I have just read Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City and the Plague, by my colleague and friend Keith Wrightson. It is an extraordinarily absorbing account of the grim work undertaken by a resourceful young man in 1636, the first year of his professional life, when an outbreak of the plague caused almost complete devastation to the northern English port city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. In one sense, the cataclysm was widely accepted, according to conventional religious belief, as a terrible judgment upon its citizens by God, yet one of the most remarkable themes that emerges from the author’s close study of the wills, probate documents, and proceedings of the ecclesiastical and other courts, is that even while this was true, ordinary people—one might well and better say extraordinary people—remained throughout this appalling calamity dutifully en poste, transcribing the wills and testamentary arrangements of the dying, sometimes dictated through an open window, or passed on by an intermediary (for the time being marooned in a quarantined sick house) and that those arrangements invariably revealed a measure of selfless concern for the welfare of other people, not merely heirs, relicts, and so on, but friends and more distant acquaintances and professional colleagues as well. Many of the wills contain dozens of tokens of friendship and mutual regard, even as the desperate illness raked through entire parishes, and to some extent at times rendered such bequests obsolete almost as soon as they were attested. Ralph Tailor, the scrivener, evidently fell silent for several months, which may suggest that he was dangerously ill but at length recovered, and simply resumed his work. Another point that is striking about this close study of a seventeenth-century English city in the grip of the plague is that the modes of transmission of the disease were more or less correctly understood. Physical contact with the sick and dying (fleas), and also airborne contagion (from coughing and spluttering) were dealt with by quarantine; the price paid for that by members of a single household could be heavy, but it seems likely that the appalling rate of mortality (as much as 47% of the entire population of Newcastle in that year alone) might have been even greater without it.
Ralph Tailor’s work involved not only the preparation of wills, but also the compilation of inventories of households devastated by the plague, and this in turn made of the scrivener a professional identifier of different sorts of property, goods, and chattels, and also an assessor of quality, and of money value. As Keith remarks of Tailor: “He knew an ‘ordinary dansk chist’ when he saw it, and the superior nature of a ‘wainscott table,’ a ‘wainsckott chaire,’ a ‘wanded chaire,’ matching ‘greene chairs,’ ‘fyne chairs,’ or a ‘London bedstead. He recognized ‘Dansk potts’ among the pewter, and knew that if cushions were commonplace, those that were ‘velvett,’ ‘needleworke,’ ‘sowed,’ ‘leather,’ or ‘gilt leather’ merited identification as such.” This young man, who survives in merely a few dozens of public documents, was, if you think about it, an approximate combination of certain of the roles now performed by social workers, coroners, policemen (called out, in other words, in the midst of some domestic crisis), lawyers, and representatives of Bonham’s, and, like my beloved late father, long afterwards Ralph Tailor assumed the office of “notary public.” As Keith himself remarked to me some time ago, one is to some degree attracted to a man such as Ralph Tailor because someone rather like him was once mightily present in your own life. Such are the emotional roots of the historical disciplines, and thank goodness for those!