The London Bills of Mortality (symposium)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a spring 2018 symposium led 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.