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Manx flag (14k) Seventeenth Century Parish Registers as Sources

Seventeenth Century Parish Registers as Sources

There are any number of sources available for studying the seventeenth century, and through them a great deal can be learned about events that affected the Island during that time. Much is known about the major historical and political events of the century, both on the Island and further afield. Perhaps the English Civil War and the Commonwealth Period were among the most significant, but while politics and political leaders are well covered in written sources, more ordinary Manx residents are often not. The Civil War and changing governments in England certainly affected them, however, outbreaks of disease and harvest failures here on Man would, arguably, have been more significant to their daily lives.

Analysis of parish registers, that record marriages, baptisms and burials, can help to provide a clearer picture of every day life in the seventeenth century. This paper will briefly discuss the seasonal patterns of these recorded events, and then periods on seventeenth century Man with increased mortality. As an introduction to the subject, it begins with a discussion of the use of parish registers as sources more generally.

There are advantages and disadvantages to using parish registers as historical sources. One problem with their use is that the registers are church records rather than civil ones; they record the religious celebrations of baptisms and burial rather than the actual events of birth and death. As such, anyone outside of the church is excluded, as are babies or children who die before they have been baptised. There are gaps within the records, sometimes due to poor record keeping at the time, but often due to the registers not being maintained in ideal conditions. Pages get torn, or ink gets worn out. [1] Rising nonconformity to the Anglican Church is also a concern, however it is less of one in the seventeenth century than it would be in the eighteenth and has not been taken into consideration for this paper. [2]

Most of the early registers available for study for the Isle of Man are later copies. Obviously mistakes can easily be made during the copying process, and some are the second or third copies made as each earlier one became unusable for whatever reason. Having said all of that, the registers have a great deal to offer as sources for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even incomplete, they often offer the only picture available for studying early demographics. Many of the problems with register evidence stem from a lack of consistent record keeping and missing records, so it is useful to look at as many registers as possible over as long a period as possible. For this paper, all of the registers that are available for the Island for the whole of the seventeenth century have been included in the analysis. [3]

Techniques and ideas from a variety of people working in the field of historical demography have been used throughout this paper. Probably the most important work that has been done in this field is contained in The Population History of England, a volume that came out of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. It was first published in 1981. One historian has called it ‘fundamental, but daunting in its size and technicality’. [4] For their study volunteers from all over England were asked to count the events from their local parish registers. These tabulations were used with, among other things, a technique called “back projection” to arrive at population estimates for England from 1541 to 1871. [5] What they have done with the resulting figures is important for the field of historical demography; one historian states: ‘The whole set of questions and the many possible interrelationships between births, marriages, deaths, wages and prices, together with epidemics and infections are analysed…’ . [6] Their data has been used for comparison purposes wherever possible.


For any number of reasons, baptisms, burials and marriages seem to follow a seasonal pattern. When comparing the seasonal patterns on the Isle of Man to the Cambridge Group figures for England, the overall patterns are very similar. As an example, Figure 1 shows baptisms for the second half of the seventeenth century. [7]

Figure 1 - Seasonality of Baptisms 1650 to 1699

Figure 1 (11k)

The same method has been used to calculate the index numbers, using the same fifty-year interval for a valid comparison. Given the limited numbers of registers for Man and the gaps within them, the similarity of the lines is almost surprising. The general trends in terms of seasonality are almost identical. The line for England is smoother, most likely because of the larger size of their sample. They worked with over 400 parishes, where for Man there are fewer than ten. The index lines get increasingly similar as more parishes are available for inclusion in the counts. The index charts for the early part of the century, when fewer parish registers are available for Man, show lines that still seem to follow the same general trends as England, but are more variable. (Charts for all three data series for both halves of the seventeenth century that are not included within the paper itself are attached as Appendix A.)

