Women in Domesday
By Pauline Stafford
Reading Medieval Studies, Volume 15, 1989
Introduction: R.Y. Lennard once wrote that using Domesday to study society was like exploring the darkness with a searchlight. You discover many individual things in great detail but when you try to focus the beam on a specific question or sweep it to gain a wide perspective it jams. Domesday Book is a frustrating source whose limitations must be appreciated if it is to be used successfully. But it is also a remarkably full account of the areas its compilers chose to cover.
As a source for the history of women it poses problems; but without its systematic study the generalizations so often made about the peculiar rights and freedoms of Anglo-Saxon women, or the alleged changes in their status after 1066 are in danger of remaining impressionistic. Four women may be taken as typical of the sort of information Domesday includes, and the sort of women on whom it focusses.
Gytha was one of the greatest women landholders in 1066. She held land throughout England south of the Thames: in Dorset, Gloucestershire, Devon, Cornwall, Wiltshire, Somerset, Berkshire, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire. In Devon alone her substantial holdings had a capacity for more than 330 ploughs. The extent of her landholding is an indication of the importance of her and her family.
Asa was also a landholder in 1066. She was a Yorkshire woman who held three small pieces of land in the East Riding. In 1086 her lands were disputed, a fact which results in extra information being recorded about her in the claims section of Domesday. The jurors testified that Asa held her land ‘separate and free from the lordship and power of Bjornulfr her husband, even when they were together, so that he could neither give it, sell it or forfeit it. After their separation, she withdrew with her land and possessed it as its lady (ut domina)’. Her freedom within marriage appears outstanding, and Asa could easily become a heroine of women’s history, a strong-minded eleventh-century sister.
Judith was the most important woman landholder in 1086, the date when the Domesday survey was made. Omitting the nunneries, and I am excluding religious women and their especial problems, she is one of about twenty women tenants-in-chief in 1086. Her extensive lands stretched throughout northern and eastern England, from Middlesex and Buckinghamshire to Yorkshire, with a concentration in the east Midlands.
Leofgeat also held land in 1086, not as a French incomer but as a survivor from 1066, one of many lowly English widows still holding land in 1086. She is listed among the servants and thegns of the king in Wiltshire, where she held three and a half hides at Knook which her husband had held in 1066.