PROSOPOGRAPHY IS ABOUT identity and about context. Domesday Book offers a peculiarly satisfying challenge for those who enjoy the jigsaw puzzles of the method. Some 45,000 personal names occur in the text, and 29,000 placenames. The textual context of a name is an obvious primary clue when seeking to resolve these many thousands of name-records into names of individual persons and places, but these necessary onomastic exercises are merely to find the corner pieces. Those stalwarts of prosopographical analysis, genealogical links, provide the straight pieces that form the frame of the puzzle. If we wish to see the full picture, however, we should be aware that over-reliance on family relationships, and the ostensible inheritance gains of marriage alliances, may steer us away from, rather than towards, the full potential offered by a prosopographical approach to Domesday Book. That potential is nothing less than a full understanding of how society changed between 1066 and 1086, because it will establish just how title to land passed from the English to the Normans and their allies, and reveal the varied links that formed the bonds of society. Various mechanisms of land transfer have been proposed. The most visible was antecession, that is, the sokeright of one or more named thegns was given to a newcomer and made the basis of the latter's tenancy-in-chief or honour. The lands of the antecessor's median thegns also became the newcomer's to distribute to his own mesne tenants. Whilst the principle of antecession seems predominantly to govern the legal transfer of land from one person to another throughout the period 1066 to 1086, there are exceptions based on a direct grant by writ of the king. Then there are the so-called hundredal grants, geographically defined estates that are more artificially created for strategic purposes, such as the rapes of Sussex and the marcher county of Cheshire. Also alleged as mechanisms are usurpation and marriage alliances.
In order to achieve both the identification of individuals and to say something useful about them, we need to approach the task within the framework of a set of questions suggested by a layered approach to the overall context of Domesday Book.