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Writs

Latin, breve.

The royal writ was one of the fundamental features of the Anglo-Saxon administrative system. It may have originated in the late ninth century, though surviving examples are all from the eleventh. The terse, business-like language of the writ implies that it was the main written instrument of government, used in a wide variety of business. Almost all surviving writs, however, are concerned in some way with title to land, a characteristic which will have guaranteed their survival while those dealing with the more ephemeral business of government have long since disappeared.

Just how great the volume of lost material has been is debateable. Consequently, there has been some disagreement as to the extent to which government was 'articulated by royal writ', and therefore of the extent of lay literacy implied by its use. Domesday Book suggests that some categories of royal business - the granting of estates - commonly involved written authorisation. If this were so, then surviving writs represent only a minute proportion of those originally issued.

The writ conveyed royal commands to officials and to the courts, serving both as an official's authority to act and often as the recipient's title to a grant. Royal writs of this kind are frequently cited in Domesday Book, commonly in relation to the ownership of an estate. The phrase 'without writ' implied that an estate was held without royal authority. It is one of many signs of a preoccupation with legitimate title in Domesday Book.

For the arguments for the extensive use of the written word in government, see Simon Keynes, 'Regenbald the chancellor [sic]', Anglo-Norman Studies, vol. 10 (1988), pages 185-222; Simon Keynes, 'Royal government and the written word in late Anglo-Saxon England', Uses of literacy in medieval Europe, edited by Rosamond McKitterick (1990), pages 226-57; and James Campbell, The Anglo-Saxon state (2000); and for a minimalist interpretation, Pierre Chaplais, 'The Anglo-Saxon Chancery: from diploma to writ', Journal of the Society of Archivists, vol. 3 (1966), pages 160-76; and M.T. Clanchy, From memory to written record: England, 1066-1307 (second edition, 1993).

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