As we enter the last few weeks of the great British summer, we take a look at a book that tells the moving story of a man who spent his summer in plague-ridden Newcastle.
The plague outbreak of 1636 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne was one of the most devastating in English history. About 7,000 out of 20,000 inhabitants of Newcastle died of plague during the year, which had a huge impact on generations to come.
Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague, by Yale history professor and Earthly Necessities author Keith Wrightson, looks in detail at the plague’s impact on the city through the eyes of a man who stayed as others fled: the scrivener Ralph Tailor.
A scrivener (or scribe) was traditionally a person who could read and write, a privilege not available to everyone at the time. The title of ‘scrivener’ usually indicated secretarial and administrative duties such as dictation and keeping business, judicial, and history records for kings, nobles, temples, and cities. Scriveners later developed into public servants, accountants, lawyers and petition writers.
Ralph Tailor is not a famous historical figure. He came to Wrightson’s attention after he was drawn to Tailor’s ‘elaborate and distinctive’ signature, whilst searching through the folio of a deposition book in Durham University Library. Wrightson’s story of his book’s genesis is detailed in the Prologue:
Historical records have a way of confounding such complacent expectations. They reveal unanticipated things. They disrupt the progress of attempts to sweep too purposefully through the evidence that they provide, to commandeer rather than heed it. I was finding a few things for my then purpose, but was more or less on automatic pilot when I encountered Ralph Tailor’s signature. It caught my eye simply because it was so very different from the stiff and laboured autographs, or more often the simple marks, with which witnesses usually signed their depositions in this period when only a minority knew how to write, and even those who had the skill to do so might use it rarely and sometimes clumsily.
My curiosity aroused, I turned back a page and began to read the deposition. The formal heading identifying the witness told me that Ralph Tailor was from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and that he was twenty-six years old. I read on, and the story that he told soon captured my full attention.
From this unplanned discovery of Ralph Tailor’s elaborate signature, Wrightson was able to unearth a wealth of information on his new-found subject. As a scrivener Tailor was responsible for many of the wills and inventories of his fellow citizens. By listening to and writing down the final wishes of the dying, Ralph Tailor often became the principal provider of comfort in people’s last hours.
Ralph Tailor’s Summer draws on the rich records left by Tailor during the course of his work along with many other sources. In his exciting new piece of historical analysis Wrightson vividly reconstructs life in the early modern city during a time of crisis and envisions what such a calamitous decimation of the population must have meant for personal, familial, and social relations.
Ralph Tailor’s Summer is available now from Yale University Press