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Preface to the MoEML Finding Aid for the Bills of Mortality

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Preface to the MoEML Finding Aid for the Bills of Mortality


The bills of mortality in early modern London were both printed documents that provided the statistics on deaths in the parishes of London and popular texts to talk upon, according to John Graunt in his 1662 Natural and Political Observations . . . made upon the Bills of Mortality (Gaunt sig. B1r). Despite the ubiquity of the bills in early modern London, criticism of the bills from the nineteenth century onward has focused on debating the statistical accuracy of Graunt’s calculations, not the texts themselves; indeed, many critics seem to agree tacitly with Plomer’s assertion that the value of [the bills] [...] is very small (Plomer 222). This tendency to read the bills statistically—while having led to the preservation of the bills’ demographic data—has effaced the bibliographic codes of the texts. Consequentially, our understanding of the material form and print conventions of the bills remains incomplete. By compiling an exhaustive, enumerative bibliography of all extant early modern bills of mortality and their digital surrogates, I hope to remedy the nineteenth-century criticism and facilitate a turn in the critical conversation surrounding the London bills of mortality.

Previous Finding Aids

There have been few attempts at enumerating and collecting the bills of mortality into a single document. Arguably, the first finding aid was F.P. Wilson’s appendix to the second edition of The Plague in Shakespeare’s London. The largest change from the first to the second edition was the addition of Wilson’s proto-finding aid. Wilson explains that he sought after bills predating 1625, but could find very few (Wilson xi). He continues, writing what amounts to a short prose finding aid. The scope of Wilson’s appendix differs from the MoEML finding aid in a number of ways: first, Wilson’s is an in-prose description of the bills, with footnotes leading to his sources; second, he does not discriminate between the physical bill and the statistics harvested from the bills; and third, he does not provide an enumerated list. Paul Slack provides a similar overview of the bills in The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England. Tapping into a demographic mode of explication, he lists the extant finding aids with a number of disambiguated data points, drawing various conclusions from the data. However, Slack’s focus is on numerical data and not the materials documents. His list of Bills of Mortality thus contains reproductions, from which little can be determined about the original bill from which the data came. The MoEML finding aid builds on the work of Wilson, Slack, and others, by focussing on the original bills and capitalizing on the interlinking potential of the digital environment. Drawing on resources such as MoEML’s bibliography and personography, as well as the ESTC and EEBO, the MoEML Bills of Mortality Finding Aid, I hope, will provide a powerful resource for researchers in a variety of fields.

This Finding Aid

This enumerative, exhaustive bibliography lists the bills of mortality that meet the following criteria:
  • are extant in library collections and/or in surrogate (print or digital) form;
  • were printed in London from 1500 to 1662;
  • list the numbers of burials and christenings;
  • locate the statistics within particular parishes;
  • and comprise the main text of the document.
Small summative documents (often referred to as plague bills) are not included, except for a few early manuscript records that provide documentation about the tradition of gathering statistics. I exclude texts that quote mortality numbers or publish them as paratext on printed broadside prayers and ballads. Facsimiles and scholarly transcriptions are not included unless they contain the only known reference to a particular bill, in which case I provide a citation in the note column.
The bills in this bibliography are sorted by year and defined by the following parameters:
Temporal scope I indicate if the bill aggregates weekly or yearly statistics.
Printer The history of the Parish Clerks’ printing press is well detailed (see Christie), and thus it is possible to infer the printer based on particular dates. If I am unable to say with absolute certainty who the printer of the bill may have been, I use a superscript cross to denote uncertainty.
Digital Surrogate I list whether or not this bill is available in digital surrogate form.
Location If this bill is available only in print, I list the holding library, the collection and any identifying catalogue numbers. If this bill is available online, I provide a stable URL.
Identification number These include STC (from the second edition of Pollard and Redgrave’s Short-Title Catalogue for texts printed up to and including 1640), Wing (from the second edition of Wing’s Short-Title Catalogue for texts printed between 1641 and 1700), Nelson and Seccombe for the weekly bills, and local catalogue numbers.
Source I consulted a number of sources to locate print and digital surrogates of each bill; each source that references the specific bill of mortality will be listed in the source column. Each source will be linked to its full bibliographic citation.
Notes These are notes for clarification or explanatory purposes. Any information from the source(s) listed in the Source column is rendered in quotation marks on screen (and tagged with the <quote> element in the underlying XML file).

