'Live to die'
lthough, from 1538, parishes were required to keep a record of burials, there were no arrangements for counting up, breaking down or publishing the totals by age or sex or cause of death. In consequence, impression and anecdote characterise Tudor and early Stuart writers' statements about patterns of mortality. Location, age, rank and gender are all cited as significant factors. Always and everywhere the deaths of infants and young children, though often deeply felt, were commonplace. Richard Downe, who was buried in Devon in 1710, was among those whose road from cradle to grave was short. His epitaph is as economical as could be:
In speechless silence my youthful day soon sped, I left my cradle and came here to bed.
Bad harvests and wars against foreign or domestic enemies pushed up the death rate-in particular among the poor (even in the worst of times the wealthy could get hold of food; remarkably few noblemen died on active service). Epidemics manifestly made more work for the gravedigger in some years than in others. Plague and rumours of plague caused particular alarm. In London the weekly Bills of Mortality acted as a barometer: 'the theatres were closed whenever the death rate reached thirty They were dark during virtually the whole of 1603, for more than half the year in 1604, 1606, 1610 and for nearly all of 1607 to 1609. Between July 1608 and November 1610, the theatres were shut for twenty-four months'. Official action and the natural reluctance of buyers and sellers to expose themselves to infection hit trade. The casually employed were put out of work and the cost of living soared as markets were shut down. The better off fled.The captions which an anonymous printmaker used for four scenes recording the dislocation and destruction of human life caused by the last great visitation of the plague, which afflicted London in 1665, suggest the terror it inspired.
|− Multitudes flying from London by water in boats and barges|
|− Burying the dead with a bell before them. The Searchers [their role is described on p. 26]|
|− Carts full of dead to bury.|