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Ralph Tailor's Summer

Ralph Tailor's Summer

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Ralph Tailor's Summer
    Book Description:

    The plague outbreak of 1636 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne was one of the most devastating in English history. This hugely moving study looks in detail at its impact on the city through the eyes of a man who stayed as others fled: the scrivener Ralph Tailor.

    As a scrivener Tailor was responsible for many of the wills and inventories of his fellow citizens. By listening to and writing down the final wishes of the dying, the young scrivener often became the principal provider of comfort in people's last hours. Drawing on the rich records left by Tailor during the course of his work along with many other sources, Keith Wrightson vividly reconstructs life in the early modern city during a time of crisis and envisions what such a calamitous decimation of the population must have meant for personal, familial, and social relations.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17759-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-5)

    It was his signature that first drew me to Ralph Tailor: an elaborate and distinctive signature placed at the bottom of a deposition made before the Consistory Court of the bishop of Durham in February 1637. The “R” is large and confident, almost brash, with loops to the side, one of which extends boldly to the right to become the horizontal line of the first letter of his surname. It seems the product of one elaborate swirl of the pen. Then the stem of the “T” is executed as a skein of swirling loops. The “l” sweeps up to touch...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Stories of the Plague
    (pp. 6-9)

    The threat of plague was one of the defining characteristics of the early modern period in European history. From the devastating incursion of the Black Death in the late 1340s to the last significant outbreak at Marseille in 1720, plague constituted a live and present danger. When it struck it was “both a personal affliction and a social calamity”, “decimating communities, destroying families, bringing pain and grief to individuals”.¹ Even when dormant, its menace, and the anxiety that this entailed, gave it a “central place in the social imaginary” of the age.²

    In consequence, plague has been much studied. Analyses...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Destroying Angell and the Eye of the North
    (pp. 10-27)

    The year 1636 is not usually thought of as a particularly significant date in the history of the plague in England. The experience of London tends to set the standard, and the surge of plague mortality in the metropolis that year has been characterized as a “lesser outbreak”. To be sure, it killed more than ten thousand people out of a total population of some 313,000, which might be considered bad enough, but it pales in comparison to the truly devastating metropolitan outbreaks of 1563, 1603, 1625, and 1665.¹

    Newcastle-upon-Tyne, however, like other major east coast ports such as Hull...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Wildfire
    (pp. 28-42)

    When John Fenwick entered the city, he “heard presently of the increase of the plague, and that the night before some six and thirty died of it”. “From thence,” he continued, “it daily increased to foure hundred a weeke, till it had swept away about seven thousand at least, in seven or eight moneths time.”¹

    Fenwick may have exaggerated in retrospect the sheer scale of the overall mortality. Robert Jenison, in a marginal note to the Preface to hisNewcastle’s Calldated 2 January 1636[7], stated: “FromMay6. TillDecemb31 1636, there have died of the plague within...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Diligence and Care of Magistrates
    (pp. 43-53)

    The clustering of mortality among people in close proximity was partly attributable to the nature of the disease and its vectors, but it may also, as some contemporaries alleged, have been accentuated by the policies adopted by urban magistrates to combat plague. These, codified asOrders Thought Meet by Her Majesty and Her Privy Council to Be Executed … in Such … Places As Are … Infected with the Plague, had first been issued nationally in 1578, were in print by 1579, and received statutory authority in 1604, by which date they were already being enforced in most large English...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Sent For to Write
    (pp. 54-61)

    One of those who moved through this townscape of confinement and separation in the summer and early autumn of 1636 was Ralph Tailor. Thomas Finlay, a thirty-six-year-old weaver, “beinge standing at his owne dore”, saw him coming up the street on the morning of Thursday, 19 August, together with Michael Moore. And “going by him they desired [him] to accompany them” to the house of Michael’s father, Robert Moore, “whoe then lay sick of the plague as they told [him]”. Thomas did so, without question, and acted as a witness of Robert’s will.¹

    All in all, between 31 May and...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Liveing a Scrivener in the Same Towne
    (pp. 62-74)

    People seem to have known Ralph Tailor. They recognized him in the street. They alluded to him familiarly by name alone, apparently without feeling the need to add further identification. Robert Moore knew his voice well. Many others knew where to send for him. He was trusted and relied upon.

