Keith Wrightson


On his book Ralph Tailor’s Summer

Cover Interview of December 23, 2011

In a nutshell

This book is a study of the English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne during the plague epidemic of the summer of 1636, which killed almost half the population. It is also about what that experience reveals about an urban society and culture in this period.

Unlike most studies of the plague in early modern Europe, it is a study “from below.”  The focus is not on the response of government, or on the demographic impact of epidemic mortality, or its religious interpretation (though all these figure).  It is on how ordinary people responded to, and coped with, a devastating threat to their families and their community.

The narrative structure is provided not only by the course of the epidemic (which is traced in detail) but also by the story of a particular individual and the people he encountered. His name was Ralph Tailor, a 25-year-old scrivener, who wrote many of the documents from which the experience of the plague can be reconstructed. He prepared wills for plague victims, inventoried their goods, and later gave evidence in court when wills were questioned, describing what he had witnessed.  His activities can be traced throughout the epidemic and its aftermath.  They can be used as a kind of thread of personal narrative to link it all together—much as Defoe used the voice of an anonymous tanner as the narrator of his Journal of the Plague Year (1722).  But this is not fiction or drama-documentary. Ralph Tailor really existed.  What he did, and saw, is documented.

Because of his prominence in the story, I called the book “Ralph Tailor’s Summer.”  But the book is subtitled “A Scrivener, his City and the Plague,” because Ralph Tailor’s experience is used to bind together what is very much a study of his world; the built environment of his city; its social structures, economy, material culture, and religious controversies; the relationships between its people; the values by which they lived and died.

Unlike most studies of the plague my book does not endorse what has been called the “dystopian vision” of the plague narratives published in the period. They tended to stress the threat or actuality of social collapse in order to reinforce the hold of religious and secular authority.

I offer a different account of the plague.  The book is more nuanced, more rooted in specific recorded behavior, and also more optimistic. It shows how social survival depended upon the continuing strength of basic social obligations within the urban community. It stresses people’s resilience: how they survived, or provided for their survivors, and for the rebuilding of their world.

Finally, this is a book about historical documents: how they were made, what they tell us, and how they can be used to recreate a lost world. I try to involve readers in the problems raised by the nature of historical evidence and its interpretation.