Posts tagged with background
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.