Before moving on, a brief discussion of marriages is useful. Prior to the Reformation, the church banned marriage during certain periods of the year, most significantly, Lent and Advent. After the Reformation, marriage in these periods still seems to have been discouraged. [8] Analysis of the English data by the Cambridge Group shows quite clearly how, over time, these prohibited periods became less and less significant in England. March nearly always falls almost totally within Lent. In the second half of the sixteenth century, England’s seasonal marriage index for March is only eight, (where 100 would represent the number of marriages that would take place if events were distributed evenly throughout the year). By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the March index has risen to 73. [9]

Figure 2 shows the chart for marriage indexes for England and the Isle of Man for the second half of the seventeenth century. [10]

Figure 2 - Seasonality of Marriages 1650 to 1699

Figure 2 (12k)

Again, the general trends are very similar, with the Island showing a very low index for March. This suggests that, in terms of conformity to church teachings, the Island was quite similar to England, and possibly the church was more strict on Man. It is difficult to be certain, because again there is very limited data for Man.

Crisis Mortality

One of the areas that can be explored using parish register evidence is periods of increased mortality. We tend to assume that disease and disaster were more commonplace in the early modern period, but studying the registers gives a chance to discover just how often mortality levels experienced large increases and sometimes provides clues as to the causes of such increases. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any one agreed definition among historians and demographers as to what actually constitutes “crisis mortality”. Most of those working in this area seem to have their own methods for determining when things have reached crisis level. [11]

The Cambridge Group used a method that involved reference to their overall death rates. One of the things that they found for England, when they considered the 404 parishes used in their study, was that there was never a year without at least a small percentage of parishes in crisis, no matter how good conditions were throughout England. Conversely, even the most severe crisis never affected everyone. [12] As there are no overall population or birth and death rate figures for the Island in the seventeenth century, it was not possible to use Cambridge’s methods for determining the periods of crisis mortality on Man, however it seemed likely, given the size of the Island, crisis events that affected the whole Island would have taken place.

For this paper crisis periods were identified by two different methods. First, a list was compiled of known seventeenth century events that might affect the demographic record. (Special thanks to Roger Dickinson for providing a list of references to disease that he had come across in his research. [13]) These references, along with a list of years where the harvest was suspected to have been deficient [14], were used to highlight years that needed further study. Next, burial totals by year from the parish registers were considered with a strictly numeric assessment of the records being applied. Each parish was assessed individually, and then the Island was assessed as a whole, with each parish being added to the Island totals as its records became available. [15] These methods gave a number of years to consider further. Some of the years identified in the numeric method corresponded to years identified by other sources, however others did not.

Crisis Years on the Isle of Man

On further analysis, it was obvious that a number of the years identified by the numeric method were not crisis years at all, but appeared as such when they were at the start or end of gaps in the records. Where it appeared that there was a real and significant rise in burials, a closer look was taken at what might have been happening in each parish and Island-wide at the time. Lack of space here precludes a discussion of every crisis event in every parish, instead this paper is limited to the most significant Island-wide events. What has been left out is localised events where the effects were limited to one or two parishes, however there is one exception that will be discussed further later.

Known outbreaks of disease on the Island provide a good starting point. Here as well, seasonality has an important part to play in considering the evidence. Work has been done in England and elsewhere considering various diseases and their seasonal patterns. [16] Some of this work has been drawn on, where possible, when considering events on the Island. One of the things that such work can help provide is some suggestions as to possible causes where disease seems likely.

1684 to 1685

As Figure 3 shows, the year 1685 gives a very clear picture of a seasonal outbreak of disease.

Figure 3 - Seasonality of Burials 1684 to 1685

Figure 3 (16k)

A number of registers identify the considerable increase in burials in 1685 as an outbreak of smallpox. In January of that year the first case is recorded in Braddan. The first deaths from smallpox in German, Malew and Michael are all recorded in March. There is no mention of smallpox in the registers for Jurby, Maughold or Andreas, but all three parishes experience higher than average burial rates in that spring and early summer. By July the crisis has finished everywhere and the numbers settle back to normal.

