Pestilential Soundscapes: Hearing the Plague in Seventeenth-Century London

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Claire Turner. Claire is a second-year PhD student at the University of Leeds whose research investigates sensory experiences and perceptions of the plague in seventeenth-century England. (Twitter: @_claire_turner_)

During a plague outbreak in London in 1625, tailor George Bicker-staffe was making his way to the Lord Windsor’s house in Mugwell Street when he suddenly heard ‘a great noyse’ which ‘came ratling downe the Stayres’. The noise had been produced by a fawn which, having once been tied up in the garden, had now got loose and was causing chaos in the Lord Windsor’s house. Bicker-staffe had been left ‘half breathelesse, and almost speechlesse, looking very ghastly’ after his ordeal. Several days later, having previously been in good health, he became unwell. Then, a mere eleven days after the event involving the fawn, Bicker-staffe died of the plague [1].

George Bicker-staffe’s strange and frightful experience was one of many to take place during London’s seventeenth-century plague outbreaks. His ordeal was used in medical texts to highlight the idea that feelings of fear increased the body’s susceptibility to contract the plague. Upon hearing the unidentifiable noise, Bicker-staffe inadvertently set in motion a process whereby his body underwent catastrophic emotional and physiological changes. This account is one of several to shed light on the dangerous and perilous nature of sounds heard during outbreaks of plague. It introduces us to the idea that sound was believed to indirectly impact the physiology of the human body.

Have you ever experienced illness through your ears? What noises and sounds do you hear when you or someone you know is ill? Pestilential soundscapes were the landscapes of sound produced during plague epidemics. The people who lived through London’s plague outbreaks experienced a huge variety of sounds, each of which affected how they understood the world around them. From the constant sounding of death knells to the screams of plague victims and their relations, the soundscapes of plague epidemics reveal fascinating insights into how people navigated the city during times of crisis. In this post, we’ll explore precisely how the sense of sound could be intimately linked with contagion in the early modern period.

If you were to travel back to a plague outbreak in London, one sound you were likely to hear would be the suffering of plague victims. Numerous accounts detailed the various instances when plague victims might be heard vocalising their pain and anguish. Several of these accounts took place in one particular spot: the window. Early modern windows were only occasionally fitted with glass. In many instances, they were instead fitted with thin and fragile materials such as paper or fabric. Therefore, unwanted noise travelled through windows with ease. It is unsurprising, then, that windows played a central role in the formation of pestilential soundscapes.

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A cart for transporting the dead in London during the great plague. Watercolour painting by or after G. Cruikshank (1792-1878), Wellcome Images.

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Understanding Sources: Six Reasons to Explore the Cause Papers

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Hannah Reeve. It offers a new entry to our ‘Understanding Sources’ series that we began in 2016. Hannah is in her third year of her AHRC-funded PhD at Newcastle University, where she is currently researching the Hanoverian parish. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Reeve_.

Back in my MA days I stumbled across the Cause Papers. Fast forward five years and I still use them – almost daily – as part of my PhD thesis on the early modern parish. Misbehaving clergy? Check. Decayed and dilapidated churches? Check. Squabbles over pews? Check. Boozing during divine service? Check. Really, they have it all. In this short post, I want to share with you what makes the Cause Papers such a unique source and why almost anyone interested in early modern England should explore them.

First, however, the nitty-gritty. The Church courts functioned from the middle ages to the nineteenth century to hear cases on a whole host of matters relating to the Church, and these have survived to form the Cause Papers. Anything from cases of defamation to tithe disputes were heard, where plaintiffs (the person making the complaint) would bring their grievance to the attention of the judge and ask for the defendant (the offender) to be cited to court. Once in court, each party were to produce proof to support their version of events, and these usually took the form of witness statements. Each statement usually began (in Latin) with a personal description of the witness (such as name, where they were from, age and profession). The one below, for instance, is for twenty-seven-year-old James Smith, a York based bell-founder.[1]

Borthwick Institute for Archives, CP.H.2557, “Violation of church rights (repairs of church),” 1664-1665. Image reproduced courtesy of the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

The rest of the statement followed – usually in English – to describe the witness’s version of events. Once all the evidence had been gathered, the case would eventually move toward final sentencing, though some reconciled or admitted guilt prior to the final verdict. In some cases, a verdict of excommunication was decided, where the defendant would be expelled from the Church of England. Francis Milburne, for instance, was caught digging up the “dead bodys, and the bones and sculls of several dead men and women” in the churchyard of St Michael-Le-Belfry (York). In 1664, Milburne was presented to the courts to explain why these corpses had been “heaped against” the side of the church, causing a “filthy noysome smell” for the inhabitants of the parish and those attending divine service. In Milburne’s failure to desist in his shady undertakings, the Church courts excommunicated him in a last ditch attempt to save his soul and deter others from following in his footsteps.[2]

Despite the extensive paper-trail left behind, the Cause Papers remain an underused source. The following will therefore share six reasons why anyone with an interest in the early modern period should utilise them and hopefully draw attention to their potential for future projects.

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