Bills of Mortality
BILLS OF MORTALITY
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 The procedure was made more formal and systematic throughout England in 1603, and continued until it was superceded by the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836.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
JOHN M. LAST