Posts

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, […]

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 […]

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 […]

How we get things done: the transcription workflow

Once items are added to DataScribe and the datasets are ready for transcription, the transcription workflow begins. The project owner can assign users one of two roles: reviewer or transcriber. Reviewers can edit all records and items, regardless of the item’s status. For Bills of Mortality, Reviewers include the staff members on the project and our Digital History Research Assistants. Transcribers can only edit records and items which are locked to them. The Bills of Mortality transcription team is made up of undergraduate and graduate students. The Bills of Mortality transcription process starts with a Reviewer assigning items to the transcribers. Each item in DataScribe begins as an unlocked and new item in a dataset. When the Reviewer opens the dataset, they use filters to find these unlocked items and then assign them to individual members of the transcription team. The batch action dropdown menu […]