Building a Data API for Historical Research

We are in the process of building out a data API to support the data work we’re undertaking with the transcription of the plague bills. We anticipate hundreds of thousands of rows of data by the end of our transcription process, and we wanted an easy and efficient way to work with that data. As part of our work in data-driven historical research at RRCHNM, we are building a data API to store and access data from databases. Following the process of transforming the DataScribe transcriptions into tidy data, the resulting data is uploaded to a PostgreSQL database where we can take advantage of relational connections among the different datasets we’ve compiled.  The advantage of having our data structured this way is we can keep our data consistent (PostgreSQL enforces strongly-typed data) and we can more easily combine data into different configurations based on what […]

Visualizing the Bills of Mortality

One of the ways we are using the transcribed bills of mortality is in data visualization and mapping, in an effort to ask new questions and revisit old ones. At the Southern History Association’s annual meeting in Baltimore, we presented preliminary work on data visualization and the data API. An interactive notebook on this early work is available on Observable for perusal (note, the page may take a moment to load the 100,000+ records). You may also make a copy of this notebook to your own Observable account to edit.

London in Tears: Grief and Collective Mourning in the Bills of Mortality

“London might be said to be all in tears; the mourners did not go about the streets indeed, for nobody put on black or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearests friends; but the voice of mourners was truly heard in the Streets” (Defoe, 19). Although Daniel Defoe’s description of London during the outbreak of 1665-1666 jogs our memories during the early days of the Sars-CoV- 2 virus—where the sick passed away separated from their loved ones, and families were forced to say goodbye apart from their kin—the culture of grief has indeed changed. This blog post examines grief as a vehicle for the exploration of some aspects of the death culture in early Modern England. The experiences of grief and mourning shed light on both the idea of loss at an individual level, and on changing commemorative and memorial practices in England […]

Found Dead? Unknown Causes of Death in the Bills of Mortality

The greatest purpose of the Bills of Mortality is to enumerate death, first due to plague then expanding over the years to include other causes. However, there are some gray areas where Searchers lacked the necessary information to provide a label. In these instances, the records reflect the phrase “found dead.” This label carried a wide range of ages and deaths and was listed with a basic description of the deceased person and how they were found. First, how were these people found and reported for the Bills? The Searchers of the Dead were poor older women, sometimes widows, serving the parishes for work. During times of plague they were known to mark the doors of houses with dead from the plague for the corpses to be picked up. Richelle Munkhoff writes more about this process in “Searchers of the Dead: Authority, Marginality, and the Interpretation […]

The Facts of Mortality: the use of the London Bills in Daniel Dafoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Bills of Mortality have informed more than three centuries of writing about the plague. Although the Death by Numbers project stands out as the first systematic effort to digitize and process the totality of the bills, a whole bunch of writers, historians, and social scientists have kneaded the numbers collected in the Bills, looking for the historical gist of plague outbreaks in England and Continental Europe. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is one of the most well known examples of a literary approach to the 1665’s outbreak of the Plague in London. This blog post examines Defoe’s use of the weekly bills not only as the factual backdrop over which the myriad of circumstances around the plague unravel, but also as the fundamental time marker that renders London’s human element into a plague frenzy. But […]

Why is there bread in the Bills?

We have talked on the blog about some of the datasets we are transcribing from the Bills of Mortality – the counts of death by parish, causes of death, and christening and burial numbers. Some of the bills have even more information on them: the price of bread (and eventually other foodstuffs). But why would state-mandated bread prices be included in the Bills of Mortality? To find out, we need to look more closely at the role of bread in early modern England. Regulating the price of bread? The price of bread had been set in England through the Assize of Bread for centuries before the Bills began. In fourteenth century London, “four honest men” would annually buy wheat and have it baked into bread to assay, or test, the quality and weight of bread being baked in the city. These bread assayers were assessing […]

God’s Terrible Voice in the City: New England Connections to the Bills of Mortality

God’s Terrible Voice in the City by Thomas Vincent describes the disastrous judgments of plague and fire that devastated London in 1665-1666. Today, two different editions of this work appear in the collections of Early English Books Online and Evans Early American Imprint Collection, the former published in London in 1667 and the latter published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1668. The American publication of a book on a London disaster shows how a religious culture of providentialism- the belief that God cast down supernatural favor and punishment on the world- stretched across the Atlantic in the early modern English world (See Kierner, Inventing Disaster for more).  Disaster in Europe mattered in North America.   The Bills of Mortality offered a way to calculate the scale of disaster, and this distinction is clear in Cambridge printer Marmaduke Johnson’s title page.  The American version of the text […]

Chimneys and the Great Storm of 1703

In late November of 1703, a “great storm” or hurricane struck the British Isles. Bad weather began a few days before the heart of the storm made landfall on November 26th, spawning tornadoes, ripping off roofs and chimneys, and destroying entire fleets. One of the most famous tragedies of the storm happened on the Goodwin Sands, a deadly sandbank off the coast of Kent. At least 53 ships were wrecked on the sandbank and over 2,000 men died just six miles from safety. The death and destruction continued throughout southern England, including in the capital city of London. As one contemporary report tells: IN the City of London many Houses have been uncovered, almost in every Street; great quantities of Lead blown off the Churches, Halls, and Houses; Stacks of Chimneys, and Roofs of Houses blown down; and some Spires broken: And in the adjacent […]

Old Age and Aged Deaths

The London Bills of Mortality were originally and primarily focused on deaths from plague, however they very quickly expanded to include other causes of death as well. From accidents and drownings to measles and smallpox, the printed bills included citywide summary statistics—rather than parish-by-parish breakdowns—for each week.  While we can therefore learn a fair amount about causes of death throughout the city, very little information can be gleaned from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century bills about the age at which people died. True, chrisoms indicated a baby less than a month old, while infants indicated a slightly older baby, but what about deaths from teeth or choking? Was a person dying in childbirth a preteen or a woman in her forties? Diseases like consumption (tuberculosis) spared no one, young or old, and probably killed two Tudor kings: Edward VI, aged fifteen, and his grandfather Henry VII, […]