Ben Norman, A History of Death in 17th Century England (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Ben Norman notes that the shadow of death loomed over the 17th Century English in ways that are unthinkable now. In this book, he sets out on an often gruesome journey to demonstrate his point.
Norman begins with natural death, which seems innocuous enough, but the grim fact is that the dance with death began at birth with high mortality rates that extended through childhood. Reaching adulthood was no picnic either, with life expectancy around 40 years old. Outbreaks of plague or smallpox didn’t help. War leads off Norman’s survey of unnatural deaths. The mid-century civil wars accounted for much of those, with disease outstripping combat in the death stakes, but other wars caused significant casualties too. Homicide rates declined in the 17th Century, but it was a risk for all age groups. Norman also notes death by dueling. Judicial death follows death by crime in Norman’s list, though he comments that executions were rarer than is commonly believed. They were still gruesome, however, including burning women and the notorious hanging, drawing, and quartering.
The rituals surrounding death occupy Norman’s next chapters, starting with the deathbed where the doomed said their farewells and made their peace with their god. They then became a corpse subject to autopsy and a funeral. The latter differed greatly in ceremony between the nobility and the common folk. The lavishness of that ritual increased exponentially for royalty, notes Norman, with the perhaps obvious exceptions of the beheaded Charles I and, perhaps strangely, his son Charles II who was buried in private. Some burials did not fit the mould, such as mass graves for plague and battles, and the religiously unmentionable suicides. After the rituals came memorials with again wide divergence between rich and poor. Norman concludes by highlighting how many 17th Century innovations in death rituals remain with us while causes of death have changed considerably.
This is Ben Norman’s first book, and it is quite a treat for 17th Century social history readers, if a macabre one at times. It is very much an evidence driven book, full of examples; although by the very nature of that evidence, the survey leans towards the affluent classes. Norman also has the curious habit of summarizing his contemporary quotes. Nevertheless, this is an informative and enjoyable read, if that is the right word for a book about death.