London Bills of Mortality (symposium)

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Spring 2018 Symposium

Organized by Vanessa Harding and Kristin Heitman

In the mid-1550s, London’s Court of Aldermen directed the Company of Parish Clerks to compile weekly reports of the number of burials in each City parish that included a cause for each death. These became the famous Bills of Mortality, a significant feature of London life for three centuries, evolving in form and content with the metropolis they recorded. The Bills illuminate aspects of early-modern London’s governance, print culture, and appetite for news. The process of compilation, including reliance on parish “searchers” to determine causes of death, provides clues to social conditions, gender roles, and the interests of the City’s governors. The data reported contribute to understanding the City’s shifting demography and social topography; perceptions of diagnosis, disease, and death; the history of plague; and contemporary interest in quanti­tative knowledge. The symposium aims to bring together scholars working on these topics to examine the early modern Bills in detail—including the Folger’s unique manuscript report from 1591—and to explore their context and significance.

Organizers: Vanessa Harding, Professor of London History at Birkbeck, University of London, has written about death and burial in London and about the sources on which estimates of London’s population are based. Forthcoming work on London plague examines annotated copies of the Bills of Mortality and composite or commemorative plague bills. Kristin Heitman is an independent scholar based in Bethesda, Maryland, whose interests center on metrics and systems of records. Her current work concerns the origins of the Bills of Mortality and the life of John Graunt.

Schedule: Thursday evening, Friday, and Saturday, 19 – 21 April 2018.


Thursday, 19 April

4.30-5.00 pm
Folger Board Room

Welcome: Owen Williams (Folger)

Introduction: Vanessa Harding (Birkbeck College, University of London)

5.00-6.30 The Curious and Useful London Bills of Mortality: What do they report?

Chair: Vanessa Harding

Hal Cook (Brown University)
Andrea Rusnock (University of Rhode Island)
The London Bills of Mortality figure prominently in histories of plague and public health, disease patterns and demography, political arithmetic, quantification, and statistics, seeming to count all kinds of people according to a single criterion: we are all equal in the face of death. Since the seventeenth century, writers have collected, analyzed, and republished these curious documents to answer a spectacular array of questions including the sex ratio at birth, the rise and fall of smallpox, and the role of women in determining cause of death. This session will explore the enduring attraction and creative analyses of one of the most fascinating and fecund historical sources.

6.30-7.30 Reception
Founders Room

Friday, 20 April

9.30-11.00 am Origins & infrastructure

Folger Board Room

Chair: Keith Wrightson (Yale University)

Ian Archer (Oxford University)
Kristin Heitman (Independent scholar)
This session will explore the origins and early development of the London Bills of Mortality. It will begin by examining two documents: (1) the text of a 1555 London ordinance recognizing the Company of Parish Clerks for compiling weekly reports on parish mortalities from not just plague but a full range of causes of death; and (2) a 1591 manuscript report, in the Folger's collection, that may indicate how the weekly counts were initially presented. We will also consider the changing status of parish clerks and their roles as cultural brokers and sources of local information in the Reformation decades; possible reasons for establishing the data-collection program; likely access to the reports in the period before the data were published; and the purposes the reports may have served in governing the city.

11.00-11.30 Coffee

11.30-1.00 Searchers & the parish

Richelle Munkhoff (University of Colorado, Boulder)
Wanda Henry (Brown University)
Acting as public officers for the parish from at least 1592 through the 19th century, women searchers examined dead bodies to determine cause of death for London’s Bills of Mortality. During this session, participants will consider individual searchers of the dead as well as patterns in the parish appointments over the longue durée. The presenters will encourage conversation about the evolution of public health, social history of death, and gender dynamics at the parish level and beyond.

1.00-2.30 Lunch

2.30-4.00 Quantitative Thought

Chair: Andrea Rusnock (University of Rhode Island)

Paul Slack (Oxford University)
Philip Kreager (Oxford University)
This session will explore the nature of quantitative thought, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It will first consider some important innovations in quantitative thinking between 1500 and 1650, notably the concept and calculation of the ‘balance of trade’, then turn to early attempts to use the Bills to calculate sizes and trends in population. The use of proportion across the same period will provide a critical bridge to examining what relationships people began to count as well as how and why they counted; the role of tabulation in presenting numerical data; and the various ways in which later governments set out to compile, or sometimes create, data for quantitative thinking.

