Domesday An overview of the Greater Domesday Book and Little Domesday Book

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Learn about the difficult process of composing and transcribing the Domesday Book

This may come as a surprise, but back in the 11th century, there were no word processors or printers around and the standard A4 papers were a millennium away from being invented. Heck, even ballpoint pens were not dreamt up yet. As such, the task of writing any book, never mind one as voluminous as the Domesday Book was quite an undertaking. To put the challenging task into proper perspective, the translation and writing of the King James Bible in the 17th century took 47 scholars from the Church of England about five years to complete (1604 to 1609), whereas the Greater Domesday Book took just six months to complete by a single unnamed scribe. The Little Domesday Book took a little longer, but it was still a remarkable achievement.

So how did they go about it? What were the standard operating procedures and equipment used to write the manuscript?

Language and Font

Although most scholars and members of the courts in England spoke French after the conquest of Normandy, Latin was still considered the formal written language. Understandably, the content of the Domesday Book was written in Latin. However, owing to the massive amount of data needed to be written, a complex, shorthand version of Medieval Latin was chosen.

Microsoft Word and its 20,000 font options had yet to be invented then, but there were still a number of font options to be considered. Owing to the enormity of the project, the Carolingian minuscule script was chosen as the typeface to be used, since the same font had also used for Jerome's Vulgate Bible. The small caps script, which was created by Benedictine monk Corbie Abbey in three centuries earlier (780, to be precise), provided greater reading visibility even in smaller size.


The landholding and property details of over 13,000 locationswere written in two similar sized columns, and column headers and other necessary emphasis were made using the rubrication method using red ink.

Writing Medium

The wood pulp, and consequently, paper industry, was not on the horizon yet, so the manuscript were written on the most popular writing medium of the day, sheepskin parchment. Vellum, made from young lambs and calves, were a far superior medium. However, considering the number of parchments needed (900, for the Great Domesday Book), it was logistically and economically more logical to use sheepskin parchments. After all, the parchment production process includes skinning, scarping, soaking, stretching and drying – it would take quite a lot of extra effort to use vellum.

Writing Instrument and Ink

Quills may seem overly fragile to us, but they actually have a longer life expectancy when used on soft parchments instead of the rough surface of paper. Quills made from goose feathers were the preferred choice, since they were longer and sturdier, and can hold a fractionally larger amount of ink. Owing to their length, users can also use quill knives to sharpen the writing edge when it gets frayed (like using a pencil sharpener).

Speaking of ink, the Domesday Book used just two ink colours, namely brownish black (for general writing) and red (for rubrication). There were many natural sources of such ink colours, and some religious houses have their own secret formula to create specific shades of colours. There is no information on the source of the inks used for Domesday Book, and for all we know, they might be self-produced.