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Death is something that can be difficult to discuss, often swept under the carpet and kind of scary to acknowledge. I mean, we'll all eventually need to come to terms with it, and it's unnerving to think that one day, there'll be a world with us - well, not in it.
|The Death Cart, a nineteenth century drawing depicting the plague of 1665. |
Wellcome Images (Wellcome Trust), Public Domain
Nothing makes the history of people jump out from the pages of books than the stories of how they coped with everyday life, and death. A new book by Ben Norman explores this. It's called A History of Death in Seventeenth Century England.
In the book, there are reports of the extravagance surrounding funerals of wealthy people - and sometimes, bafflement at the lack of it. Letters and diary entries complain about what was and wasn't left to relatives and friends and there are detailed accounts of stolen, late-night burials and achingly tender final moments between loved ones. In an age where a minority of the population was actually literate, quite often the only evidence many people existed at all is in a baptism, marriage and burial record scrawled in the local church's parish register - or, if we're really lucky, a will.
I'll say it straight off. I loved this book. I couldn't put it down. I read the Kindle, holding it in one hand while I stirred the dinner with the other. I went to bed early just so I could read it, tucked up under the covers. I read this book in just under three days, snatching reading time where I could alongside daily tasks.
I found the book really easy to read, with an engaging, conversational style. It's well researched, contains lots of illustrations and is set out in clear, well-focused chapters. You get to find out the causes of death in the seventeenth century, the way people were buried, how they grieved and how they were then remembered. The writer refers back to wills and other sources from the period, which are fascinating in their detail. I'm currently researching some local history in the sixteenth century and I find wills can be so revealing in terms of family dynamics, wealth and lifestyle and reveal to us people's most prized possessions and what they thought was important. This book gave me so much more insight and background that I'll take with me when researching wills in the future.
Royal funerals are touched on, too. I didn't know, for example, that Oliver Cromwell wasn't actually buried at his very extravagant, public funeral, or that it snowed at Charles I's very private one, leading many to believe that it was a Godly sign of his innocence.
I think that finding out about how people died, society's views on death in general and how the community repeatedly came together to perform this last ritual for the deceased person tells us so much about a period of time. It makes everything - the wars, the battles, the plagues, religion and the politics - all somehow more personal and reinforces how it all worked together to affect the lives - and the deaths - of people that lived and worked in the seventeenth century.
Find A History of Death in Seventeenth Century England on Amazon, or ask your local bookseller.