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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 3: Medical History •

Medical History


Disease carrying rat

Epidemic Disease in London

A Collection of Working Papers given at the Symposium 'Epidemic Disease in London: from the Black Death to Cholera' held at the Institute of Historical Research, 19 March 1992. Reproduced in History in Focus by permission of the Centre for Metropolitan History.

Edited by J. A. I. Champion


Plague in London: Spatial and Temporal Aspects of Mortality

Dr Graham Twigg

Discourses of the Plague in Early Modern London

Dr Margaret Healy

Epidemics and the Built Environment in 1665

Dr Justin Champion

Burial of the Plague Dead in Early Modern London

Dr Vanessa Harding

The Medical Response to Epidemic Disease During the Long Eighteenth Century

Dr Anne Hardy

Epidemics and Skeletal Populations: Problems and Limitations

Dr Margaret Cox


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This collection of papers originates from a one day symposium held at the Institute of Historical Research in March 1992 organized by myself, Dr Graham Twigg and Dr Derek Keene, Director of the Centre for Metropolitan History. The original conception of the meeting was that it might provide the opportunity to bring together all those who had worked in the field of urban disease, and those who were just embarking upon new research. The aim of the symposium was threefold: to bring together research on different aspects of epidemic disease in the metropolitan context from the early modern and modern periods; to combine (among many others) demographic, epidemiological and literary accounts of the relationship between disease and society in the pre-eminent urban example of London; and to provide a forum for debate between established scholars and those starting new investigations.

The six papers in this collection reflect the diversity of approaches discussed at the symposium. A number of those who gave papers had already committed their research to other journals but all the contributors to this collection either delivered papers or attended the conference. The essays included here provide examples of research in progress and new approaches to the understanding of the relationship between disease and society in the period. They range from Graham Twigg's important overview of outbreaks of epidemics in London between 1500 and 1700, through case-studies like Vanessa Harding's exploration of how the civic authorities managed the problems of disposal of the dead and Anne Hardy's discussion of how the same authorities in the eighteenth century responded to the needs of health care for Londoners, to Margaret Healy's examination of the literary meaning of disease in early modern London, and Margaret Cox's evaluation of the value of skeletal evidence for understanding the effect of epidemic disease in local communities.

Importantly, the collection not only sets out the findings of on-going research projects but also tries to outline some of the central methodological and historical concerns of investigations for the future. All the papers are marked by a concern to address the central relationship between disease and environment, although there is clearly a debate as to whether either the former or the latter are conceived as materially given or socially constructed. Central themes such as whether it is possible to diagnose disease in the past, or how one might use taxation records to illuminate the social milieu of urban disease, or how analyses of material remains might enable an exploration of the social and physical characteristics of casualties, are all given consideration.

The collection is, it should be stressed, a starting point not a prescription for new research. Hopefully the papers collected here will act as a catalyst to further discussion and intellectual exchanges.

For his expertise in generating computer maps due acknowledgement and thanks should be given to Craig Spence who allowed us to use cartographic material prepared for the Centre for Metropolitan History project 'Metropolitan London in the 1690s'. Without his help none of the maps in the collection would have been either so clearly defined or readable. Similarly much gratitude is due to Heather Creaton, Deputy Director of the Centre, for allowing us to use some of the material from her forthcoming bibliography of London history.

Finally many thanks are owed to Olwen Myhill both for her help in organizing the original symposium and for her expertise and commitment in preparing the papers for publication. Without her persistence and various skills I am sure none of it would have happened.

Justin Champion
Royal Holloway
July 1993

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Preface to 1999 Internet Edition

This collection of papers has been out of print for some time. As there continues to be a demand for copies and a reprint of the volume is not financially viable, it has been decided to make it available on the Internet. The Centre for Metropolitan History is very grateful to all the authors for giving their permission to do so.

Readers should bear in mind that these papers are 'Working Papers' and in the 7 years since initial publication the authors' research and/or ideas may have progressed. Where appropriate, attention is drawn to relevant subsequent publications.

Notes on Contributors

Graham Twigg lectured in the Biology Department at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London. He has written extensively upon the bionomics of disease, the brown rat and the lives of fleas. His The Black Death: a biological reappraisal (1984) challenged many historical common-places about the identity of past epidemics. He is currently working on major, minor epidemic and endemic mortality in London 1500- 1700.

Margaret Healy is Lecturer in English at the University of Sussex. Her PhD thesis was on the literary context of illness and disease in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London.

Justin Champion teaches in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. He worked at the Centre for Metropolitan History between 1988-1990 on the London epidemic of 1665. The findings have been published in his book London's Dreaded Visitation. The Social Geography of the Great Plague. He has also written and published on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history of ideas.

Vanessa Harding is Senior Lecturer in the History of London at Birkbeck College, University of London. She has written extensively on the social, economic, and topographical history of early modern London. She has just completed a full-length study of death and burial in early modern London and Paris. Other forthcoming publications include 'Whose body? The living and the dead in early modern London and Paris', in B. Gordon and P. Marshall (eds.), The Place of the Dead in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, due 1999), and 'Mortuary archaeology in London to 1800', in L. Hannigan, I. Haynes, and H. Sheldon (eds.) The Archaeology of London (Oxbow Books, due 1999).

Anne Hardy is a lecturer at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London. Her main area of interest focuses upon the relationship between disease, medical practice and medical policy in nineteenth-century London. She has published a number of articles, and The Epidemic Streets: infectious disease and the rise of preventive medicine 1856- 1900 was published by Oxford University Press in November 1993.

Dr Margaret Cox is Reader in Archaeological Sciences at Bournemouth University where she is also Course Leader in MSc Forensic Archaeology. She has worked extensively on the Christ Church, Spitalfields Project and published her findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and in Life and Death in Spitalfields 1700 to 1850 (CBA, 1996). She has written (with T.I. Molleson) The Spitalfields Project Volume 2 - the anthropology: the Middling Sort (CBA Research Report 86, 1993).

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