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Bills of Mortality

July 27, 2014


David Baddiel had a whole monologue based on one of these.  It’s a 17th century Bill of Mortality, representing a peculiar passion and discipline for documentation.  In many ways, now that I look at it, this is a rather unrepresentative one because it’s for the year 1665 and the tally is rather unbalanced.  This was the year that 68596 people are recorded as having died of the plague, a hideous percentage of London’s overall population.  And rather than laugh at the quaint reasons why the parish clerks thought that people died, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of admiration for their stubborn determination to keep count during such nightmarish times.

Now a number of these recorded causes of death sound rather funny, if read out in the right kind of sneery deadban way – which Baddiel did.  But they’ve never seemed all that funny to me.  In particular, Baddiel always thought it rather amusing that people were listed as having died of “grief”.

The fact is, people did and still do die of grief.  People’s lives can be so wrapped up in the life of a loved one that the removal of that loved one destroys the essential rhythm of sustainable life.  The removal of a loved one can remove the reason for living and drain the energies required to keep body and soul together.  A grieving person will simply give up.  Now of course, in precise biomedical terms there is always going to be one specific feature of a traumatised grieving condition that will result in a specific circumstance whereby blood is no longer pumped around the body, but the fact remains that “grief” remains a very expressive explanation for why certain people die.  “Grief” has legitimate explanatory power.

I feel the same way (though not to the same extent) about some of the other terms used back in the seventeenth century.  “Distracted” actually meant “running around in a frenzy”.  “Suddenly” – probably just means that there were no observable symptoms prior to someone being found peacefully dead.   “Frighted” sounds somewhat silly cited as a cause of death, but a bit of creative semantic slippage turns “frighted” into “shocked” into “traumatised”.  Put “severe trauma” on a med cert and it looks sort of sciency.  These parish clerks were doing their best.  The one thing about laughing about the unscientific jargon of previous ages is that you can be sure that future generations will have a good long laugh at ours.


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