Ralph Taylor’s Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague

Readers question Keith Wrightson on his Newcastle tale of plague and pestilence

Publisher’s summary: “Keith Wrightson’s hugely moving study of the plague in this city provides a unique opportunity to look in detail at the decimation the disease wrought through the eyes of one man who stayed and witnessed the plague’s ruin while many fled the pestilent city. Keith draws on the rich records left by Tailor himself through the course of his work, as well as many other sources to reconstruct life in the early modern city and to envisage what such a devastation of the population must have meant for personal, familial and social relations.”


As part of our reader book club, BBC History Magazine gave people the chance to read Ralph Taylor’s Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague and put their questions to the book’s author, Keith Wrightson, Randolf W Townsend Jr professor of history at Yale University. Here’s what they had to say…


Does the evidence give you any sense of Ralph having a personal fear of the plague and whether it affected his work in any way?
Emma Davis, Peterborough
Keith says: He must have experienced fear. He had not encountered a major plague epidemic before, but he must have had some idea of the threat it posed.
All we know for sure is that he did his job; writing his brief, efficient, wills whenever called. He kept a safe distance sometimes. But he was also willing to enter a quarantined house when required. Perhaps he learned to control his fear, like others he must have known: sailors; miners; women anticipating childbirth.
It is possible that at one point he was himself infected, and recovered. If so, he may have believed, as many did, that this gave him immunity. Whatever the case, he kept on serving his clients. And he was also called to attend later plague victims. Perhaps after 1636 he was known as the best man for the job.
How far do you think the frequent positive interconnections between Ralph and some of his contemporaries highlighted in this book have the potential to undermine the idea of the plague being an inherently divisive force?
Emma Davis, Peterborough
Keith says: It could certainly be divisive. It bred well-justified fear of infection. It involved formal separation through the quarantine system. However, it may be that, as with so many social anxieties, the divisiveness was experienced most by those who were relatively distanced from the reality.

What impresses me is the strength and resilience of the ties of family, kinship, craft-fellowship, neighbourhood, friendship, and charity (in the old sense of the word) that bound the city together. Those ties could be, and clearly sometimes were, severely strained. But mostly they seem to have held.

It was still a world based upon direct personal relationships. Perhaps that made it harder for people to turn their backs on their obligations to one another. Social obligation was not an abstract ideal; it involved known human faces. That said, we should not forget the unnamed and unknown victims. Their story is impossible to recover.
Is there any evidence of a breakdown of law and order during the epidemic? Was there looting of any of the houses that were standing empty after the deaths of their occupants?
Wendy Parkinson, Nottingham
Keith says: There are no reports of such a breakdown in the surviving city records.
It is true that we do not have the records of the criminal courts of the city for the years following the plague. If we did, I expect they might provide some examples of theft and so on. Yet in Westminster, those records survive for 1636, and they provide examples not of such disorder, but of prosecutions for minor breaches of the quarantine regulations.
In Newcastle the inventories reveal fully furnished houses, some of them with food and ready money still in their storage places. I suspect that most houses were never empty; they contained some survivors. There were also watchmen on the streets.
I doubt that determined (and perhaps desperate) thieves were deterred by fear of contracting the plague, though that is certainly a possibility.
How do you think reporting micro history contributes to further knowledge of the era?
Devina Divecha, Dubai
Keith says: Microhistory involves closer scrutiny of the sources. It allows one to explore things otherwise inaccessible, to notice things previously unobserved, to find unexpected connections and experience unanticipated insights. It can reveal the social structures, networks of relationships and webs of meaning within which people lived their lives. It is an approach that can be adopted in many situations, but it is a particularly effective way of recovering the lived experience and meaning of those events that are not usually considered ‘historically significant’.
We should pay attention to the things that were going on between and around ‘great historical events’. I think the real meaning of history lies there, rather than in the conventional ‘reference point’ moments. People lived their own lives in ways that intersected only partially with the grand narratives of historical change. Getting at those lives is a different, but equally important, way of understanding ourselves in time.
Was there an army presence in Newcastle and did the military play a role in policing the situation?
Bill Cannon, Ohio
Keith says: Newcastle was not a garrison town. The defence of the city was the obligation of the freemen, which is why so many of them possessed weapons, as their inventories reveal. (They later fought doggedly in the siege of 1644).
The streets would normally have been patrolled by citizen watchmen. Watchmen were also deployed during the plague, as in other cities. Though they are rarely mentioned in the records, they must have played a role in maintaining order.
There was also at least one professional soldier there in 1636; Captain Thomas Jackson. He may have served in England’s wars of the 1620s, or in Swedish, Dutch or German armies in the Thirty Years War. All I know is that he died in September 1636, leaving behind only his trunk, which contained the flamboyant clothing of a officer of the time, including feathers of several colours to adorn his hat.
Next month we’ll be looking at Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution by Jane Humphries.
It’s not too late to join the BBC History Magazine reader book club – find out more at www.historyextra.com/reader