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2. Counting the Dead

Published onApr 01, 2020
2. Counting the Dead

In 2009, artist David Gurman installed The Nicholas Shadow (see figures 2.1a and 2.1b), a large bell bearing the icon of Saint Nicholas, inside a former confessional chapel in St. Ignatius church in San Francisco. Using data from, the bell robotically tolled on the hour the number of Iraqi civilian deaths reported that day. The bell rang 906 times in sixty-six days.1 Described as “real-time memorials,” Gurman’s work regularly uses live streams of data to drive multimedia installations. The “liveness” of such installations is heavily mediated and provides us with an excellent example of the way in which data performs, in a rather literal sense here in a multimedia installation. At the same time, the effect of liveness in The Nicholas Shadow is carefully produced through Gurman’s willingness to play with sound, resonance, temporality, and setting to create new affective understandings of death and violence half a world away. I am interested in understanding the remediation chain from a witnessed death in Iraq to a web-served data stream to an installation that depends on sonic and tactile experiences to materialize the data. I am also interested in unpacking why we might want or need to remediate a data stream that is largely numerical, and structured in a tabular format in order to enhance its emotional and intellectual impact. What can the history of death-counting media teach us about the kinds of being and dying that are permitted in conventional Anglo-American quantum media? The answers to these questions are the subject of the first half of this book.

Figure 2.1 (a) Still of The Nicholas Shadow as installed in St. Ignatius Parish, San Francisco, 2009. In addition to the bell, the installation consists of an Apple computer, custom software, MAX 5, Site Sucker, electromechanical bell-tolling mechanisms, pulleys, and silk ribbon. It also uses a small light mounted on the wall to produce the bell shadow on a large projection screen. (b) Close-up of The Nicholas Shadow. Images courtesy of the artist.

Iraq Body Count (IBC), Gurman’s data source, “records the violent deaths that have resulted from the 2003 military intervention in Iraq. Its detailed public database includes civilian deaths caused by US-led coalition and Iraqi government forces and paramilitary or criminal attacks by others.”2 As a database, the IBC minimally collects the location, date, and number of civilians killed. When more facts about identity, employment status, and other demographic categories are available, those are recorded too. When possible, the database also contains information about the circumstances and responsible parties for the death. The data are collected and reported by journalists, NGO and hospital staff, and other citizen witnesses. In addition to the official IBC database, there is a “Recent Events” page that records reports of casualties from witnesses and emergency response staff, usually within forty-eight hours of the event. IBC considers these provisional rather than official counts. Gurman drew his livestream for The Nicholas Shadow from the “Recent Events” page, which was scraped hourly for updates.3

The IBC database only records documented casualties that have been publicly released, thus making the database a tertiary resource more like an encyclopedia than a first-person account. The project “collects, archives, analyses and systematically extracts details from every available, distinct report for all identified incidents and individuals killed,” and has at a minimum two sources for every casualty reported.4 Consequently, there is a variable but always present time lag between the casualty event and its appearance in the IBC database. The IBC site notes this as well: “There is a considerable gap between the initial reporting of events and their first appearance in the IBC database” (at present about five months).5 The sense that the IBC provides real-time access to civilian casualties is an artful fiction deployed by the site itself and embedded in Gurman’s installation.6 By drawing on recent event counts as opposed to the verified database, Gurman’s installation uses the timeliest, if unverified, data even as it takes some authority from the other verified data set. As a consequence, understanding the temporality of the installation is complicated. The Nicholas Shadow transforms experiences of space as well as the time between the event and a viewer’s experience of it. According to Gurman “The notion is to collapse spaces, create a portal between the site of the installation and the site of conflict, so that we can understand on some level what’s happening in that place and meditate on it, feel a deeper sense of connection and simultaneously a sense of disconnection or distance from that zone.”7 This compression of time and space is supported by the design of the installation, which keeps the numbers on the site driving the installation hidden, thereby creating a program where visitors are positioned as witnesses, experiencing each death as an event versus a textual report. Without access to the data stream itself, viewers must sit with the large, ringing bell and its resonant echoes waiting to see when the ringing ends. Consequently, the death counts register not as numbers visually consumed but instead as a durational experience.

The more than one hundred thousand civilian casualties in Iraq ought to be shattering whether communicated by tolling a bell or reading a spreadsheet, but Gurman’s installation attests to the power of embodied experiences of death counts to disrupt the normal flow of life for those who are otherwise sheltered from this particular violence. It also exemplifies the power of sonic and tactile experience to create an impression that lingers longer than the all-too-familiar tabular display of numbers. Gurman was sensitive to the fact that the bell is roughly the size of a human torso, and the ways in which the confessional space created a resonate chamber that would amplify the ringing of the bell and its vibrations in both space and the human body. He created a device that would transform civilian casualty numbers into a sound that reverberates through the hollow of the bell as well as that of the body. It is breathtaking, literally. But how is it that we have arrived at a place where numbers arranged in a table, those elegant compressions of messy realities, do not have the same power to capture our attention and steal our breath? What does the affective power of an installation like The Nicholas Shadow suggest for our understanding of the bureaucratic media we use to count the dead and the kinds of being that they encourage?

