Borough and Town: A Study of Urban Origins in England

By Carl Stephenson | Go to book overview

IV
THE DOMESDAY BOROUGH

1. DOMESDAY TERMINOLOGY

IN THE preceding chapter a re-examination of the most important Anglo-Saxon records led to the conclusion that, in the time of the Danish war, the borough was primarily a fortress. Whether of Roman or of more recent construction, it then served an essentially military purpose, being used as a base for territorial conquest, as well as for refuge and defense. Subsequently, as the English kingdom came into existence, many boroughs were made centres of administrative districts. Such boroughs, placed in charge of royal portreeves, were organized as permanent strongholds; they were the meeting-places of superior courts; and they contained mints and markets. Whatever the precedents that had earlier been set for the official borough, or port, of the tenth century -- and some of them seem to have been Roman -- it was not possessed of the traits that we consider distinctively urban. Like the contemporary burg on the Continent, it was dominated by agrarian, rather than by mercantile interests. Of the social and political privilege that came to characterize the borough of the Norman period, the sources hitherto examined present no trace.

Inevitably, therefore, we are led to the tentative decision that the outstanding burghal features of the subsequent age were themselves the product of that age. But there is more evidence to be taken into account. Archaeological research has brought out facts of signal importance in this connection, and a wealth of information rewards the careful study of Domesday Book. The topographical expansion of the borough must be postponed for separate treatment in a final chapter; at present it is rather the testimony of the great survey that commands our attention -- a mass of detail so difficult of comprehension that an extensive controversial literature has already grown up about it. This literature cannot be avoided by any discussion that aims to explain the nature of the Domesday borough. Many troublesome questions must be dealt with at length merely to demonstrate their relative unimportance. Thus, it is hoped, a clearer understanding of essentials may eventually be gained, and a better approach made to the chief problem under consideration -- the true origin of town life in England.

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