    We cannot know him as they did. There is no description of his appearance. (Was he fair or dark, lean or stocky, short or tall?) No one mentioned what he wore. (Did he own more than one suit of clothing? Did he wear a cap or a hat?) We do...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN The Dialect of Heaven
    (pp. 75-86)

    Ralph Tailor would have needed such self-assurance as he negotiated the streets and chares of Allhallows’ in the summer of 1636, called, as another witness put it, to “take penn, Inck and paper” to write the last wills of his stricken fellow townsmen and women.¹ If he had come to Newcastle in 1626 it is unlikely that he had ever previously witnessed a plague outbreak, and certainly not one of such severity. But like his contemporaries he must have known a good deal about the plague even before he encountered it face to face. One wonders whether, as he walked...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT Bequests and Legacies
    (pp. 87-97)

    People feared infection; but they knew that it might reach them, and that knowledge bred a myriad of anxieties concerning their responsibilities in the face of the social disturbance that would be occasioned by their deaths.

    Some looked ahead. The physician Robert Henryson made a precautionary will on 4 June, though in fact he survived the epidemic. Two days later John Stobbs of Pilgrim Street called together three of his neighbours to witness the will he had prepared, and when one asked “why he would make his will, he being then in perfect health”, answered “that the times were dangerous...

  14. CHAPTER NINE The Attentive Presence of Others
    (pp. 98-111)

    The scribes of wills were not the only attendants of the sick and dying. When Robert Jenison declared that pestilence was a force that “scatters us one from another” and “deprives a man of comforters in his greatest agonie and need”, he grossly exaggerated.¹ Certainly plague divided people. Fear of the diseasedidbreed fear of its victims. Such fear could threaten the abandonment of obligations and the breakdown of social bonds. All this is true. Yet the testamentary evidence that has been largely neglected by historians of plague also reveals repeatedly how such ties could hold firm, and how...

  15. CHAPTER TEN Houshold Stuffe
    (pp. 112-130)

    Ralph Tailor wrote his last plague will on 5 November 1636. By then the epidemic was ebbing fast, and the final reckoning had already begun.

    First came the task of “cleansing the house and goods”, a process frequently accounted for alongside the costs of funerals and other charges incurred by the sick, and occasionally specified in more detail.¹ Whether the clothing and bedding used by the infected were ever burned, as was recommended by the plague orders of 1578, is uncertain. There is no mention of this practice, and it seems likely that people were reluctant to destroy goods of...

  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN Discords, Variances, and Suites
    (pp. 131-143)

    Litigation was the final fallout of the plague of 1636, and there was a good deal of it. Applications from Newcastle for either the probate of wills or grants of administration of the estates of intestates began to reach the courts at Durham in October 1636. The estates of only twelve people entered probate between October and December, then 131 between January and March 1637, and a hundred more between April and July 1637, after which the flood of cases fell to a trickle for the remainder of the year.¹ An unusual number of these applications was contested. The fragmentary...

  17. CHAPTER TWELVE Ralf Taylor Notarie Publicke
    (pp. 144-154)

    Let us return to Ralph Tailor. The young scrivener’s flamboyant signature was our point of entry to the story of Newcastle’s great plague, and his frequent recurrence in the records that it generated provides a thread of personal narrative linking together those aspects of that calamity that can be reconstructed. We should, then, take final stock of his role, ask what became of him, and consider the place of the plague year in his subsequent career.

    The year 1636–7 was the first of Ralph Tailor’s independent professional life. When the plague threatened to overwhelm his city he was one...

  18. Epilogue
    (pp. 155-161)

    This book has been about an event and an urban society and culture that have become remote in time. It represents an effort to recover them. It is also a book about historical documents: how they came to be made, who made them, and what we can make of them in attempting to recover and understand the past.

    Most of the city that Ralph Tailor knew no longer exists. It has been engulfed in the rebuildings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The bridges of the industrial age fly above and beyond the steep inclines of the old town, carrying...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 162-196)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-203)
  21. Index
    (pp. 204-208)