Undergraduate student contribution

Preface to the Bills of Mortality Finding Aid


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 Text[s] to talk upon, according to John Graunt in his 1662 Natural and Political Observations Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents.[…] made upon the Bills of Mortality (Graunt 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] Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (KL)[…] 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 (Wilson). 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 (Slack). 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 focusing 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 English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) and Early English Books Online (EEBO), the MoEML Bills of Mortality Finding Aid, I hope, will provide a powerful resource for researchers in a variety of fields.

How It’s Made

The data was first drawn from the ESTC, EEBO, Wilson, Sutherland, and the Guildhall Miscellany, and then carefully inputted into a spreadsheet (Wilson; Sutherland; Guildhall Miscellany). Using OCR technology, I exported the information contained within pages 145–150 of Nelson and Seccombe’s carefully researched Serial into text (.txt) files (Nelson and Seccombe). 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.
ESTC and TCP numbers were added programatically through another XSLT transformation. I converted the JSON catalogue of TCP numbers (available via the TCP Github here) into an XML representation using XSLT 3.0. The result XML was then processed against the STC numbers recorded in the Finding Aid; if there was a cross-reference to the TCP or ESTC, then those identifying numbers and catalogue entries (if applicable) were added to the Finding Aid. If the TCP version of the text was available, then a link to the TCP surrogate was added to the table.


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’ 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 seventeenth century through to the present?


Cite this page

MLA citation

Takeda, Joey. Preface to the Bills of Mortality Finding Aid. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022, mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/MORT2_preface.htm.

Chicago citation

Takeda, Joey. Preface to the Bills of Mortality Finding Aid. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022. mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/MORT2_preface.htm.

APA citation

Takeda, J. 2022. Preface to the Bills of Mortality Finding Aid. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/editions/7.0/MORT2_preface.htm.

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, 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 Bills of Mortality Finding Aid
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/MORT2_preface.htm
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/xml/standalone/MORT2_preface.xml
ER  - 

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#TAKE1"><surname>Takeda</surname>, <forename>Joey</forename></name></author>. <title level="a">Preface to the Bills of Mortality Finding Aid</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>, Edition <edition>7.0</edition>, edited by <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>, <publisher>U of Victoria</publisher>, <date when="2022-05-05">05 May 2022</date>, <ref target="https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/MORT2_preface.htm">mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/MORT2_preface.htm</ref>.</bibl>