The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Of Counts and Causes: The Emergence of the London Bills of Mortality

A guest post by Dr. Kristin Heitman

The Folger’s rare holdings let us glimpse aspects of Renaissance and early modern practices otherwise lost to us. For example, while many European cities and towns had well-documented methods for monitoring the health of their residents, particularly during plague epidemics, significant details of the programs’ inner workings are disclosed only in a series of Folger documents—particularly for the City of London.

Tracking plague

In an age when most of Europe consisted of federations of city-states and principalities, even health-surveillance programs ordered by kings or princes were designed and carried out by the governments of cities and towns. While local governments certainly learned from each other, they mostly relied on existing resources and infrastructure.1 Their practices could thus vary quite a bit.

Alas, Shakespeare is not a reliable guide here. The events of Romeo and Juliet are set in Verona and Mantua, Italy, yet the “searchers” who delayed the messenger to Romeo (Act V, Scene 2) were a London innovation. Cities on the continent of Europe, particularly those with medical schools, usually called on physicians to help compile their official plague reports.

Illustration from Romeo & Juliet (1592)
Illustration from Romeo & Juliet (1592): After the messenger to Romeo is delayed in a plague quarantine, the lovers’ plans unravel. Here, Juliet awakens in her tomb to find Romeo dead on the floor and Friar Lawrence there to explain. Image from LUNA.
Weekly report of London plague mortalities, by parish (year unknown, but most likely between 1512 and 1532). Image downloaded 19 March 2015 from Wellcome Collection. Used by permission.

Starting with the plague of 1518, however, England’s Henry VIII issued orders charging parish priests with reporting deaths from plague; standing orders were issued in 1538.2 To identify plague as the cause of death, London’s clergy relied upon others, including the parish women who helped bathe and dress the corpse for viewing prior to burial. By the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1592, the City of London had officially appointed at least two women in each of its parishes, swearing each to inspect (“search”) every new corpse in her parish and empowering her to make any inquiries she deemed necessary in determining the cause of death.3

Citywide reporting of mortalities was accomplished by the parish clerks. Each clerk compiled a weekly count of the burials in his parish, relying upon the searcher’s determinations once they were available, and sent his report to his guild, the London Company of Parish Clerks. The guild’s clerk then compiled a report for the Lord Mayor and aldermen. Copies went to the Crown and Chancellor a day later. In the meantime, the aldermen decided where to impose quarantines and sent the City watch to board up houses. Watchmen arrived without warning to seal the entire household – plus any unlucky visitors – inside, marking the door with a white cross and the words, “Lord Have Mercy Upon Us.”

An 19th century reproduction of the “Agas” map of London, which shows the geography of the metropolis ca. 1563. However, the original map was partially updated in the late 1660s to show later landmarks such as the Royal Exchange and St. Paul’s Cathedral as it was rebuilt after the 1666 Great Fire. The City wall and River Thames approximate the legal boundaries of the jurisdiction of London’s Lord Mayor and its Court of Aldermen. Southwark, home to the Globe Theater, lay in Surrey, across the bend in the Thames. Total and plague mortalities for Southwark and for adjoining parishes in Middlesex (to the north) were included in the printed Bills from the early seventeenth century. Those for the separately incorporated City of Westminster, which lies at the western edge of the map and is home to Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall, the Palace of St. James, and many Crown offices, were added at mid-century. Although the City of London obtained jurisdiction over Southwark in 1550, its regulations were far looser than those within City walls—and only City parishes “within the walls” established the infrastructure to count deaths from causes other than plague. Photo downloaded 28 December 2017 from Wikimedia.

The Folger’s collection includes a manuscript annual summary (“general”) plague bill from 1563 (this document will be the subject of a future Collation post). Its existence suggests that certain Crown ministers—and perhaps London’s aldermen—watched not just the weekly patterns in plague deaths but also their annual totals, perhaps in order to compare them with those of other plagues or other cities.

Significantly, the report shows not only parish-by-parish counts of deaths from plague, but also parallel counts of all burials. That two-part surveillance also appears to be a London innovation. It was an important step in estab­lishing an accurate, population-level under­standing of plague’s spread, for London parishes varied so greatly in size and density that merely comparing plague deaths across parishes would not show where plague was most prevalent. Tracking the relative frequency of plague mortalities made it possible to construct a much more accurate idea of an epidemic’s ebb and flow.

London’s plague-mortality reports were not published until the turn of the 17th century.  Initially, they were closely-held government documents used to conduct the City’s business, coordinate plague-related efforts by City and Crown officials, and assist the Crown in determining when the sovereign and Court should decamp for the relative safety of Oxford.

