Latin vasta, wasta.
Domesday Book records large numbers of such manors, the great majority of which had no recorded value or human or animal resources. If these manors were, in fact, untaxed because they were uninhabited and uncultivated, then the destruction wrought by the Norman Conquest, particularly in the infamous 'harrying of the North' in 1069, was on a scale that almost defies belief. Indeed, many medieval historians cannot credit that medieval armies could wreak such destruction and have sought alternative explanations of the term waste. It has been variously argued that waste signified manorial re-organisation, some form of tax break, or merely a confession of ignorance by the Domesday commissioners when unable to determine details of population and other manorial resources. Despite these doubts, however, the common-sense interpretation that waste means what it says is the most plausible. The distribution of waste both before and after the Conquest matches almost exactly the areas known to have been those of greatest military activity in those periods; and all the chronicle sources agree upon the savagery of the punishment inflicted on Yorkshire and adjacent counties after the rebellion of 1069.
The most vivid description of the destruction of Yorkshire is recorded by Ordericus Vitalis. Though a late source, Ordericus based his account on a lost portion of the contemporary biography of the Conqueror by William of Poitiers. Ordericus felt so strongly about the evil of what William had done that he told the story twice. On the first occasion, he reported:
He cut down many in his vengeance; destroyed the lairs of others; harried the land, and burnt homes to ashes. Nowhere else had William shown such cruelty ... In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance. In consequence so serious a scarcity was felt in England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless populace, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old, perished of hunger (Ecclesiastical history, edited by Marjorie Chibnall, vol. 2, pages 230-33).
The second story portrayed the Conqueror on his death-bed, haunted by the memory of his savagery:
I ... caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire ... In a mad fury I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion, and ordered that their homes and crops and all their equipment and furnishings should be burnt at once and their great flocks and herds of sheep and cattle slaughtered everywhere. So I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation and, alas! was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old (Ecclesiastical history, vol. 4, pages 94-95).
The distribution of waste in Yorkshire in 1086 tells the same story. Sixteen years after the harrying, Yorkshire may still have contained only 25% of the population and plough teams of 1066, some 80,000 oxen and 150,000 people fewer than had been there on the day that King Edward 'was alive and dead'.
For the debate, see D.M. Palliser, 'Domesday Book and the harrying of the north', Northern History, vol. 29 (1993), pages 1-23; John J.N. Palmer, 'War and Domesday waste', in Armies, chivalry and warfare in medieval Britain and France, edited by Matthew Strickland (1998), pages 256-78.