Pandemics are THE topic of conversation these days, if you are lucky enough to have someone to talk with. Cable news relentlessly brings us a daily death tally, plus percentages and predictions about Covid-19.
How about a look at statistics from an era before modern medicine? In the 17th century, a little perspective is what brought Ellen Cotes to publish London’s Dreadful Visitation, which collected all the “bills of mortality” printed and posted in London during the Great Plague of 1665. That plague took 100,000 people, about a quarter of London’s population. After the disappearance of the bills from the earlier Great Plague 40 years earlier, Cotes wrote:
“…the sight of them hath been much desired these times, I resolved to communicate unto the Nation, these subsequent leaves so that posterity may not anymore be at such a loss.”
In the early 1590s, London officials started a system for keeping track of deaths in the city, trying to curb the spread of the plague by tracking it and quarantining victims and those who lived with them. It was not legally required to report deaths to a central authority during that era, so officials hired “searchers of the dead”. Their job was to find corpses, examine them, and determine the cause of death. The searchers of the dead were not trained in any kind of medicine. They were usually poor, illiterate, older women whose contact with those infected isolated them socially and usually brought an early end to their lives. Gruesome “gig” workers, they were paid per body.
The causes of death reported by searchers were recorded by clerks on weekly bills of mortality, sheets of paper that sold for a penny, letting citizens know where the plague had spread.
The bill of mortality above comes from a week in September 1665 when the epidemic was at its apex. In the bottom right-hand corner, you can note that a total of 7,165 people in 126 parishes were proclaimed to have died of the plague, a number most historians believe is too low, considering how many people, especially Quakers, Jews, and the very poor, were not taken into account at all.
Even with the alarming number of plague deaths, Londoners, of course, managed to die in other ways, both common place and curious.
Many familiar maladies were given enigmatic names. “Rising of the Lights” was a 17th-century term for any death associated with respiratory trouble because “lights” was a word for lungs. “Griping in the guts” was used for deaths by gastrointestinal problems. “Spotted feaver” was probably typhoid or meningitis.
Labels such as “suddenly”, “frighted”, and “grief” were often assigned to a cause of death by the searchers. “Planet” referred to any illness believed to have been caused by the negative influence or position of one of the planets at the time. The term “Influenza” has an astrological source, literally meaning influenced.
Other causes of death in 17th-century England are listed in the bills. Tuberculosis was named “Consumption”. “Kingsevil” was a swelling of the lymph glands which was thought to be curable by the touch of a royal. “Surfeit”, meaning overindulgence in food or drink, was interchangeable with “Gowt” (gout) or “Dropsie ” (edema). Childbearing frequently took the lives of both mothers and infants and is painfully seen on the bills with entries for “Childbed”, “Stillborn”, “Abortive”, “Teeth” (babies who died while teething), and “Chrisomes” (children who died before they could talk).
So many of the entries read like they were written by Edward Gorey: “Killed by a fall from Belfrey at Alhallowes the Great”, “Burnt in his Bed by a Candle at St. Giles Cripplegate”, and “Drowned in a Tub of Wash in a Brewhouse at St. Giles in the Fields” are some of my favorites.
Pages from London’s Dreadful Visitation are public domain.