4.00-4.30 Tea

4.30-6.00 London’s world of print

Chair: Stephen Greenberg (National Library of Medicine)

Joseph Monteyne (University of British Columbia)
Christopher Kyle (Syracuse University)
This session will explore the textual, visual culture of print in early modern London, in which the weekly Bills were one among many ephemeral printed forms vying for notice. Modern readers of the Bills may view them in isolation, but the early modern city was littered with print and paper. Competition for attention encouraged the development of distinctive formats and consistent styles for particular kinds of publication, as with the Bills themselves. Plague regulations and proclamations used layout and language to assert authority and priority, but printers also responded by developing new and eye-catching formats for presenting information, such as the composite plague bills of the seventeenth century, combining text and image, historical fact and current news. We aim to reflect on the plethora of print in early modern London, and on the strategies and technologies that printers and publishers used to secure attention and acceptance.

Saturday, 21 April

9.30-11.00 Users and Consumers of the Bills of Mortality

Chair: Paul Slack (Oxford University)

Vanessa Harding (Birkbeck, University of London)
Mark Jenner (University of York)
This session will consider the evidence for contemporary consumption of the Bills of Mortality. Though many thousands were printed, only a handful now survive, but some of these give clues to ownership and reading practices. John Graunt suggested that readers first checked the mortality figures, and also drew on reports of ‘rare, and extraordinary’ casualties to provide a topic for conversation in company; letters and diaries bear this out. But the currency and wide circulation of the Bills meant they could be used to advertise and disseminate other official information, such as the weekly Assize of Bread. We will explore what can be known or deduced about the Bills’ readers and the informational uses to which the Bills were put.

11.00-11.30 Coffee

11.30-1.00 John Graunt and William Petty

Chair: Kristin Heitman

Margaret Pelling (Oxford University)
Ted McCormick (Concordia University)
This session will begin by considering John Graunt's likely understanding of the Bills, their origins, and uses. It will then turn to William Petty's response to Graunt's proposals in the context of other contemporary thought about populations, governance, and the potential for social transformation. Joint discussion will also consider how others subsequently understood those proposals as shifting sociopolitical contexts altered and even obscured some of the original assumptions.

1.00-2.30 Lunch

2.30-4.00 Disease, environment, and the uses of the Bills of Mortality

Chair: Hal Cook

Rebecca Totaro (Florida Gulf Coast University)
Kevin Siena (Trent University)
As the last full session of the symposium, we aim to open up discussion of the legacy of the Bills in the longer term. We will explore how the Bills influenced thinking about health and mortality from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, not least by creating a common vocabulary of ‘diseases and casualties’ and furthering the idea of discrete disease entities. With their emphasis on the localisation of mortality, they helped forge powerful connections between notions of class, space, disease and risk within cities. But they also lent themselves to other uses and appropriations, literary as well as political. Finally, we suggest their relevance to contemporary issues such as how we understand and respond to natural disasters and trauma.

4.00-4.30 Break

4.30-6.00 Wrap-up and general discussion

Chairs: Vanessa Harding & Kristin Heitman

6.00-7.00 Closing reception

Supplemental Readings for Folger Symposium on the London Bills of Mortality

These readings do not constitute a comprehensive bibliography. Rather, symposium presenters and chairs were invited to suggest readings that might prove helpful in understanding how they developed their approaches to the topics they addressed. Readings may have informed more than one session and, in a reflection of the interlocking of sessions, several readings were suggested for more than one session and several presenters suggested works by other presenters or session chairs. Citations are in Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) style.

Angus, John, “Old and New Bills of Mortality; Movement of the Population; Deaths and Fatal Diseases in London During the Last Fourteen Years,” Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 17.2 (1854), 117-42.

Archer, Ian, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Archer, Ian, “Social networks in Restoration London: The evidence of Samuel Pepys' diary,” in Communities in Early Modern England: Networks, Place, Rhetoric, ed. by Alexandra Shepard and Phil Withington, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 76-94.