Counting the dead has long been a crucial activity for the living. As Thomas Laqueur observes, “The dead make social worlds” and humans have long made lists of the dead as a way to “constitute communities … that live from generation to generation.”8 As publications or public monuments, the technologies used to display death counts have remained remarkably stable over time; tabular displays, like those produced by parish clerks or a running mortality counter like the IBC, remain the media of choice. The tracking and enumerating of death has a long history with roots deep in Anglo-American religious and civic practices that make it clear that death counts are anything but neutral registers. Rather, they exist in complicated technosocial assemblages that permit certain kinds of being and becoming for both the living and the dead. If counting the dead is a way of forming social and historical communities, then we need to understand the impact that our media forms have on shaping those communities. The counting of bodies is intimately wrapped up in the Anglo-American desire to witness and commemorate loss, but what is the nature of the losses represented in the media of death counts? Do our tables or lists of the dead express the tragedy of a death come too soon or too violently? This is certainly how memorials seem to work, but what of the more bureaucratic media like a database, inventory, or parish register?

Looking at the long history of our body count media demonstrates that practices transformed with the shift from church registers to bills of mortality. Subsequently, the bills of mortality, along with other media like inventory logbooks, were the models for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century innovations that made the counting of bodies commercial and epidemiological instead of commemorative. Indeed, it is my argument that transactional forms for counting human bodies, whether alive or dead, are at the heart of the modern reality that tables of numbers are poor vectors for the emotional and social impact of human mortality. In order to understand the power of Gurman’s intervention, we need to recognize how media technologies like tabular forms and databases effectively separate reading publics from the space, time, and feelings of human life. Further, we have to understand how the interests of nation-states, colonialists, and slave owners are written into the forms that we use to count bodies. Grasping this media history makes it possible to understand why these same forms, along with their lineages of power, control, and national interest, are sites of intervention for people of color in the United States and civilians around the world who are dying to be counted.

Quantum Media for the Dead

While people have long counted their dead, tables enumerating deaths have their origin in early modern mortality bills, which are the first body-counting technologies to leverage media initially designed for merchants. Printed from the beginning of the seventeenth century through the mid-nineteenth century, what are known as “bills of mortality” were designed to keep the British government apprised of mortality rates. These publications were also made available to the public as handbills that could be bought on subscription or individually. As such, they are both corporate documents and among the earliest periodicals that eventually gave us news media.9

Many early modern and medieval cities had burial registers, and the practice of naming the dead on monuments or in epic poetry extends well back into Greek antiquity.10 While counting the dead has long been a Western practice, the British bills of mortality were especially innovative and commercial. Prior to the nineteenth century, London was divided by what are now known as ecclesiastical parishes—administrative units that were governed locally by church officials, and would report to the lord mayor of London and, ultimately, the queen or king. The English parish clerks had long been tasked with tracking people; the first charter for the parish clerks was granted in 1442, while the fraternal order appears to have existed since the thirteenth century, mostly performing holy plays and managing the music for liturgies.11 With the fifteenth-century charter from Henry VI, the order formally assumed responsibility for the “bede” or prayer rolls of the Fraternity of Saint Nicholas. In the Catholic tradition, bede rolls list the names of those who should receive prayers during intercessions and mass, and record the dates on which the prayers for the departed should be offered. While England had transformed the religious infrastructure to better serve a Protestant nation and no longer supported Catholic indulgences, it was likely that this kind of tracking of the dead positioned the parish clerks for a successful bid for the sole right to publish and earn income from the mortality bills. The bede rolls did not simply record the dead but also ordered the activities of the living by marking dates and persons for intercession. They were a kind of program or set of directions for being (in Kember and Zylinska’s sense) that was activated in regular Catholic devotional practice (a religious algorithm). Post-Reformation bills of mortality were not a part of liturgical practice; nevertheless, they similarly programed the daily activities of those who wanted to avoid the plague-stricken parishes (a civic algorithm). Further, they made particular categories of death visible to the British government, thereby mediating how the Crown understood its subjects and their dying.

