13 Weird Ways and Definitions of Death in Early-Modern England

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There are many bizarre ways to die, even by today’s standards; however, in late Medieval to Early Modern England (1485-1714), death came in all sorts of weird ways. It’s believed that in November 1532, the first Bill of Mortality was issued. This form of announcement became necessary due to the Black Plague ravaging not only England but the world.   

However, people did not only succumb to death from the plague. They suffered from various illnesses, accidents, and unnatural deaths, each with its own specific name. Many of these will make us collectively scratch our heads.

The mortality bills would list all mannerisms of death and how many individuals lost their lives. From “Rising of the Lights” to “Flox and Small Pox,” here are 13 ways to perish in the earlier centuries of England.  

1. Pole Vaulting

pole vaulting water
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Today, it’s a sport. Back then, pole vaulting was a way to cross a stream or pond. On Christmas Day in 1521, a laborer named Robert Bakar took a shortcut from the local church in Cambridgeshire to the rector’s house by hopping across a pond with a pole. Unfortunately, the pole snapped, and Bakar drowned in the pond. A similar incident occurred in 1540 as well.

2. Horse Racing

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Horse racing grew popular during this time period, but the tracks weren’t always ideal. On January 16, 1540, two riders, Henry Hedlam and Brian Newton, were racing along a garden wall outside London. Riding too fast on the narrow track, Newton collided with an elm tree. His head struck a branch, knocking him from his horse and breaking his neck. He died the next day.

Racing was dangerous for both spectators and riders. In 1534, Jane Jonys was watching a race when a horse trampled her, causing fatal injuries to her chest and legs. She died four days later.

3. Death by Bacon

scullery maid
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Most people love bacon and would happily perish devouring it, theoretically. However, it happened to an ailing widow in the mid-1500s. Elizabeth Browne worked as a servant in Hugh Talmage’s household in Huntingdon. On February 12, 1543, she suffered a horrible freak accident while warming herself by the kitchen fire. 

Four flitches (a slab of timber) of bacon, suspended in the chimney above her to smoke, fell when the rope broke, crushing her. She died from her injuries four days later.

4. Ratsbane (Poison)

death poison
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During the 16th century, people commonly used arsenic trioxide, or “ratsbane,” to keep unwanted rodents and pests away from their food and homes. Unfortunately for Barbara Gilbert of Leicestershire, ratsbane resembled harmless powder. Mistaking it for flour, she mixed it with milk while preparing a meal for her family. When she sampled the concoction, she accidentally poisoned herself.

Gilbert’s death wasn’t the only instance of accidental ratsbane consumption. In 1599, Margaret Morelande, while nursing her sick husband in the middle of the night, mistakenly drank from a pot of ratsbane and water instead of beer.

5. Infant ‘Chrisomes’

tomb infant chrisom
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In 1632, when King Charles I ruled England, there were a total of 2,268 infant deaths by what was called ‘chrisomes death.’ Today, we would refer to it as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS. 

Infants who died, usually within a month or two after birth, were wrapped in a cloth called chrisom. This was a face cloth or piece of linen laid over a child’s head during baptism or christening. Over time, the fabric became a white linen mantle in which the baby was wrapped. 

6. Suffocation From Bathroom Fumes

old privy england cottage
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On June 2, 1523, a somewhat intoxicated Cambridge baker named George Duncan went to his back garden to use the cesspit—essentially an outhouse with a wooden seat over a sewage pit. Duncan fell in and suffocated from the overwhelming stench. 

This type of freak accident isn’t unique to the 16th century; in 2014, two people died trying to retrieve a cell phone dropped into a porta-potty.

7. Rising of the Lights

old english dance death artwork
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Another peculiar name assigned to an illness that resulted in death in the 1600s was “Rising of the Lights.” In the 17th century, Rising of the Lights referred to a disease or obstructive condition affecting the larynx, trachea, or lungs, possibly resembling croup. It frequently appeared on bills of mortality, with ‘lights’ indicating the lungs.

8. Cake Throwing

english ladies palm sunday
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In later medieval and early modern times, a religious custom that may seem strange to modern readers was that every Sunday before Easter or Palm Sunday, young children would climb onto the roof of their local parish church and hurl cakes at the congregation below. 

