Category Archives: England

Setting Affairs in Order During the Plague, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne 1636

9780300174472-1Keith Wrightson, Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City, and the Plague. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne is one of those cities that is rarely the focus of a plague study – an industrial town whose prosperity and continued existence was based on its economic impact. Coal was king in seventeenth century England and Newcastle had an abundant local supply that not only supplied southern England but was exported throughout the North Sea. The port brought the plague to Newcastle possibly from the Netherlands in October 1635, at least six months before it arrived in London. Initially the plague was light but it was percolating through the rats of Newcastle, and a note in May 1636 marks the the realization that the plague was intensifying.  Still, the port never closed entirely throughout the epidemic. Cities in southern England were willing to risk the plague to keep the coal flowing. Rather than isolate the city and close it port, they opted to board up the infected, their families and caretakers in their homes and quarantine ships. Wrightson hypothesizes that this forced quarantine/isolation was responsible for the high mortality rate within families. Some ships were even willing to visit the port and wait out quarantine more than once during the plague to keep the coal flowing. 

Railph Tailor Scr.

Wrightson was first drawn to Ralph Tailor by his fancy autograph. He explains that this nearly illegible signature was an anti-forgery device. Scriveners made their living writing documents in the proper style for a court or business contract. Ralph Tailor was a young scrivener still trying to get established when the plague arrived in Newcastle in 1636. With due diligence and some personal risk, Ralph Tailor established his footing in Newcastle by writing wills for the stricken sometimes through boarded up doors and windows, and later estate inventories for their probate.

Plague response in Newcastle depended upon a spontaneous community assistance to be workable. Keeping families boarded up in their homes for weeks requires external support primarily from friends and neighbors. Someone had to bring them food and be their contact with the outside world including summoning Ralph Tailor to write their wills and other documents. It says something about the straights of poor women that they were willing to take jobs as ‘keepers’ (nurses) who were shut up in houses with plague infected families for a small wage. Social safety nets as we know them today did not exist, but neighborly safety nets did. People wove their own safety nets through relationships with neighbors, fraternities and guilds, and kin. While craftsmen and service providers like scriveners were in competition, they also worked together for the good of their craft to support each other and their industries.

Very little narrative information survives of Ralph Tailor or his customers. Yet, a few bare records of deaths and marriages along with the wills and related documents provides a remarkable amount of information about their lives. By comparing witnesses, beneficiaries and debtors in wills the web of community connections can be partially reconstructed. It is possible in some cases to track the plague’s path through these networks as people refer to each other as beneficiaries or recently deceased so that not only was plague hitting some families much harder than others, it hit their support networks as well.  Wrightson was able to divide the city into parishes, very uneven in size and economic status, as another view at how these neighborhood networks were faring on a larger scale. This is the type of painstaking historical research that needs to be done to understand pre-modern plague epidemiology. Very few cities have adequate, perfectly preserved data for modern epidemiological analysis. It takes a skilled historical epidemiologist to make sense out of these incomplete records and to resurrect data from the scattered historical remains in archives.

Ralph Tailor did survive the plague and went on to be a man of means in Newcastle. Fourteen of the wills written by Ralph Tailor during the plague survive linking him personally with 92 people who served as witnesses, clients, co-appraisers of inventories, etc. He married during the plague and furnished his first home with items bought from estate sales of some of the plague victims. (Buyers and prices are recorded for estate sales because they are part of the probate record.) He later became a notary public and diversified his business interests in Newcastle. Writing documents for people must given him the opportunity to learn of good deals. When the hearth tax was taken in 1665, the notary public Ralph Tailor owned a six hearth home “in Corner Tower Ward, a relatively wealthy ward located below Allhallow’s church” in addition to other homes in the poorer wards that must have been rental property (p. 149). Only 6% of the homes in Newcastle that year had six or more hearths.   He managed to remain a prominent townsman and contracted civil servant without becoming personally entangled in the political and religious wars of the seventeenth century within Newcastle and beyond. Eventually twice married, he left no children and his heirs were relatives of his second wife when he died in 1669. He was buried under a now lost memorial stone in Allhallow’s church yard with his first wife.

Wrightson’s microhistory provides a vivid look into life in Newcastle during the plague of 1635-6. This book will be of interest for those interested in plague in 17th century England, especially among craftsmen and port workers. Noble, elites and clergy are rarely mentioned in this book. Through the works of Ralph Tailor we see that extra-ordinary year through the life and work of an ordinary man.

Pest Anatomized

Lindsey’s post on plague doctors spurred me to go look through the Wellcome library for plague graphics. Here is a neat one I found:

The Wellcome library lists the title as: Loimotomia, or, The pest anatomized : an historical account of the dissection of a pestilential body by the author. Together with the author’s apology against the calumnies of the Galenists, and a word to Mr. Nath. Hodges, concerning his late Vindiciae medicinae …

They did believe in long descriptive titles in the 17th century. It was written by George Thomson, MD (1629-1677) and published in 1666 during the Great London Plague. Something tells me I need to learn more about Dr Thomson!

Mapping Malaria in Anglo-Saxon England

Guthlac at Croyland in the marshes of the Wash.

England once looked very different. Much of southern Britain was marshland for most of the island’s occupied history. These bogs, fens, and marshes ensured that areas of virtual wilderness persisted  from before Roman Britain through the Norman period and beyond. Despite the difficulties of using fenlands, these areas were not only occupied throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, but important centers like Croyland, Bardney, and Ely eventually developed in the marsh.