The evidence suggests that this was a serious demographic crisis. For four of the seven parishes with data, this year sees the highest total annual burials for the century. In some cases, the 1685 total is nearly double the next highest annual total. The evidence is consistent with an outbreak of smallpox. Smallpox was often a winter disease, this outbreak beginning in January, though it did not always follow a strict seasonal pattern. It was an airborne infection, making it easily spread, and the evidence suggests it may have spread throughout the Island. Smallpox primarily affects children, and at the peak of the crisis, at least 70% of those being buried Island-wide were identified in the registers as infants or children, further evidence that this was indeed smallpox. While 70% of the burials were identified as infants or children, it is highly likely that the figure is low. Some registers do not record “infant” or “child” at all and others are inconsistent in their recording of this information. As the crisis grew in severity, it is also likely that haste may have meant that such information was missed on some burials.

March and April 1685 were also observed by Cambridge to be crisis months in England. [17] Because they are working with national statistics, they do not generally identify causes of death; whether smallpox also affected England at this time cannot be determined from their work. Scotland also experienced heavy mortality in 1685; again, no suggestion is given for the cause of this increased mortality. [18]

1656 to 1657

The next crisis to consider is the only localised crisis that will be discussed here. Figure 4 shows burials for 1656 and 57.

Figure 4 - Seasonality of Burials 1656 to 1657

Figure 4 (19k)

Clearly only Malew was in crisis at this time, and it is included here because in November 1656 the register notes the first case of smallpox. The peak in terms of numbers of burials is December and then burials trail off slowly. In this earlier crisis, as in the later one, it was primarily children who were affected. From November to February nearly 70 per cent of those buried were identified as infants or children. This outbreak is also consistent with the seasonality of smallpox, but here it did not spread in the same manner as it will do in 1685. Clearly, if this was indeed smallpox, it was a much less severe occurrence. No other parish seems to have been affected and Malew itself saw a fairly minor increase in burials.

1675 to 1676

Another period when the registers provide some specific evidence as to the cause of a crisis is in 1675-76, as seen in Figure 5.

Figure 5 - Seasonality of Burials 1675 to 1676

Figure 5 (21k)

In September and October 1675, 25 burials in Malew are identified as being caused by “flux”. Flux is often said to have been dysentery, but the register evidence leaves several unanswered questions. Dysentery was generally a late summer or autumn disease and is believed to most often affect the young, but less than 30% of those Malew burials are identified as infants or children. Only those September and October burials in Malew are marked with a cause of death, where every parish with records seems to have been affected. The crisis seems to have trailed off slightly only to peak a second time a few months later, where no parish register records any causes of death.

There were 122 burials Island-wide in September and October 1675 and 21% of those were infants or children. In January and February 1676 there were 129 burials Island-wide with 41% being identified as infants or children. It could well be that two separate diseases broke out, one after the other, with dysentery, typhoid, typhus and influenza all being possibilities.

Other Disease Periods

Those are the only crisis periods in the 17th century where an outbreak of disease is specifically mentioned in any of the parish registers. There are, however, other crisis periods where disease seems to have been the likely cause of an increase in burials.

1664 to 1665

As Figure 6 shows, the seasonal pattern in 1665 looks very much like some of those already discussed. Malew peaks in January 1665 and the other parishes follow with most peaking in March 1665. By June burials have returned to more normal levels.

Figure 6 - Seasonality of Burials 1664 to 1665

Figure 6 (22k)

This outbreak could be typhus, which usually began in winter months and affected all ages. It could also be smallpox, but that would generally have elicited comment in at least some of the registers. The percentage of children affected is also low if it was smallpox. In England in 1665 there were a number of severe crisis months, however, this was primarily due to the Great Plague outbreak in London. [19] In terms of seasonality, this event on the Island, whatever it is, starts too early in the year for plague. More importantly, there is nothing in the registers or in other written sources at the time that suggests plague. It is unlikely, if plague did affect the Island at this (or any other) time that it would have escaped comment. There are no clear-cut answers to what happened in this period on Man, but it appears fairly certain that there was an outbreak of some disease in spring 1665.

Towards the end of the century there is burial evidence for seven or eight parishes. Earlier periods, however, have fewer available registers. Small and localised events may appear increasingly important when there are only two or three parishes to consider. With that in mind, there are a few more crisis periods to consider very briefly.

