London in Tears: Grief and Collective Mourning in the Bills of Mortality

“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. This blog post examines grief as a vehicle for the exploration of some aspects of the death culture in early Modern England. The experiences of grief and mourning shed light on both the idea of loss at an individual level, and on changing commemorative and memorial practices in England […]

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 […]

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 […]