A Scrivener, his City and the Plague
Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City and the Plague
Yale University Press 224pp £20
Every once in a while, as a historian trawls the archives in pursuit of a choice piece of text, he or she is interrupted by a material reminder that these old sheets of paper were once part of everyday life. An artisan calculates a payment on the back of a newsbook, a scholar leaves greasy stains from his supper on the pages of a great Latin tome, an alchemist splatters quicksilver across his notebook, someone reading secretly lets the candle get too close to the midwifery manual. This fascinating little book about the 1636 plague in Newcastle was born when Keith Wrightson had one of these arresting encounters while reading through a box of loose papers in a Durham archive. Ralph Tailor’s signature sat like a peacock with its tail fanned across a deposition.
Ralph Tailor was a young notary when plague arrived in Newcastle in the spring of 1636. By May dozens of people were dying each night. That was just the beginning. The epidemic reached a peak in July and then began to wane. When it ended in the autumn 5,600 people, almost half the city’s population, had died.
Beginning with the Black Death in 1347 plague thrived in European cities during the summers, periodically reaching epidemic proportions. Historians have debated its causes, questioning whether this was indeed the bacteria identified in the 19th century as yersinia pestis and charting its rise and decline in relation to grain prices and weather patterns. The danger of such approaches is that they risk portraying people in the past as victims of a disease and one that we can now control with antibiotics. Plague evokes images of apocalyptic destruction; plagues, from the Old Testament to swine flu, are morally freighted.
In 17th-century England ministers and medical practitioners agreed that plague was caused by the will of God and the noxious air. They debated which sins had provoked divine wrath and whether foul air was caused by planetary motions, open caves or urban filth. They asked how infection spread from city to city and person to person. This knowledge informed how people responded to plague. Despite the horrors of the disease, people took action. Cultural and social histories of plague have considered its impact on medical provision and legal regulation. The handful of surviving first-hand testimonials have been studied; they are often frustratingly formulaic. Wrightson’s book shows us life in the time of plague as never before.
We follow Ralph Tailor as he climbed ladders and perched on walls to take down the wills of dying people. Later he writes the inventories of possessions of the deceased. His is the most ubiquitous hand in the surviving records of Newcastle’s 1636 plague. From March to December 1636 he recorded encounters with 81 people.
If Tailor, or anyone else, had left a clear diary of that summer Wrightson’s task would have been easier. Instead, Tailor’s signature on legal documents is simply a thread. This trope could have become contrived, but it does not. Following Tailor requires Wrightson to muster the knowledge, skill and imagination that has earned him recognition as one of the leading historians of Early Modern Britain. The result is an intimate portrait of a society under strain. We see a parish where two thirds of the households are afflicted. We see people changing their habits, working indoors instead of on the threshold, shifting beds from one room to the next. We contemplate the moment when someone decided to make a will and the structures of kinship and gratitude that it reflected. We consider the emotions masked by the formula ‘for my loving wife’ and expressed in tokens left to people who had nursed the dying. We pause when a woman and her child share a coffin. We smell the stench of rotting bodies and freshly dug graves and, in a city hushed by death, we hear church bells tolling. But life went on. Ralph Tailor continued to write official documents and people ate apples imported from Germany. When it was all over Tailor was there as the survivors cleared out the houses of the deceased, (re)married and sued each other.
This is a charming book. It shows life in Early Modern England at a time of enormous stress and never lapses into the repellent, sensationalistic or sentimental. Students of the period should read it for fun; everyone else should read it alongside Manzoni’s The Betrothed or take it on holiday to Newcastle.
Lauren Kassell is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge.
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