Annual summary report of plague deaths by parish in 1563. Prepared for Queen Elizabeth I by the clerk of the London Company of Parish Clerks, likely as a copy of a report compiled for London’s Lord Mayor and Board of Aldermen. Image from LUNA.

Tracking all deaths by cause

Sometime in the mid-1550s, in the chaos surrounding the death of Edward VI, London’s aldermen began to require weekly reports of all causes of death in every parish, not just during plague epidemics but continu­ously. In 1555 (which was not a plague year) they granted the Parish Clerks formal compen­sation for ongoing, continuous, weekly, parish-by-parish reports of the numbers who had died and “whereof they died” across the City of London.4 Once the City formally appointed its parish searchers, they became responsible for ascertaining causes of death under this new program as well.

Scholars have long thought of London’s mortality reports as starting in the early 1600s, when they were first printed for public consumption. However, the Folger holds a beautiful 1591 manu­script weekly report that lists, in alphabetical order, every parish in the area specified by the 1555 London ordinance. The name of each parish that reported deaths is followed by a list of causes, with a count for each. Moreover, although no plague deaths were identified that week, each page has two ruled columns down its right side, one labeled “Burials” and the other “Plague.”

First page of a 1591 manuscript weekly report of deaths from all causes. Prepared for Queen Elizabeth I by the clerk of the London Company of Parish Clerks. The content and format suggest that it is a copy of report originally compiled for London’s Lord Mayor and aldermen. Image from LUNA.

This formalized structure suggests that by the time that Romeo and Juliet was written, London had established a surveillance process that explicitly served both London’s 1555 all-causes ordinance and Henry’s 1538 plague-specific orders, as legally distinct but not functionally separate programs. The report’s last page also provides baptism counts, although only for the City as a whole. Taken together, however, the report’s counts could be used to track quantitative trends in the City’s population.

Last page of the same 1591 manuscript weekly report. The count of the week’s baptisms across the City of London is given at the bottom of the page, along with counts of parishes with plague (“none”) and clear of the plague (“all”).

Parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, kept by individual parish clerks and clergy, recorded a wealth of personal information about parishioners: names, dates, and sometimes ages, cause of death, and information about the family or household. But the compilation of mortality counts—conducted cooperatively by the entire London Company of Parish Clerks—generated a separate, purely quantitative element of the City’s system of records. These purely quantitative reports were another London innovation. The entries in Italian plague rolls were certainly counted up; but London’s method stripped away personal details to produce reports consisting only of counts and categories. The aldermen apparently saw their health-surveillance efforts as a firmly depersonalized, businesslike inventory of the City and its adjoining areas.5

Because this Folger report is the only one of its kind known to survive, it is likely that these compre­hensive counts were also closely-held government documents. They were created for the City’s aldermen; copies were sent to the Crown and Chancel­lor after a specific request by Elizabeth’s chief advisor, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Cecil had a keen appreciation of reliable data, and these reports provided precious political intelligence that could indicate, if only roughly, the economic and fighting strength of England’s wealthiest, most populous city.

Such measures were especially useful because a census of the living was simply not possible. Neither the City nor the Crown had the infrastructure to force compli­ance on the living. Any govern­­ment counting-up was strongly resisted or widely evaded, as likely to lead to taxes or muster. But by joining the compulsory state religion of Tudor England with the skills and social access of the searchers as well as the skills and guild structure of the parish clerks, London’s aldermen were able to track burials and baptisms across the City in a regular, frequent, and surprisingly accurate way.

Were more ordinary causes of death still tracked during plague? Unfortunately, for the early years of the program, there is no evidence even at the Folger. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We simply do not know. If such counts were collected, the City did not release them—and because the City’s reports were ephemera, they were only rarely saved. The hall of the Parish Clerks, where the original information was stored, suffered several fires over the centuries. The last, caused by a bomb dropped in the London Blitz of 1940, burned the hall and its contents to the ground.

Published reports

Plague data were first published as weekly broadsides during the epidemic of 1596-8.6 These poster-sized sheets, the first printed Bills of Mortality, were literally nailed to posts for public consultation. Since most Londoners had family and trade connections scattered across the City, fresh, reliable information indicating whom to worry about and where not to go could be precious indeed. Those who could not read for themselves could rely on others in the crowds that gathered around to see the latest news.

