In 16th- and 17th-century London, in response to recurrent epidemics of bubonic plague, authorities instituted the tradition of publishing a bill of mortality each week. The “Great Plague of London,” which hit the city in the summer of 1665, is estimated to have killed between 75,000 and 100,000 Londoners (out of a total population of about 460,000). This page represents the death tally of all city parishes for the week of Aug. 15-22, 1665, when the plague had infected 96 of the 130 parishes reporting.
In his book Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects, Neil MacGregor writes that the bills cost about a penny, and were published in large print runs. The other side of the bills contained information on deaths broken down parish by parish.
If medicine was still somewhat uncertain about the causes of death, those in charge of toting up deaths for the bills of mortality were even more so. As the Royal Society of Medicine’s website notes, “[Parish] clerks’ lack of medical training resulted in many peculiar or vague causes of death being recorded.” Hence, the deaths here chalked up to “griping in the guts,” “grief,” “suddenly,” and “stopping of the stomach.”
In addition to the immense toll of the plague, this document shows the high rate of infant mortality. The youngest Londoners died so often, historian Lynda Payne writes, that their deaths were categorized according to their ages, rather than according to the diseases that might have killed them. “Chrisomes” (15 dead) were infants younger than a month old; “teeth” (113 dead) were babies not yet through with teething.
The Wellcome Library in London has just made more than 100,000 of its medical-history images available for hi-res download under a CC-BY license. Among the images now freely available are a handful of bills of mortality from 1664 and 1665. Visit their Images page and search “bills of mortality” to see. And historian Craig Spence runs a blog exploring violent deaths in the bills of mortality, which is a great browse.
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