The largest fenland region was known as ‘the Wash’.  This low-lying region drained four rivers into  a square bay of the North Sea that forms the corner between Lincolnshire and Norfolk. In Anglo-Saxon times, this tidal marsh and bog was a vast border region between the region of Lindsey and East Anglia.  Places like Croyland and Ely were islands in the wetlands.  The eighth century Life of Guthlac describes the environment of Croyland when Guthlac arrived:

There is in the Midland district of Britain a most dismal fen of immense size, which begins at the banks of the river Granta not far from the camp which is called Gronte (Cambridge) and stretches from the south as far north as the sea. It a very long tract, now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes with black waters overhung by fog, sometimes studded with woodland islands and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams. (Hill, 1981:11 cited in Gowland & Western, 2011).

These marshes are ideal for malaria, but evidence of malaria in Anglo-Saxon England has been lacking. It is supposed that malaria would have been brought to Britain with the Romans (1). Unfortunately, there is no evidence that I know of that malaria became endemic in Roman Britain much less lasted into the early medieval (Anglo-Saxon) period. It has also been speculated that ‘spring fever’ (lecten adl) found in Anglo-Saxon leechbooks is the spring manifestation of tertian malaria (1) caused by Plasmodium vivax. This would fit the pattern of malaria in cool or cold climates like that found in Finland discussed in a recent post. Indoor transmission in Anglo-Saxon earthen floored, open structured wooden homes with thatched roofs would be an ideal way to concentrate malaria in a thinly populated marsh.  (Without chimneys homes had to open enough to allow smoke to escape from a central hearth.)

Incidence of Malaria in England, 1840-1910 (2)

It has long been known that Britain can environmentally support endemic malaria. Malaria was fairly wide-spread in 19th century Britain when it was first mapped (figure to left) (2). The upper black area on the map includes much of ‘the Wash’. However, proof of malaria is more tenuous for the medieval period.  Together with the unhealthy reputation of the brackish marshlands there is at least enough evidence to suggest that endemic malaria reached back into the late medieval period.

Malaria went by a variety of local names before the early modern period. Malaria-like fevers are mentioned in literature from Geoffrey Chaucer to William Shakespeare (2, 3). Terminology for malaria was not settled upon the Italian ‘malaria’ until the early modern period. Before then, it went by a variety of terms the most universal being ‘ague’, meaning the shakes, and sometimes  ‘fever and ague’ referring to the cyclic breaking of a fever.

Gowland and Western (2011) took a new approach to finding evidence of malaria in Anglo-Saxon England (400-1100 AD) (4). Malaria caused by Plasmodium vivax causes chronic hemolytic anemia that may result in cribra orbitalia due to expansion of the bone marrow in the cranium. Gowland and Western correlated the presence of cribra orbitalia in Anglo-Saxon skeletal remains with the presence of the malarial vector Anopheles atroparavus and reports of ‘ague’ in 19th century England.

The Anglo-Saxon cemeteries used in their study are mapped in the figure below on the left. Note that not many cemeteries are located near the modern coastline of ‘the Wash’. This area would have likely been too wet for settlement.

Anglo-Saxon cemeteries (4)
Map of A. atroparvus with 19th century "ague" records. (4)

Gowland and Western  determined areas capable of sustaining malaria by mapping the presence of A. atroparvus from a 1900 AD British Museum survey (shown above on the right) (4).  The darker the shading the more reports of mosquitoes. This survey was reported to not have been systematic, so they augmented it with 19th century ‘ague’ reports (triangles).  There are some notable areas with high levels of mosquitoes that lack ague reports. This map was use to determine malarial regions for correlation with either cribra orbitalia or the poor nutrition control enamel hypoplasia. It also roughly correlates with the 1840-1910 malaria incidence in the color map above by Kuhn et al (2).

An inverse distance map showing A. atroparus incidence vs. hot and cold spots for cribra orbitalia. (4)

In this last map, malarial areas are plotted with hot and cold spots for cribra orbitalia.  Purple and blue areas on the map indicate the highest areas of A. atroparvus in 1900, while red and orange circles indicate the cribra orbitalia ‘hot’ spots. Areas of cribra orbitalia correlate very well with malarial areas around the Wash.  Cribra orbitalia ‘cold’ spots (blue circles) correlate with areas of low A. atroparvus. They found no correlation between enamel hypoplasia with either ‘malarial’ or ‘non-malarial’ areas (4).

If this cribra orbitalia is due to malaria, it is likely an underestimate of the amount of malaria in the English wetlands. Cribra orbitalia forms in children so it will not indicate adults who contract malaria. Communities like Ely, Croyland and Peterborough were large monasteries who probably drew many into the marsh as adults.

Confirmation of malaria in Anglo-Saxon England will have to wait for molecular evidence, but this skeletal evidence strengthens the hypothesis that it was endemic in early medieval Britain. It also should be informative for the areas to concentrate efforts to find molecular evidence.


(1) Cameron, M.L. (1993, repr. 2006) Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge University Press.

(2) Kuhn, K., Campbell-Lendrum, D., Armstrong, B., & Davies, C. (2003). Malaria in Britain: Past, present, and future Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 (17), 9997-10001 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1233687100

(3) Reiter P (2000). From Shakespeare to Defoe: malaria in England in the Little Ice Age. Emerging infectious diseases, 6 (1), 1-11 PMID: 10653562

(4) Gowland RL, & Western AG (2011). Morbidity in the marshes: Using spatial epidemiology to investigate skeletal evidence for malaria in Anglo-Saxon England (AD 410-1050). American journal of physical anthropology PMID: 22183814

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