worsened by the fact that many of William’s new subjects did not recognize the Norman principles of feudal obligations. As a result in 1086, William sent to every shire in England Royal Commissioners with a long list of questions such as; who owned the manor, who had owned it before? Who owned the meadow, the forest, or the eel pond? While William did not live long enough to see the completion of the Great Survey, what was returned by his commissioners was a fascinating document that outlines the structure of England’s physical landscape just after the first millennium.

The Domesday Book was actually two distinct surveys; The Little Domesday Book surveyed the eastern part of England (Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk) while Great Domesday surveyed the rest of the nation. The surveys were notoriously inconsistent in the recording of landholdings. To make matters worse, Domesday was written in eleventh century clerical Latin that was highly stylized and abbreviated making translation nearly impossible without specialized training. English translations did not even appear in published form until the 19th century. However, even with these issues, Domesday offers the natural historian a wonderful, although somewhat skewed “snapshot” of the scope and scale of the physical environment of England at the time. Here are a few of the gleanings about the physical environment that Domesday provides:

  • England’s human population. Although Domesday was not a formal census, the Commissioners were tasked to record the heads of households of villagers, cottagers, slaves, freemen, sokemen, and of course the manorial Lords. An estimate of the total population can be obtained with a type of multiplier. It is also important to note that the City of London, Winchester, and some other English towns were also not included in the survey. This was probably due to their tax-exempt status. Church officials, monks, and nuns were also not included. Even with an estimate, it can be seen from Domesday that the most densely populated areas of rural England at the time we’re in the eastern areas of Lincolnshire, East Anglia, and East Kent (approximately 10 people per square mile). As the surveyors proceeded northward, the population became much more sparse (approximately 3 people per square mile). These estimates show a dramatic decline in population from Roman times when it was thought to have exceeded approximately 4 million people.
  • Woods, forests, game-parks, and agricultural land use. Domesday spends a great deal of effort recording the size and scale of agricultural land. It also painstakingly records the size of local woodlands, grazing meadows, pastures, and fisheries. The reasons for this are obvious, William wanted an estimate of potential taxation revenue from agricultural lands but also an idea of the size of potential hunting and grazing rights that could be granted to nobles. Like human population size estimates, land usage is also a “guess” due to the lack of standards in recording area sizes. For example, in some manors land is sometimes described as a unit of measure called a “hide”. The size of “hides” could vary widely between regions of England since it has been speculated that it was an area of land a man needed to feed his family for a year. As a result, a “hide” was smaller in more fertile areas. Woodland, meadow, and pasture land were also sometimes estimated by the size of how many pigs could “free graze” upon it. This of course could also vary widely between fertile and less fertile areas of the country.

Even with the lack of scientific precision in the survey, a good deal of knowledge of the rural landscape at the turn of the millennium England can be constructed. While much scholarly research has been done on Domesday from an economic/political-historical perspective, there has not been much research done on the physical landscape and natural environmental aspects. There are a couple of interesting questions scientists could consider:

  • Are woodlands, pastures, and meadows approximately the same size as today?
  • How large approximately were the fens, marshlands, and other “unairable land” as compared to today?
  • Are there any hints to the number of “wild beasts” that inhabit the hunting areas of England and how does it compare to today’s environment?

Amazingly over 90 percent of the towns and villages listed in Domesday are still there in England today! Here is hoping that more research will be done on this amazing document from the perspective of England’s natural history.

For anyone interested in pursuing this topic further, I would recommend not attempting to read clerical Latin in the original document, but rather invest in or borrow from the library a good “summary” book. Most of the details of this post were taken from an excellent summary book of Domesday called “The Domesday Book: England’s Heritage, Then and Now” by Thomas Hinde (Editor). This stunningly beautiful book provides an overview of each of the towns and manors surveyed. It also goes into a detailed account of the history of the survey and provides an explanation of how Domesday entries were recorded. It also includes some beautiful pictures, maps, and local illustrations for your enjoyment.

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4 Tips on Creating a Great Museum Annual Report!

I will be the first to admit that I have a strange obsession……I enjoy looking at the Annual Reports of Museums! I especially enjoy looking at the reports of Natural History Museums and comparing the financial statements, programming, and collections that are outlined in each. I will readily admit that certain museums create a fabulous annual report while others, I would have to say fall flat…..! During the exercise of this strange obsession and the resulting review of hundreds of reports, I have developed four simple principles for what makes a great Annual Report:

1. Start the report with a clear mission statement outlining who you are, your goals, and what you’re attempting to achieve. The statement doesn’t have to overly complex. Use clear, plain language, and avoid jargon. Too often Museum reports delve into the “meaty” details without setting the scene of what their organization is attempting to accomplish. If you don’t have a mission statement, get a focus group of staff and board members together, and hammer out a simple one!

