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 […]

The Parish Clerks’ memento mori: Iconography of Death and trademark in The London Bills of Mortality, 1727-1752

In the fourth week of 1727 the habitual readers of the Bills of Mortality noticed something different in the most recent bill. The bill printed on Thursday January 9th showcased a border of skulls and crossed-bones framing the death counts in both the verso and the recto.[1] The artwork of the skull was fairly simple: a bike-seat-like cranium slightly bent to the right, with triangular nostrils, three ovals as eyes and mouth, and two crossed-bones at the bottom. Apparently, it took Will Humphryes –the Printer to the Company of Parish Clerks– a few weeks of trial-and-error with the woodcut blocks to set the final outline of the skull rim. Humphyres initially placed the skulls side by side, facing symmetrically to the center of the bill. One week later, the skulls on the side were facing down, vertically piled up on top of one another, while […]

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 […]