8 june 2011

Tudor England's 'Darwin Awards' - project studies fatal accidents

Arts

Shaxpere
Jane Shaxpere's death report. Credit: National Archives

An Oxford University academic is leading a project to study coroners' reports of accidental deaths in Tudor England.

The four-year Economic and Social Research Council-funded project has already turned up some interesting deaths – from slapstick accidents to one death with similarities to Shakespeare’s character Ophelia.

The entry in question records the death of Jane Shaxspere, a two-and-a-half year old girl who fell into a mill pond and drowned while picking flowers, called ‘yelowe boddles’, or corn marigolds, in Upton Warren in Worcestershire - twenty miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1569. William Shakespeare would have been around five years old at the time and, if Jane was his younger cousin, the parallels to Ophelia – who picked flowers and drowned when she fell into a river in Hamlet  – are intriguing.

Dr Steven Gunn of the Faculty of History said: ‘Coroners' reports of fatal accidents are a useful and hitherto under-studied way of exploring everyday life in Tudor England. Some medieval historians have used them, but the Tudor records are much fuller. The enquiries into deaths were extensive and solemnly undertaken – the detail in which Jane Shaxspere’s death was reported suggests that children’s deaths merited careful consideration, and other young girls are similarly reported as drowning when picking flowers. It was quite a surprise to find Jane Shaxspere’s entry in the coroners’ reports – it might just be a coincidence, but the links to Ophelia are certainly tantalising.’

Dr Emma Smith of the Faculty of English Language and Literature at Oxford University commented on the finding: ‘Even if Jane Shaxspere were not related to the playwright, the echo of their names might well have meant that this story stuck in his mind. It's a good reminder that, while Shakespeare's plays draw on well-attested literary sources, they also often have their roots in gossip, the mundane, and the domestic detail of everyday life (we know this about King Lear, for example). It’s interesting to think of Ophelia combining classical and Renaissance antecedents with the local tragedy of a drowned girl.’

Coroners’ reports of fatal accidents are a useful and hitherto under-studied way of exploring everyday life in Tudor England

Dr Steven Gunn

Of the project itself, Dr Gunn said: ‘Although the material we are studying is tragic, there are some deaths which could well be material for Laurel and Hardy or Monty Python’s upper class twit of the year.

‘One man shot himself in the head while trying to get out the arrow stuck in his longbow and another fell into a cesspit while relieving himself.  At least three people were killed by performing bears – one bear’s value is listed as a princely 26 shillings and four pence. One unlucky man was standing in a garden on the edge of Coventry when a maypole fell over. It missed him and hit the city wall – but his narrow escape turned to disaster when a stone fell off the city wall, hit him on the head and killed him.

‘Some of the records ask more questions than they answer - one man crushed his testicles while playing a ‘Christmas game’ and a Scottish man is recorded as dying after offering to demonstrate a pastime popular in his country which seems to have involved lying down and being tied up.’

Dr Gunn added: ‘There are some very revealing things to come out of our project already. Some miners suffocated from coal damp and it’s interesting that this was already happening in shallow sixteenth-century mines, while most deaths happened in summer because people tended to be travelling around and working in the open more at this time. Workmen often drowned when they stripped off to bathe in rivers and ponds after work, so maybe sixteenth-century people had more sense of hygiene than we think.

‘There are some striking differences to the frequency of modes of death today. Deaths from house fires were much more rare, because houses tended to be only one storey high so were easier to escape from, and considerably fewer people died from falling over in Tudor England – perhaps because the population was a younger one and because there were fewer stairs to fall down!’

‘The project also throws light on the development of sport and military training in Tudor England. Fatal handgun accidents overtook archery accidents in frequency in 1556, while sport-related deaths show the popularity of different sports and leisure activities, not just football and wrestling but bell-ringing and throwing the sledge-hammer. They even tell us where in towns and villages such activities took place.’

The project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, will last for four years and is being undertaken by Dr Gunn and Dr Tomasz Gromelski.