28 November 2008

Domesday survey to avert doomsday

I've just spent a sublime half hour in Tewkesbury Abbey for choral evensong. There were another four people enjoying the transcendently beautiful singing, from the men's voices of the Schola Cantorum, who outnumbered us by about two to one. This tradition of singing evening prayers has been going on in our cathedrals for around a thousand years, kept alive by the dedication of those who value the ethereal rather than the financial. Once might say the same about our Gloucestershire apple varieties and old spot pigs. In these days of crisis and rapid change I find these traditions deeply comforting.

The Abbey building dates back to 1121, before the Medieval architects discovered the flying buttress, or whatever else it was that allowed them to build enormous height without the support of hefty pillars. Its style, therefore, is sold, stocky and reassuring. It was built just thirty-five years after the Domesday Book was first published.

The domesday survey was compiled by William the Conquerer so that he could assess the exact value of the land he had just invaded. This was to be his source of power and wealth so he needed to know, virtually down to the last chicken, exactly how much he had to bribe the barons with and to extort taxes from. I doubt if there has been such a thorough survey of our natural resources since that time.

The name 'domesday book' did not come into usage until the late 12th century and I wonder whether it was a statement on the devastating effect on the lives of the English people caused by the shift from the essentially egalitarian Saxon farming system--based on strip farming and common rights to land use--to the fedual system. Under feudalism the king owned all land, which he could give to barons who would then live without having to work. Their tenants owed them both farmwork and war-work.

1066 is remembered as an important date because of the battles that were fought in that year. The fundamental shift in economic structure and power is rarely taught in schools. Yet it was at this time that the focus of the economy changed to be about the financial rather than subsistence value of land. As we move towards an economy that is more self-sufficient in food we need to have similarly detailed knowledge of the land that is available to us and what purposes it could serve in terms of grazing land, arable land, forestry and so on. The land that we discover should be once again a common treasury for the people of Britain to feed themselves from. It is about time we reversed nearly a thousand years of feudal servitude.

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