Philobiblon: A changing view of accidents

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A changing view of accidents

To an IHR seminar last night by Craig Spence (Bishop Grosseteste College): ‘Death hath ten thousand several doors’: accidents and death in the early modern city. The focus was on London, and roughly from mid-17th to mid-18th century.

It also introduced me to the concept of the study of accidents. At first it would seem rather prosaic, but when you think about it they, and the explanations given to them, reveal a lot. Was this "God's will", or bad luck, or the fault of someone who must pay in some way, or of the victim? The explanation tells you a lot about society, and the debate around it even more.

And there's also the human side - you sometimes wonder how anyone ever survived London of the time. Apparently being a brewery worker was particularly dangerous, although no doubt consumption of the product was a factor. And with more than 2,000 carts, drays and wagons coming in ever day, the streets were far fropm safe, although the drivers were less likely to fall victim than passers-by and passengers. But riding a horse was more likely to result in your death than being kicked by one.

With the Thames as a major thoroughfare, drwoning was also common, but floating bodies tended to be regarded with suspicion in that they might have been suicides. Those retrieving and dealing with them thus tended to be paid more for their work than in other cases.

The theological battles were nicely illustrated by a building collapse of 1623 in which more than 100 Catholics were killed and injured. They of course sought out logical mechanical explanations about inadequate consruction for the event; the Protestants had a different theory.

The research was based chiefly on the weekly Bills of Mortality. (And I found that a contemporary analysis of these, Graunt's Natural and Political Observations on them is online.

Graunt's analysis is quite sophisticated:

There have been Buried from the year 1628, to the year 1662, exclusivè, 209436 Males, and but 190474 Females: but it will be objected, that in London it may indeed be so, though otherwise elsewhere; because London is the great Stage and Shop of business, wherein the Masculine Sex bears the greatest part. But we Answer, That there have been also Christned within the same time, 139782 Males, and but 130866 Females, and that the Country Accompts are consonant enough to those of London upon this matter. ...In the year 1642 many Males went out of London into the Wars then beginning, in so much, as I expected in the succeeding year, 1643, to have found the Burials of Females to have exceeded those of Males, but no alteration appeared; for as much, as I suppose, Trading continuing the same in London, all those who lost their Apprentices had others out of the Countrey; and if any left their Trades, or Shops, that others forthwith succeeded them: for if employment for hands remain the same, no doubt but the number of them could not long continue in disproportion.

Then as now, newspapers were keen to report these incidents. It would be interesting to know if, as now, certain types of events attracted disproportionate interest. (As, for example now, car accidents are largely ignored, while "freak" things, such as items falling from buildings, get lots of attention.)

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