1623 to 1624

One period for which it would be very useful to have more registers available is 1623-24 as seen in Figure 7.

Figure 7 - Seasonality of Burials 1623 to 1624

Figure 7 (12k)

The peak of the crisis occurs in October 1623, and burials are quite high, especially for Michael. This may have been a fairly severe crisis, with both parishes recording their highest annual totals for the whole of the century in this year. Ballaugh’s records have a number of gaps in them, including unfortunately the smallpox outbreak in 1685. However, Michael’s records are more or less complete and Michael’s next highest annual total comes in that smallpox outbreak. Perhaps significantly, the annual total for Michael in the smallpox year of 1685 is only half of the annual total seen in this year.

In terms of seasonality, this is slightly too late in the year to be identified as plague. England also saw crisis months in July and August and October through December. [20] Some of this is credited to a disastrous harvest at the end of 1622, which primarily affected the north of England, Ireland and Scotland. [21] It is possible that the Island was also affected by this food shortage, perhaps leaving residents more susceptible to disease. Typhoid and dysentery are autumn diseases often spread through contaminated food, which would be more likely to be consumed in times of shortage, for example. With evidence from only two parishes, this is merely a suggestion for what might have happened.

1628 to 1629

Only four parishes have adequate burial registers in 1628-29, as seen in Figure 8. It appears evident that some winter disease took hold in all four.

Figure 8 - Seasonality of Burials 1628 to 1629

Figure 8 (17k)

Ballaugh shows two separate peak periods, December 1628 and April 1629, with the other parishes peaking between or in those same months. Percentages of children involved remain fairly low for all parishes, and it may have been an outbreak of typhus or influenza.

1617 to 1618

Figure 9 shows burials for 1617 and 18, where only two burial registers are available for consideration. Again, it appears to be another outbreak of a winter disease, possibly typhus or influenza; the numbers buried are actually fairly small.

Figure 9 - Seasonality of Burials 1617 to 1618

Figure 9 (13k)

These last two have been mentioned only briefly, as the registers provide little information about them. They were worth including, as they are the only other two periods of increased mortality that affect all parishes with registers and appear very likely to have been caused by disease. Neither is particularly severe in terms of the percentage increase in burials and neither is likely to have been plague.

Other Crisis Periods

There are other crisis periods that are far less straightforward. For example, evidence from some written sources suggests a famine on the Island in 1649 [22] and this period does show up as a crisis period in terms of the numbers of burials compared to the average.

Figure 10 - Seasonality of Burials 1649 to 1650

Figure 10 (20k)

The burial pattern is quite disorganised when compared to the disease outbreaks already considered. Whether or not it is famine is another matter altogether and there is not the space here to discuss it fully. [23] Burials were quite high in Malew in 1649 and in a pattern that could be consistent with disease. In fact, this is the only time, in any register, that what could be considered a classic plague pattern appears. This pattern was defined by Shrewsbury and is identified as follows:

When a parish register shows an excessive number of burials in a year and a monthly analysis shows that more than 50% of these is contributed by any three successive months of the plague season, June to October inclusive, the record is suggestive of an outbreak of plague. When more than 66% of the total annual burials occur in the three months July to September inclusive, this almost certainly indicates plague. [24]

Malew, in this period, meets the first criteria, with almost exactly 50% of the annual burials falling in the plague season, but it does not meet the second criteria. The lack of comment from any written sources also makes plague highly unlikely at this time.


Other crisis periods exist, but are even less clear cut, and none correspond to periods identified as poor harvest periods. None of them achieves particularly high burial numbers when compared to the 1685 smallpox epidemic. Many more localised crisis also exist, for example, Onchan’s highest annual burial total is in 1669 when only one or two other parishes show any increase at all.

Of all the crisis periods discussed, the 1685 smallpox epidemic seems to have been the worst for most parishes, though it may appear more severe because there is more evidence available at this time. Highlighted on Map 1 [25] are the parishes for which there are records, all of which showed an increase in burials in the 1685 outbreak of smallpox.