Berry, Herbert, “A London Plague Bill for 1592, Crich, and Goodwyffe Hurde,” English Literary Renaissance, 25.1 (1995), 3-25.

Biller, Peter, The Measure of Multitude: Population in Medieval Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Brett-James, Norman G., “The London bills of mortality in the 17th century,” Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 6.2 (1930), 284-309.

Channing, Walter, “Bills of Mortality,” New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery, 15.3 (1826), 225-34.

Christie, James, Some account of parish clerks, more especially of the Ancient Fraternity (Bretherne and Sisterne) of S. Nicholas, now known as the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks (London: privately published, 1893) <>

Cipolla, C. M., “The ‘Bills of Mortality’ of Florence,” Population Studies, 32.3 (1978), 543-548.

Clark, Oswald, “The Ancient Office of Parish Clerk and the Parish Clerks Company of London,” Ecclesiastical Law Journal, 8.38 (2006), 307-322.

Deringer, William, Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2018) [introduction].

Dobson, Mary J., Contours of Death and Disease in Early Modern England (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Forbes, Thomas R., Chronicle from Aldgate: Life and Death in Shakespeare’s London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).

Forbes, Thomas R., “By What Disease or Casualty: The Changing Face of Death in London,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 31.4 (1976), 395-420; in Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, ed. by Charles Webster (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 117-139.

Forbes, Thomas R., “The searchers,” Bulletin of the New York Medical Academy of Medicine, 50.9 (1974), 1031-1038.

Greenberg, Stephen, “Plague, the Printing Press, and Public Health in Seventeenth-Century London,” The Huntington Library Quarterly, 67.4 (2004), 508-527.

Griffiths, Paul, “Secrecy and Authority in Late Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century London,” The Historical Journal, 40.4 (1997), 925-951.

Griffiths, Paul, “Local Arithmetic: Information Cultures in Early Modern England,” in Remaking English Society: Social Relations and Social Change in Early Modern England, ed. by Steve Handle, Alexandra Shepard, and John Walter (Suffolk: Boydell Press 2013), pp. 113-134.

Hamlin, Christopher, “Predisposing Causes and Public Health in Early Nineteenth-Century Medical Thought,” Social History of Medicine, 5.1 (1992), 43-70.

Harness, Deborah E., “A View from the Streets: Women and Medical Work in Elizabethan London,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 82.1 (2008), 52-85.

Heitman, Kristin, “Of counts and causes: The emergence of the London Bills of Mortality,” The Collation: Research and Exploration at The Folger, 13 March, 2018 <>.

Henry, Wanda S., “Women Searchers of the Dead in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century London,” Social History of Medicine, 29.3 (2016), 445-466.

Hess, Volker and J. Andrew Mendelsohn, “Case and Series: Medical Knowledge and Paper Technology, 1600-1900,” History of Science, 48.1 (2010), 287-314.

Historical Manuscripts Commission, “Table of mortality [for unnamed town, possibly Manchester, 30 June-7 July 1625],” in 14th Report, Appendix P1 IV (1894) ‘The Manuscripts of Lord Kenyon,’ Lancashire Archives, ref. DDKE/acc. 7840 HMC/76.

Jenner, Mark S.R., “Plague on a Page: Lord Have Mercy Upon Us in Early Modern London,” Seventeenth Century, 27.3 (2012), 255-286.

Kreager, Philip, “Death and Method: The Rhetorical Space of 17th-century Vital Measure¬¬ment,” Clio Medica, 67.1 (2002), 1-35; in The Road to Medical Statistics, ed. by Eileen Magnello and Anne Hardy (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), pp. 1-36.

Kreager, Philip, “Aristotle and Open Population Thinking,” Population and Development Review, 34.4 (2008), 599-629.

Kreager, Philip, “The Emergence of Population” in Reproduction: From Antiquity to the Present, ed. by Nick Hopwood, Rebecca Fleming, and Lauren Kassell (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, in publication 2018).

Kuriyama, Shigehisa, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2002).

McCormick, Ted, “Population: Modes of Seventeenth-Century Demographic Thought,” in Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire, ed. by Philip J. Stern and Carl Wennerlind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 25-45.

