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'Evil' or 'planet struck': How the curious ways we described deaths in the past shaped how we live now

Recorded causes of death have changed wildly in the last few centuries. A new book looks at the ways we used to describe fatalities and changed the course of our lives (and deaths).

In the week of August 15-22, 1665, an outbreak of plague was the principal cause of death

In 1592, the deadliest disease of all time, namely plague, returned to London resulting in the deaths of 17,000 people.

In response, the lord mayor of London ordered that pairs of elderly and responsible women, summoned by ringing a bell, should have the revolting job of viewing every fresh corpse and deciding whether they died from plague or not.

Identifying a plague victim could have dire consequences, as their house would be boarded up, trapping all of its inhabitants inside until none had contracted the disease for 28 days. A plague house was marked with a red cross and the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ on the door. A watchman stood guard outside to stop anyone entering or leaving. Quarantine was often a death sentence for the members of a household.

The women charged with inspecting the bodies were known as searchers of the dead. They had this central role in the recording of public health in England for more than 250 years. Searchers’ data was used to compile bills of mortality that recorded the locations of deaths and listed a cause. These bills were published weekly and sold well. 

Authorities used them primarily to track plague epidemics and respond accordingly, by closing theatres and other potential places where disease might spread.

The reasons for dying listed by the Searchers are astonishingly different to those we see today. Seemingly, no one ever died of a heart attack, stroke or dementia, and cancer was very rare. Causes of death commonly assigned by the searchers included the following:

Rising of the lights: lights is an old word for lungs, so this is lung disease, perhaps croup.

Teeth: not tooth decay, but an infant who died at an age when they were teething. Most likely they had an infectious disease.

Evil: not a curse, but king’s evil or scrofula, a form of tuberculosis.

Childbed: childbed fever, a microbial infection caught shortly after giving birth, sometimes spread by the infected hands of midwives.

Planet struck: a sudden and severe affliction attributed to astrology.

Overlaid: this means suffocation of a baby by its mother. While this may have been an accident when a sleeping mother rolled over onto her baby, it might also have been deliberate, killing an unwanted child. Infanticide by these means could not be proven.

Suddenly: this could be how a heart attack or stroke was recorded.

Dying from age, fright, grief, melancholy, weariness, sighing or distraction were apparently also possible. People frequently died from accidents, particularly drowning, hanging and burns. Plague numbers during an outbreak could rocket up to several thousand per week in just one parish.

Why were the reasons that people died so different 400 years ago? One explanation is undoubtedly enormous advances in our understanding of medicine. Searchers had no medical training and had to record their findings only by observing a corpse and talking to relatives. No one at that time knew disease was caused by infectious micro-
organisms and autopsies were not performed. In addition, searchers could be threatened or bribed not to assign a death to plague as this had such dire consequences.

Secondly, causes of death at the time were indeed very different to now. Today, the leading causes of death in the UK are heart attacks, dementia, cancer, stroke, lung disease, diabetes and the newcomer, Covid-19. Most of these are not infectious, but result from old age and chronic conditions, such as obesity, high blood pressure and using alcohol and cigarettes. In the 17th century, less than 10 per cent of people lived to the age of 50, so few lived long enough to succumb to conditions of old age.

Until the mid-20th century, most people died from infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, measles and pneumonia. Thankfully, most have been defeated by vaccination, drugs, better nutrition, sanitation and cleanliness. Changes in the reasons why we die thus reflect enormous differences in the ways we live. Perhaps in a few hundred years, our descendants will be equally puzzled as to what we meant by stroke, lung cancer or Covid-19.

Andrew Doig is a Professor of Biochemistry @AndrewJDoig1

You can buy This Mortal Coil: A History of Death from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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