| June 10, 2024

A Woman's Touch on the Bills of Mortality

By Luz Adriana Giraldo Mueller in context tagged mueller, women, printing

It is difficult to analyze the role of women in the creation of the Bills of Mortality due to the lack of information in the historical record, especially contextual information on women’s everyday experiences. Previous scholars have studied how women fulfilled roles caring for and nursing the sick or how the death of their husbands and family members affected their livelihood, ultimately rendering them destitute. Others have focused on the searchers who collected data on the deceased and passed it on to the Parishes’ clerks for tallying before it was given to the printers for publication. However, in working on the Death by Numbers project, I questioned what other roles, beyond searchers, women fulfilled in any other stage of the process for the publication of the bills. My curiosity was piqued when I began looking for any women’s “handprints” in the printing process. This led me to the most important collection of bills: the Memento Mori: London’s Dreadful Visitation, printed by E. Cotes and reproduced the bills of mortality from 1665, a year of massive plague mortality.

It turns out that E. Cotes stands for Elinor Cotes (listed as Ellen, Eleanor, or Ellinor on different records). She was the widow of Richard Cotes and had inherited the printing business upon her husband’s death in 1651. She maintained her husband’s contracts, including the printing of the Bills of Mortality, and in 1665, was ‘commissioned by the Company to print the Bills of Mortality for the 16 city parishes, as ‘London’s Rememberancer.’ Elinor owned one of London’s most successful printing businesses, employing three presses, two apprentices, and nine pressmen.1 A particular detail that sets London’s Dreadful Visitation apart from other publications of the time is the inclusion of a note from ‘The Printer to the Reader’ in which Elinor professes her will to preserve the bills so that ‘posterity may not any more [sic] be at such a loss’ after the bills for the previous ‘Great Plague’ had been lost.2 This personal note may be the womanliest touch we can encounter upon the Bills of Mortality. Elinor continued to print the bills until her death in 1670 when Andrew Clarke was appointed printer to the Company.

We can see another woman’s involvement in printing the bills surface in 1710 with Ann(e) Motte. Ann was the wife of Benjamin Motte, who had apprenticed under Elinor Cotes and had taken over the role from Clark in 1683.3 According to James Christie’s account, Mrs. Motte continued to print the bills under her husband’s name after his death in 1710.4 Despite Mrs. Motte being listed as the official printer of the Company, Mr. Motte’s name continued to be included as a footnote on the bills after the clerks had issued the order for the printer’s name to be included on the bills. Ann’s significance is evident by specific mentions in the Company’s registers, like her gift of “two volumes of “The Ecclesiastical Parochial History of London” in the Company’s 1714 inventory.5 Even though she is listed as the official Company’s printer until 1715 when her son, Benjamin Motte, took over the family business, I couldn’t find any significant records of Ann as a business owner or her involvement with printing the Bills of Mortality. Hence, her contributions are inferences into the history of the bills.

As we continue to explore the history of the bills, it becomes clear that there is much more to uncover about the woman’s touch in their creation. Could there be subtle changes in the bills during Elinor and Ann’s tenure? Different type-fonts? Embellishing details? These are just a few questions that could be answered by further examination of the documents. It would be fascinating to study the bills printed while Elinor and Ann were actively involved, potentially revealing new insights into their contributions and their place in the history of the Bills of Mortality.


  1. Henry Robert Plomer. A Dictionary of the Booksellers and Printers Who Were at Work in England, Scotland and Ireland from 1641 to 1667. (London, 1907): 52. https://archive.org/stream/adictionarybook00plomgoog/adictionarybook00plomgoog_djvu.txt ↩︎

  2. Cotes, E. “The Printer to the Reader.” London’s Dreadful Visitation. 1665. ↩︎

  3. “COTES, Ellen/Ellinor/Eleanor.” British Book Trade Index. Bodleian Libraries, University of London. http://bbti.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/details/?traderid=16322 ↩︎

  4. James Christie. Some Account of Parish Clerks, More Especially of the Ancient Fraternity (Bretherne and Sisterne) of S. Nicholas, Now Known as the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks, (London: J.Vincent, 1893), 190. ↩︎

  5. James Christie, 204. ↩︎