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, […]

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 […]