Everyday life and fatal hazard in sixteenth-century England

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Tomasz Gromelskiby Tomasz Gromelski, Max Weber Fellow, 2010-2011

Modern societies congratulate themselves on their high health and safety standards and excellent healthcare systems that enable them to reduce significantly the risk of accident-induced fatal injuries among the populace. We are constantly reassured that a great deal of effort and funding is directed towards devising and employing means to protect us from sudden death or injury as we go about our daily lives. On a more general level, we like to believe that one of the facets of modernity is the absence of the multiple hazards that haunted our ancestors in the pre-industrial world. While it is probably safe to argue that a sixteenth-century farmer was more likely to die as the result of an unfortunate accident than his twentyfirst-century counterpart, it seems that popular understanding of living and working conditions in the distant past is based to a greater degree on general assumptions and anecdotal evidence than on hard facts and statistical data.

A new project based at Oxford University and generously supported by the Economic and Social Research Council – the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues – aims to provide new insights into everyday life in Tudor England by analysing a large body of hitherto unexplored material. Steven Gunn of Merton College and Tomasz Gromelski of Wolfson College will examine some 9,000 reports of accidental death from the years 1500–1600; reports from the King’s Bench preserved among the records at The National Archives inLondon. Coroners’ reports were the most conspicuous product of investigations carried out to determine the exact cause and circumstances of violent or unnatural death, and contain a wealth of information about the tragic ends of lives, about victims and their families, and about the everyday activities of both ordinary folk and ‘the better sort’. So how did people die in sixteenth-century England?

Preliminary findings suggest that almost half of all accidents were drownings. In December 1559 Robert Potter, a farmer from Tebay in Cumbria drowned in the River Lune while trying to retrieve his hat, blown off by a sudden gust of wind. On one March evening in 1560 three-year-old John Elyot from Huntington fell into a large pot filled with water as he tried to grab a fish put there by his mother.  Another frequent cause of death was related to transport and travel. John Payne, a native of Hertfordshire, died when his cart carrying timber overturned and he was crushed by the heavy load. Agnes Thornton, wife of a Yorkshire farmer, fell off her horse breaking her neck, and Benjamin Hanlestone fell off the back of an ox pulling a heavy wagon. Quite a few people lost their lives in a gruesome manner or in bizarre – at least from our modern viewpoint – circumstances. Several were mauled by performing bears. The head of a baby newly born to Margaret Stanfolde of Erringdon inYorkshire, was devoured by a hungry pig that sneaked into her house. Henry Pert, gentleman, of Welbeck, Nottinghamshire, managed to shoot himself in the head with his bow, and one Thomas Brian from Somerset accidentally fell on his own knife while playing ‘footeball’ on a Sunday in February 1509.

The project focuses on accidents and the realities of everyday life, but the evidence of coroners’ reports offers the opportunity to explore more wide-ranging issues: it has the potential to shed new light on social relations and economic and cultural changes in Tudor England and early modern Europe in general. The main output of the four-year project will be a book that should appeal to both an academic audience and to general readers.