Opening up Domesday Book

February 2, 2012 in Case Studies, Front Page

The following post is by Anna Powell-Smith from the Open Domesday project and is cross-posed from the Open Knowledge Foundation Blog.

Domesday Book might be one of the most famous government datasets ever created. Which makes it all the stranger that it’s not freely available online – at the National Archives, you have to pay £2 per page to download copies of the text.

Domesday is pretty much unique. It records the ownership of almost every acre of land in England in 1066 and 1086 – a feat not repeated in modern times. It records almost every household. It records the industrial resources of an entire nation, from castles to mills to oxen.

As an event, held in the traumatic aftermath of the Norman conquest, the Domesday inquest scarred itself deeply into the mindset of the nation – and one historian wrote that on his deathbed, William the Conqueror regretted the violence required to complete it. As a historical dataset, it is invaluable and fascinating.

In my spare time, I’ve been working on making Domesday Book available online at Open Domesday. In this, I’ve been greatly aided by the distinguished Domesday scholar Professor John Palmer, and his geocoded dataset of settlements and people in Domesday, created with AHRC funding in the 1990s.

I’m very happy to announce that we’re now able to make full-page, high-resolution images of the Domesday folios available under CC-BY-SA. You can browse or download the folios en masse at the Internet Archive (recommended), or page-by-page at Open Domesday.

I’ve also been working on a RESTful API to Domesday Book, to accompany the release of the folios. Our API supports geographic queries, and returns the economic and social statistics for each settlement in Domesday – from the number of households to (where listed) the number of pigs, sheep and oxen.

As an example, here is the folio entry for Marsh Gibbon in Buckinghamshire, still a thriving village today:

Marsh Gibbon in Domesday Book

Domesday is not often descriptive, but this entry gives us a glimpse of the state of the English population. The entry tells us that Marsh Gibbon held 11 households, including 3 slaves, and it has woodland on which the locals paid a tax of 30 pigs. The owner in 1066 was one Aelric, and he still lives there “harshly and wretchedly”.

There are entries like this for nearly 15,000 places. We hope that this data release will lead to some interesting new applications (may a thousand iPad apps bloom) and research – like this population heatmap of Domesday England, created from Professor Palmer’s raw data by Andrew Bevan at University College London:

Population heatmap of Domesday England

To end on a downbeat note, it’s worrying that among historic texts, Domesday may become the exception, rather than the rule, by being available under an open licence. The only reason we are able to make the folios available at all is that Professor Palmer took his own images of the Ordnance Survey’s photozincographic copies some years ago, and has kindly agreed to release them for the benefit of others.

In particular, although the British Library has teamed up with Google to make thousands of historic texts available online, it seems the digitised copies will not be truly open, as Glyn Moody has warned.

But enough grumbling – I hope you enjoy the Domesday data! Please contact me with comments.

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