How It’s Made

The data was first drawn from EEBO, Wilson, Sutherland, the ESTC, and the Guildhall Miscellany, and then carefully inputted into a spreadsheet. Using OCR technology, I exported the information contained within pages 145–150 of Nelson and Seccombe’s carefully researched Serial into text files (.txt). The output, while quite accurate, still required a series of Regular Expressions to correlate Nelson and Seccombe’s bibliographic grammar with my own: dates were converted into ISO-standard, record numbers were standardized, and characters related to the print display of the records (e.g. straight-bar characters [‘|’]) were eliminated. These were then exported and added into the spreadsheet.
Each sheet of the spreadsheet was then collapsed and converted into a single text value with doubled quoted, tab-delimited fields. An XSLT (2.0) processed each row of the text file, assigning each cell a variable name and forming the desired TEI rows. The TEI rows were compressed into tables and sorted, grouped, and divided into annual sections, with yearly and weekly bills differentiated into various tables.


This exhaustive bibliography of mortality bills will help researchers of literature, history, and culture contextualize their research within the early modern environment of the plague. The table is sortable, which helps those investigating the plague in early modern London and its various effects find particular years of interest. For example, demographic researchers can investigate the mortality rates in particular years, cross-reference Graunt’s and other demographers’s texts with their source material, and trace the history of human statistics in early modern London.
The end result of this bibliography is not to provide answers but to provoke questions. Since early criticism hinged on discrediting the accuracy of the bills, few research questions have been asked about what the bills tell us about early modern London. Some questions that arise from this bibliography include:
  • What constitutes the genre of the bill of mortality? What are its generic conventions?
  • What is the relationship between the bills’ purpose and their material form?
  • How do the specific bibliographic codes and stylistic choices affect the bills’ rhetorical message?
  • How do the bills of mortality demonstrate, model, or refute understandings of health and wellness in early modern London?
  • What is the role of the Parish Clerks’ printing press in the dissemination of the bills of mortality?
  • What is the perceived value of these documents? What sort of social, cultural, and political determinants shape the reception of the bills of mortality, in the 17th century through to the present?


Cite this page

MLA citation

Takeda, Joey. Preface to the MoEML Finding Aid for the Bills of Mortality. The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Web. 09 April, 2018. <http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/MORT2_preface.htm>.

Chicago citation

Takeda, Joey. Preface to the MoEML Finding Aid for the Bills of Mortality. The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed April 09, 2018. http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/MORT2_preface.htm.

APA citation

Takeda, J. 2018. Preface to the MoEML Finding Aid for the Bills of Mortality. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London. Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/MORT2_preface.htm

RIS file (for RefMan, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Takeda, Joey
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Preface to the MoEML Finding Aid for the Bills of Mortality
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
PY  - 2018
DA  - 2018/04/09
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  - http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/MORT2_preface.htm
UR  - http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/xml/standalone/MORT2_preface.xml
ER  - 


RT Web Page
SR Electronic(1)
A1 Takeda, Joey
A6 Jenstad, Janelle
T1 Preface to the MoEML Finding Aid for the Bills of Mortality
T2 The Map of Early Modern London
WP 2018
FD 2018/04/09
RD 2018/04/09
PP Victoria
PB University of Victoria
LA English
OL English
LK http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/MORT2_preface.htm

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#TAKE1"><surname>Takeda</surname>, <forename>Joey</forename></name></author>. <title level="a">Preface to the MoEML Finding Aid for the Bills of Mortality</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>. Ed. <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>. <pubPlace>Victoria</pubPlace>: <publisher>University of Victoria</publisher>. Web. <date when="2018-04-09">09 April, 2018</date>. <ref target="http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/MORT2_preface.htm">http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/MORT2_preface.htm</ref>.</bibl>