McCormick, Ted, “Who Were the Pre-Malthusians?,” in New Perspectives on Malthus, ed. by Robert Mayhew (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 25-51.

Monteyne, Joseph, The Printed Image in Early Modern London: Urban Space, Visual Representa¬tion, and Social Exchange (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2007) [esp. 73-112].

Munkhoff, Richelle, “Searchers of the Dead: Authority, Marginality, and the Interpretation of Plague in England, 1574-1665,” Gender & History, 11.1 (1999), 1-29.

Munkhoff, Richelle, “Reckoning Death: Women Searchers and the Bills of Mortality in Early Modern London,” in Rhetorics of Bodily Disease and Health in Medieval and Early Modern England, ed. by Jennifer C. Vaught (London: Routledge, 2010).

Munkhoff, Richelle, “Poor women and parish public health in sixteenth-century London,” Renaissance Studies, 28.4 (2014), 579-596.

Otis, Jessica, “‘Set Them to the Ciphering Schoole’: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetical Education, circa 1540-1700,’ Journal of British Studies, 56.3 (2017), 453-482.

Pelling, Margaret, “Far too many women? John Graunt, the sex ratio, and the cultural determ-ination of number in seventeenth-century England,” The Historical Journal, 59.3 (2016), 695-719.

Pelling, Margaret, “John Graunt, the Hartlib circle and child mortality in mid-seventeenth-century London,” Continuity and Change, 31.3 (2016), 335-359.

Robertson, James C., “Reckoning with London: Interpreting the Bills of Mortality before John Graunt,” Urban History, 23.3 (1996), 325-50.

Rusnock, Andrea, Vital Accounts: Quantifying Health and Population in Eighteenth-Century England and France (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Short, Thomas, New Observations…on City, Town and Country Bills of Mortality (London: privately published, 1750; London: Farnborough, 1973).

Siena, Kevin, “Searchers of the Dead in Long Eighteenth-Century London,” in Worth and Repute: Valuing Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. by Kim Kippen and Lori Woods (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2011), pp. 123-52.

Siena, Kevin, “Pliable Bodies: The Moral Biology of Health and Disease,” in A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Enlightenment, ed. by Carole Reeves (Berg, 2010), pp. 33-52.

Slack, Paul, “William Petty, the multiplication of mankind, and demographic discourse in seventeenth-century England,” The Historical Journal, 61.2 (2018), 301-325.

Slack, Paul, “Government and Information in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present 184.3 (2004), 33-68.

Slauter, Will, “WRITE UP YOUR DEAD: The bills of mortality and the London plague of 1665,” Media History, 17.1 (2011), 1-15.

Spence, Craig, “An analysis of non-pathological deaths from the weekly Bills of Mortality: London, 1662-90” (MA dissertation, University of London, 1990).

Sullivan, Erin, “Physical and Spiritual Illness: Narrative Appropriations of the Bills of Mortality,” in Representing the Plague in Early Modern London, ed. by Rebecca Totaro and Earnest B. Gilman (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 76-94.

Sutherland, Ian, “Parish registers and the London Bills of Mortality,” Journal of the Society of Archivists, 4.1 (1970), 65.

Totaro, Rebecca, Meteorology and Physiology in Early Modern Culture: Earthquakes, Human Identity, and Textual Representation (London: Routledge, 2017).

Totaro, Rebecca, The Plague in Print: Essential Elizabethan Sources, 1558-1603 (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press 2010).

Totaro, Rebecca and Ernest B. Gilman, eds., Representing the Plague in Early Modern England, London: Routledge 2011).

Totaro, Rebecca, Suffering in Paradise: The Bubonic Plague in English Literature from More to Milton (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press 2005).

Walford, Cornelius, “Early bills of mortality,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 7 (1878), 212-48.

Webster, Charles, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform 1626-1660 (London: Duckworth, 1975; Oxford: Peter Lang, 2002)

Wilson, F.P., The Plague in Shakespeare’s London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927).

Wrightson, Keith, Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks, London Bills of Mortality, 1701-1829, ed. by Paul Laxton (Cambridge, UK: Chadwyck-Healey, 1984 [Bodleian Libraries, microfiche].

Download the PDF of Supplemental Readings here.