On March 28, 1507, two boys from Chippenham in Wiltshire broke from tradition and joined the congregation inside. As cakes rained down that day, some dislodged battlement rocks also fell, tragically striking and killing the two boys.

9. Scurvy and Itch

english naval battleship
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Scurvy plagued sailors for millennia, with an estimated 2 million deaths attributed to the disease between the 16th and 18th centuries, devastating entire ship crews. Scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C, results from a dietary deficiency. Since the body cannot produce vitamin C naturally, it must be obtained from vitamin-rich foods like citrus or nutritional supplements. 

Before modern refrigeration, sailors on long voyages predominantly consumed salted or nonperishable foods, lacking regular access to fresh fruits and vegetables essential for preventing scurvy. The disease causes a horrible rash with constant itching. 

10. Flox and Small Pox

painting medieval smallpox
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There were a reported 531 deaths due to flox (sometimes spelled flocks) or smallpox in 1632. “Flox” is an older term that refers to a rare type of smallpox infection involving especially severe symptoms, including hemorrhaging and high case fatality (approximately 96%). It wasn’t until 1701 that the more widely used term smallpox was adopted.

11. Cancer, and Wolf

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One of the more intriguing names I encountered on a Bill of Mortality in my research was “Cancer and Wolf.” My first thought was, why would they group a death caused by a wolf with cancer? Upon further investigation, people from the 17th century often referred to cancer as “the wolf” because it ate away at the one who was afflicted. 

Dr. Alanna Skluse, a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Reading, shared, “Some doctors would even apply raw meat to a cancerous ulcer so that the “wolf” could feast on that for a while instead of ‘eating’ the patient.” 

12. Dropsy and Swelling

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According to the 1632 Bill of Mortality, what we call edema nowadays was called dropsy and swelling. This condition manifests as a very uncomfortable and often painful swelling under the skin. Dropsy is frequently a symptom of various underlying diseases. In cases where the cause of death was listed as dropsy, it’s possible that the underlying condition causing the swelling was the actual cause of death rather than the swelling itself.

Conditions such as cardiac failure, lung issues, and malnutrition led to the type of swelling associated with dropsy. Additionally, pregnancy can cause edema. Dropsy may also result from organ-specific problems like liver disease or pancreatitis.

13. Death by Teeth

tudor england doctor visit
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“Teeth” was a deadly issue in 17th-century London, claiming 470 lives annually due to dental infections. Unlike modern terms like appendicitis or tumors, dental infections directly cause fatalities. In 2013, only 66 Americans died from dental infections out of 61,000 hospitalized, a 0.1848% rate. 

Conversely, in the early 1600s, London, with approximately 350,000 residents, saw a 0.1342% death rate from Teeth. These percentages highlight either improved dental health or the effectiveness of antibiotics. The query lingers: How many lives would dental infections claim today without antibiotics?

True Or False: 14 Old Wives Tales That Might Withstand The Test Of Time

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What is it about ancient folklore that is so intriguing? We’ve all heard the old stories passed down from generation to generation. Some of them hold water, while many are just too silly to be considered true for a minute.

There’s no way that itchy palms can make you rich or that eating yams will result in having twins. That’s just nonsense.

However, there are some old wives’ tales that are shockingly true.

True Or False: 14 Old Wives Tales That Might Withstand The Test Of Time

11 Historical Superstitions And Their Modern-Day Manifestations

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Superstitions have deep historical roots, often arising from ancient beliefs about the supernatural and the need to control the unpredictable forces of nature. Many were originally conceived to ward off bad luck or attract good fortune. Over time, these beliefs were passed down through generations, morphing into the common superstitions we recognize today.

Despite advances in science and technology, superstitions persist, tapping into the human psyche’s complexity. Understanding why superstitions endure can reveal much about human nature and our enduring need for narrative and ritual. Here are 11 historical superstitions and their modern-day manifestations.

11 Historical Superstitions And Their Modern-Day Manifestations

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With a passion for travel, great food, and beautiful art, Julie put aside her 15-year career in the tech industry and dove head-first into a more creative sphere. Utilizing her degree in Communications, she is pursuing freelance writing. An avid traveler, Julie has experience writing and documenting the amazing spots she has visited and explored, the delicious food she has tasted, and the incredible art she has admired and purchased! When she’s not writing, she can be spotted around Austin, TX, at various art gallery openings, having a delicious meal with her husband and friends, and playing with her two dogs.

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