Bills of Mortality

views updated May 21 2018


In English parishes, beginning in 1538, every burial required completion of a document that was the precursor of the modern death certificate. This made the burial legal and allowed the deceased's estate to be legally disposed of. The number of deaths were compiled on a weekly and an annual basis. These compilations were known as bills of morality. In many parishes they were rough accounts of the causes of death, and over the years this information became more precise, though it was not necessarily consistent from one parish to another. The procedure was made more formal and systematic throughout England in 1603, and continued until it was superceded by the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836. From 1728 onward, the age of death was also recorded in the bills.

In the years following the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660, several scholars found these documents to be a fruitful source of information about the lives and deaths of the English people. The first of these was John Graunt, a London haberdasher and amateur scientist who was interested in the impact of epidemic outbreaks of plague, the impact of death and its cases on men and women, and the relative merits of living either in a city such as London or in the country. Graunt published his analyses in Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality (1662), a work that became the founding classic of the modern sciences of vital statistics and epidemiology. Graunt's contemporary Sir William Petty adopted a similar approach in his analyses, published in Political Arithmetic (1682) and other works that made Petty a founding father of economics.

John M. Last

(see also: Certification of Causes of Deaths; Graunt, John; Mortality Rates )

mortality, bills of

views updated May 23 2018

mortality, bills of. Weekly official returns of the deaths (later, also baptisms) in 109 London parishes, published by the Company of Parish-Clerks from 1592, probably prompted by the plague but limited to Anglicans in parish burial-grounds. Diseases and casualties for both sexes were distinguished by 1629, but the ignorance of the searchers, unreliable and venal ‘antient matrons’ who reported the cause of death to the parish clerks, occasioned notoriously imprecise diagnoses and distinctions. The figures nevertheless enabled John Graunt to compile the first known life table (1662). A national civil vital registration system was not established until 1837.

A. S. Hargreaves