Strangled himself (being distracted): Messy Data and Suicides in the Bills of Mortality

**Content Warning** This post contains subject matter that some may find sensitive or disturbing, be advised. If uncomfortable with this topic, you may support Death By Numbers in other posts. This blog post will be a bit different than a few of our previous posts. Now that we have discussed our project workflow, we are going to begin to discuss the content of the Bills themselves. One thing that we immediately noticed on beginning this project is that suicides are reported on the Bills in a variety of ways that lead to more questions than answers regarding the weekly suicide rate in London. The variety of reports had a lot to do with the religious and legal views on suicide in this era.  When looking at suicide rates, Sleepless Souls by Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy state in Table 7.1 Sex Ratio of Selected […]

7 Problems to Expect when You’re Transcribing Historical Data and How to Avoid Them

So you want to start transcribing data from historical documents? The task seems easy! However, there are quite a few issues that can pop up which can create problems for other parts of the project. Below are some of the expected errors our transcribers on Death By Numbers frequently run into and some tips on how to handle them.  The job may sound intimidating with all the potential pitfalls, but we have suggested solutions from all the tips and tricks our team has picked up over the past few months. Problem Number 1: Forgetting about the Data Solution: Be Familiar with Your Data Before getting too far ahead of yourself, familiarize yourself with your transcription project.  Our project already has several blog posts on the London Bills of Mortality to assist new transcribers like the Bills 101.  If you don’t know what you’re transcribing, you […]

A Parish By Any Other Name

The Bill of Mortality from Christmas week in 1664 reports that three people died in the parish of St Foster. But fifty years later, there were happily no Christmas deaths in the parish of St Vedast—or rather, the parish of “St Vedast alias Foster.” Because the parish of St Vedast is the parish of St Foster. Welcome to the complex world of early modern parish names. Given that our sources were published over the course of centuries, it’s hardly surprising that the names of some of the parishes in the bills changed over time. It does, however, present a bit of a challenge for our project since transcribers must be able to match the names in the bills to the names on the transcription form. And even if we were to change the names on the transcription form to accommodate changing parish names, analyzing bills […]

“Within the Bills”: EEBO and the Early Modern London Metropolis

One of the more helpful digital databases for the study of early modern history is Early English Books Online (EEBO), which contains images of most of the surviving books printed in England between 1473 and 1700. It builds upon the cataloging work of 19th-century bibliographers and began its life as a collection of microfilm in the late 1930s and 1940s before being digitized at the turn of the twenty-first century.[1] Because its focus is on books rather than broadsides or bills, EEBO only contains a small fraction of the early modern Bills of Mortality but a keyword search for the bills still turns up almost 500 results. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are largely publications that mention the bills rather than the bills themselves. However, it is interesting that these publications are not discussing the bills as a source of quantitative data on mortality. Instead, they are […]

Parishes and Extra-Parochial Places

The main organizational unit behind the London Bills of Mortality is the parish: a religious administrative unit usually consisting of one or more churches, their associated staff, and all Christians living within the geographical bounds of the parish. The parish clergy christened, married, and buried their parishioners and—starting in the sixteenth century—the parish clerk kept a register of those events. The burial numbers would eventually form the basis of the bills, with christenings added later. Most of London’s parishes were founded by the late medieval era, though the city’s parish landscape went through a series of small changes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most strikingly, Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries meant that several previously private monastic, priory, and hospital churches were repurposed as parish churches, in new parishes created for the city’s inhabitants. St. Bartholomew the Great, St. Bartholomew the Less, and Holy […]

Confusion of Calendars

by Emily Meyers and Jessica Otis One of the first things a Bill of Mortality tells the reader is the date. The bill (partially) pictured below covers mortality data for the city of London, in the 3rd week of the current bills’ year, which ran from the 31st of December to the 7th of January in the year 1700 AD (from the Latin, Anno Domini, which was often translated into English as the Year of the Lord). Bill excerpted from Paul Laxton, ed. The London Bills of Mortality, 1701-1829 For people living in early modern London, this was a straightforward and easily understood statement of the date. For the twenty-first century scholar, this is guaranteed to cause data problems if taken at face value and filtered through modern assumptions about time. First, the week of December 31st to January 7th was numbered as the third […]

The London Bills of Mortality

by Dan Howlett and Jessica Otis Plague epidemics were a recurring threat in late medieval and early modern Europe. While plague could and did strike anywhere, the most well-documented epidemics were often in cities. Responses varied across time and space, as city leaders and other political authorities attempted to avoid contagion, contain the sick, and understand the scope of the threat plague currently posed to their lives and their livelihoods. These responses included the creation of lists: lists of people sick with plague, lists of cities infected with plague, and–starting in the sixteenth century–lists of the number of people who had died of plague. In England, the first plague policies were enacted in 1517-1518, after an outbreak of sweating sickness and plague that affected the royal court including the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. These policies included attempting to quantify the severity of various plague outbreaks […]

DbN Team Wins Grant from National Science Foundation

The Death by Numbers team is excited to announce that we have won a grant from the NSF, officially titled Digitization and Analysis of the Bills of Mortality Data Set. This grant runs from 2021 to 2024 and the grant abstract is reproduced below: One of the most dreaded diseases in early modern England was plague. The city of London alone lost an estimated 225,000 people to plague in the century between 1563 and 1665. As an extension of government attempts to track plague deaths during outbreaks, London officials started publicly distributing a weekly series of mortality statistics called the Bills of Mortality at the turn of the seventeenth century. London’s population rapidly embraced the bills as a tool for evaluating their risk of imminent death, which led to the bills’ continuous weekly publication starting in 1603. These public bills also contained all-inclusive death counts […]