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).
“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.
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.
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.