Map 1 - 1685 Burials

Map 1 (52k)

The parishes are scattered around the Island and there is no reason to suppose that any of the other parishes would have escaped the disease, though it is possible. Similarly, the 1675 outbreak of “flux” affected eight of eight parishes for which there are registers, the same seven as shown on Map 1 and also Onchan, whose records have a gap that includes 1685.

It appears likely, therefore that Man suffered from Island-wide outbreaks of disease, however evidence suggests that it may have escaped the most dreaded of all, the plague, at least in the seventeenth century. Obviously it is impossible to be certain because of the numbers of missing registers, but other sources also seem to confirm the plagues absence.

Further analysis of the more localised events and a continuation of the study through the eighteenth century should provide more answers and allow the seventeenth century to be placed in a larger context. Hopefully this paper has provided some idea of the usefulness, or otherwise, of parish registers as sources. While much of what is discussed is suggestive, rather than conclusive, it hopefully adds something valuable to the picture of life on seventeenth century Man.

1J.A. Sharpe, Early Modern England: A Social History 1550 – 1760 (London 1987), 36-7. The use of registers is also discussed in detail in E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541 – 1871 A Reconstruction (first paperback edition with new introduction, Cambridge 1989).
2Wrighley and Schofield, The Population History of England, 89-102.
3The Parish Registers for the Isle of Man are available at the Manx National Heritage Library (M.N.H.L.) in Douglas on microfilm in the PR series. For this paper I have worked from the original registers or the earliest available copies as held by the M.N.H.L. wherever possible. See ‘References’ below for full particulars for the registers used in this paper.
4Sharpe, Early Modern England, 356.
5Wrigley and Schofield, The Population History of England.
6Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost further explored (London 2000), 136.
7Data for England from Wrigley and Schofield, The Population History of England, 287.
8Ibid., 298.
9Ibid., 300.
10Data for England, Ibid.
11See for example several papers in Michael Drake (ed), Population Studies from Parish Registers, A selection of Readings from Local Population Studies (Derby 1982), 85 – 112.
12Wrigley and Schofield, The Population History of England, 652.
13J.R. Dickinson, (private correspondence, 2003).
14J.R. Dickinson, The Lordship of Man Under the Stanleys: Government and Economy in the Isle of Man, 1580 – 1704 (Preston 1996), 92 – 105.
15Eleven year rolling centred averages were taken for each year and this average was multiplied by a factor of 1.5 and 2. The actual burial total for each year was then compared with the multiplied average to determine “major” (from the 2 multiplier) and “minor” (from the 1.5 multiplier) crisis events. The use of “major” and “minor” was dropped from the paper as it proved to be of little or no significance when considering Island wide events over the course of the century.
16See for example A.B. Appleby, Famine in Tudor and Stuart England (Liverpool, 1978). and R.S. Schofield, ‘An anatomy of an epidemic: Colyton, November 1645 to November 1646’, in The plague reconsidered. A new look at its origins and effects in 16th and 17th century England. (Local Population Studies supplement, 1977).
17Wrigley and Schofield, The Population History of England, 338.
18Wrigley and Schofield, The Population History of England, 341.
19Wrigley and Schofield, The Population History of England, 336.
20Wrigley and Schofield, The Population History of England, 338.
21Laslett, The World We Have Lost, further explored, 130.
22Moore discusses this briefly: A.W. Moore, A History of the Isle of Man (2 vols, London 1900), i, 283.
23For a fuller discussion of events on Island in the late 1640s see D.M. Powell, Considering the Extraordinary Dearth and Scarcity of Bread, (unpublished MA dissertation for the University of Liverpool, 2001).
24J.F.D. Shrewsbury, A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles (London, 1970) as quoted by L. Bradley, ‘An Enquiry into Seasonality in Baptisms, Marriages and Burials’ in Michael Drake (ed), Population Studies from Parish Registers, A selection of Readings from Local Population Studies (Derby 1982), 92.
25Modified from Dickinson, The Lordship of Man Under the Stanleys, 12.

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