2. Start the report with a simple Infographic of the year’s achievements. Outline things like attendance, membership numbers, publications numbers, funds raised, volunteer hours, etc. This prevents your members from having to page through the report to find this information. The Infographic doesn’t have to be extraordinary or complex, but rather should be a sharp and clear image that presents a “snapshot” of the organization’s achievements. If you are unsure how to do this, contact a local graphic design company and they should be able to design one for you at a reasonable cost. Be careful not to go to the other extreme and make the entire report a series of Infographics! Your members will still like some “worded” details behind the facts and figures.

3. Don’t forget to talk about your staff and what wonderful people they are! Tell your members what passions your staff have, their hobbies, their achievements, and what brought them into your museum. Remember that your members may not know everyone involved in the museum and what work they do. If you work at a very large institution, include an HTML link in the report to staff bibliographies. Remember that passion is infectious so share it widely!

4. Provide clear “call to actions” in your report! Outline the upcoming year’s goals and how you hope to achieve them. If you have specific and urgent needs, make certain that you outline them so all members are aware. Use statements like: “In the upcoming year we intend to raise more funds for X” or “In the upcoming year we intend to recruit more volunteers for Y”. This will provide clear guidelines on where your organization is going and how you intend to get there. It is also an opportunity to lobby your members for solutions to any issues. Remember that your members can be a wealth of information and may have experience in areas that your museum is lacking.

If there was another suggestion that I could add it would be to create a report that makes someone want to visit your museum! While I understand that the Annual Report is not a travel brochure and that oftentimes museums have to follow specific guidelines, try to have a bit of fun with it!

If there is one Museum that has an Annual Report that is worth a look and makes me want to visit, it is the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History located here! I fully intend to stop by next time I’m in the area!

Thank you for reading our Blog Post! This review was written with the assistance of “Grammarly”. Grammarly is an amazing FREE tool that allows anyone to write like a professional! For more information and a free download, click here.

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COVID-19 and the Future of Natural History Museums

For many people a visit to their local Natural History Museum means a day enjoying glass-encased exhibits of many varieties of beautiful and rare species of animals. Unknown to most, is that while visitors are enjoying the delights of this encased animal world, there are often priceless treasures behind the scenes at their local museum. There in your museum’s vaults are scores of species that have been collected over the years. Why you may ask? Natural History museums have collected specimens for generations to track variations in species populations over time. In short, the species collections are the primary records of the natural history of the planet. These primary records of our Earth may provide the key solutions to our existing COVID-19 and any future pandemics.

Scientists have stated that the recent COVID-19 pandemic is the result of Zoonosis. Zoonosis is the process of a pathogen passing from an animal to a human. The human, in turn, passes the pathogen on to other humans causing an eventual outbreak. It has been surmised by scientists that COVID-19 was passed by Zoonosis from a Horseshoe Bat species in China and on to humans. This transmission to humans was also possibly through another intermediate animal carrier.

Recently, the Chicago Field Museum’s Bruce Patterson published a paper in ZooKeys in a special issue on the Coronavirus announcing four new species of the African Leaf-nosed bat, a cousin to China’s Horseshoe bat. Patterson stated that Science did not even know how many species of Leaf-nosed bats even existed. Science is also not certain which of the 25 or so species of the Horseshoe bat in China were responsible for spreading the coronavirus. Clearly, we have much to learn about the bat species. This is especially hazardous to humans since we know very little about a species that can spread very damaging pathogens to us if we do not take appropriate precautions.

How can we learn more about the bat species? How can we learn more about our natural world overall? Through Natural History Museums of course! Who else has the expertise and collections for us to study, prepare for, and possibly prevent any future pandemics with bats or another animal as the source of pathogens? Unfortunately for us and to our great peril, governments at all levels in all countries, have been cutting funding to these great institutions. Here’s what we can do to help:

  • If possible, give financially to your local Natural History Museum. Most Museums have donation and sponsorship programs available.
  • Most Natural History Museums have numerous opportunities to volunteer and to even serve on their boards. If you don’t have extra time to volunteer, attend their annual meetings, read their reports, and ask questions! They will love that someone in their community is interested enough to care.
  • Is there no Natural History Museum in your area? Ask your local history or community museum if they have any natural history collections, even though it may not be their sole focus of existing. Respectfully ask if you could see the collection(s) and share information about it. The best way to preserve a collection is to “put light upon it” and make people aware it exists!
  • When in doubt, advocate, advocate, and advocate some more! Your Natural History Museum needs allies and wants you to speak up for them! Write politicians, the media, and anyone else who will listen about your museum, especially if it is threatened in some way.

Remember, lying in the vaults of your local Natural History Museum are not just dusty species collections from long ago, but possibly the key to the solution for a future pandemic and the health, safety, and security of us all!

Thank you for reading our Blog Post! This review was written with the assistance of “Grammarly”. Grammarly is an amazing FREE tool that allows anyone to write like a professional! For more information and a free download, click here.

For our Reviews of excellent books on Natural History, Archaeology and Technology, please visit our main website!