1603 plague broadside showing parish-by-parish weekly mortality counts. The counts here are broken into sections: deaths within the City’s jurisdiction, those in London’s “liberties” and just outside its walls, and in several Middlesex parishes that border the City. (The liberties were areas traditionally exempt from royal taxation and City regulation, most of which originated as medieval monasteries.) The bottom section provides a total count of plague deaths for each area plus, for the City only, the week’s counts of baptisms and parishes with and without reported plague deaths. Photo by Stephen J. Greenberg. Widener Library, Harvard University. Used with permission.

The publication of plague counts may have reflected the population’s ability to read and use numerical information as much as any drive to make residents more responsible for their own welfare.  Numeracy rose significantly across Tudor England, particularly under Elizabeth I.7 It was especially common in London, where numerical tables were familiar even to sellers with small market stands, who used them to finesse the challenge of multiplying price per item by number of items sold.

Before the weekly data were published, however, the City government used them to impose quarantines and other measures. As a plague epidemic emerged, internal distri­bution of mortality data went into high gear. The Folger holds a snippet bill from 1609 that may be the sole surviving remnant of one part of that process.8 It uses a preprin­ted form, filled in by hand. Its small size and lopped edges suggest that it was cut from a larger sheet of several such forms.

A simplified weekly plague report from 1609, about 2 inches by 3 inches. Image from LUNA.

Unfortunately, because it was discovered at the Folger, tucked in a book unrelated to plague, its particular use and original recipient remain a mystery. The loose and hurried writing suggests that it was not intended for the King or his Privy Council; but it provides only City-wide numbers, and an alderman might have been particularly interested in counts for the parishes that composed his ward.

During the epidemics in the first decade of the 1600s, the City’s printer produced and sold single-sided handbills in essentially the same format as the earlier broadsides. In 1626, however, the Company of Parish Clerks bought its own printing press, obtained a license, and began to produce and sell two-sided handbills that provided mortality data with a full range of causes. Until the British census got going in the early 19th century, the Parish Clerks produced and sold a bill every week, plague or no plague, along with a summary “general” report at Christmas. So many of these printed bills survive that scholars believe they sold quite briskly. They fed a growing public appetite for reliable news, particularly among the sociable, and were routinely cited in letters and diaries even outside of epidemics.  Surviving copies are often folded in half lengthwise so that they could be tucked into a coat pocket or pocket­book and carried about as the owner visited friends, shops, and the coffee­houses that sprang up in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Two-sided printed handbill (1679). Weekly mortality counts by parish, of plague and in total, appear on one side. Data on the second side, for the City of London only, include both counts by cause of death and the number of christenings, now broken out into male and female. Note the mandatory weights for standard loaves of wheat bread, which were set by the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen. Image from LUNA.

In an important sense, London’s Bills of Mortality far outlasted their original utility. London never experienced epidemic plague after 1666, and the City’s methods for collecting universal mortality data became increasingly inadequate as Britain struggled with growing religious diversity. City searchers and the Company of Parish Clerks had jurisdiction only over deaths and burials in the Church of England. Nonconformists kept their own church records and, since they were subject to official and social censure, they strongly resisted outside efforts to track their membership, baptisms, and burials. On the other hand, the first post-Domesday British census, completed in 1801, encountered stiff resistance for many of the same reasons. The challenges of setting up its infra­structure thus suggest that even the late-eighteenth century Bills may have provided the best data possible.

Edit 3/14/18: clarified explanation about X.d.264 and other minor edits.

Kristin Heitman is an independent scholar living in Bethesda, Maryland.  She and Professor Vanessa Harding of Birkbeck College, University of London, will convene a Folger Research Institute symposium on the London Bills of Mortality this April.

  1. Slack, Paul. Plague: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  2. Christie, James. Some Account of the Parish Clerks, More Especially of the Ancient Fraternity (Brethrene and Sisterne) of S. Nicholas, Now Known as the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks. London: Privately printed 1893; Nabu Public Domain reprints 2007, pp.133-145.
  3. Munkoff, Richelle. “Poor women and parish public health in sixteenth-century London.” Renaissance Studies 28(2014): 579-596.
  4. Heitman, Kristin. “Reductionism at the Dawn of Population Health,” in Systems Science and Population Health, ed. Abdulrahman M. El-Sayed and Sandro Galea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 12-13.
  5. Kreager, Philip. “Death and Method: The rhetorical space of seventeenth-century vital measurement.” Clio Medica 67 (2002):1-35.
  6. Greenberg, Stephen J. “Plague, Printing and Public Health in Seventeenth-Century London.” Huntington Library Quarterly 67 (2004): 508-527.
  7. Thomas, Keith. “Numeracy in Early-Modern England.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 37 (1987): 103-132.
  8. This document was discussed in an earlier Collation post.

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