Parish clerks enjoyed the exclusive right to publish and sell mortality bills, allowing them to extend what had been a fairly local practice into an urban media empire with the advent in 1603 of printings for both public and royal consumption.12 The market success of the bills encouraged the parish clerks to incorporate as the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks in 1611. As Will Slauter notes, their charter “recognized both the obligation to deliver mortality bills to the King and the Lord Mayor and the exclusive privilege to sell them.”13 The charter issued under Charles in 1639 is still in force today and declares,

The Parish Clerks of the parish churches of the City and suburbs of London and the liberties thereof the city of Westminster the Borough of Southwark and the fifteen outparishes aforesaid shall weekly bring or send unto the Clerks Hall of the fellowship aforesaid every Tuesday before six in the evening a true and perfect note in writing with the names subscribed of all the Christenings and Burials which have been done in their several parishes the week before and of what disease every particular party in their bill mentioned died so near as they can learn or understand.14

In the absence of a parish clerk, anyone who was responsible for the burial of the dead was ordered to report in writing weekly on deaths witnessed and their causes. As the charter puts it, “Where no parish clerk is, the sexton gravemaker” and “all other persons” who perform burials should report both the counts and causes of deaths that they have seen.15 This was clearly part of an effort by the Crown to understand mortality in the city and its boroughs; the charter seeks to encourage “the more certain and exact account of the said several diseases and casualties,” and goes on at length about the need for honest and true accounting.16

As an interface for the presentation of death counts, the bills drew on the emerging power of numbers “as signs of what looks like or passes as counting,” and as such, “numbers seem to be simple descriptors of phenomenal particulars.”17 We can see this formalization of numbers at work in the two examples below from the Company of Parish Clerks’ bills of mortality, one as a broadside and the other as collected in London’s Dreadful Visitation: Or a Collection of All the Bills of Mortality for This Present Year (see figures 2.2a and 2.2b). Both forms drew on innovations in ledger media (drawn or preprinted tables) in the early modern period. As Mary Poovey demonstrates, when made public, tabular mercantile ledgers mediated both social and epistemological experience: “As a system of writing, double-entry bookkeeping produced effects that exceeded transcription and calculation. One of its social effects was to proclaim the honesty of merchants as a group. One of its epistemological effects was to make the formal precision of the double-entry system, which drew on the rule bound system of arithmetic, seem to guarantee the accuracy of the details it recorded.” Poovey explains that double-entry bookkeeping, which first emerged in popular usage in the sixteenth century in England and was all the rage by the seventeenth century, remediated private records and private management into public writing and the production of public knowledge. This included a series of transcriptions from the foundational inventory, then to the memorial, and finally to the ledger. Each transcription involved a compression or elision of narrative, according to Poovey, and thereby an increased focus on the numbers as an accurate representation of accounts. This system seemed to make rule-bound writing a guarantor of accuracy and rendered various people involved in the writing process interchangeable, regardless of their rank.18

Figure 2.2 (a) A broadside reporting the bill from the 1666 outbreak. (b) The collected bills appeared in a large bound book with the disease category breakdown on the recto and a more detailed account of the deaths by parish on the verso. ¶ Source: Graunt, London’s Dreadful Visitation, 1665.

Drawing on the model of the accounting tables and books that Poovey describes, the bills of mortality have a clear set of formal rules and particular spatial logic. They are deceptively simple, thus encouraging the assumption that they are transparent vehicles of meaning. The bills announce their counts as complete and timely surveys of deaths in the city—“the diseases and casualties this week.” But because of the administrative structure in place, it is more accurate to say that they count burials performed within Anglican parishes, which is a limitation entirely elided in the interface. The causes of death are listed to the left in alphabetical order, and the number of people that have succumbed to that particular cause appear to the right, with each value aligned on a printer’s rule for uniformity. The top half of the page always contains this list of mortalities by cause, followed on the last third of the page by an aggregate count of individuals christened and buried. During the plague years when the mortality bills were especially popular as a form of public news, the counts also included a separate section with the number of deaths due to the plague, a measure of the increase or decrease in burials that week, and an enumeration of parishes infected and clear of infection.

Who Gets to Count?

While the Company of Parish Clerks’ charter evinces an anxiety about accurate recording, it is also clear that only certain kinds of people were to be included in mortality counts; in particular, the Crown wanted information on its adult, white Anglican male subjects. The bills were to “set down the name and surnames of all such freemen as shall be buried in their several parishes, and of what company everyone so buried was free.” From the medieval period onward, an English “freeman” had the freedom to earn money, trade, and own land (as opposed to those who were the property of a feudal lord, for example). Prior to the nineteenth century, all freemen were members of one of the livery companies, over twenty-one years of age, and had either served a seven-year apprenticeship or were freemen by patrimony (only legitimate children were eligible) or petition, which required a fee. One had to be a British citizen to become a freeman, meaning that anyone in the city from England’s many trade partners would not have been eligible. Jewish and other non-Christian subjects were not formally permitted to become freemen prior to 1830, although there are a handful of instances of Jewish admissions in the records.19 These restrictions alone would have made it difficult for nonwhite Londoners to join the community of freemen during the period when the mortality bills first became popular. While race is a historically contingent category and not active in the modern sense in early modern England, we do have evidence that nonwhite people, including those born in Europe and Africa, were working in London in both enslaved and free contexts from at least the sixteenth century onward. In 1596, Elizabeth I wrote “An Open Letter about Negroes Brought Home” in which she complained of “late diverse Blackmoores brought into the Realme, of which kind of people there are already here too many.”20 The queen was irritated enough by the presence of people that she presumed to be Islamic blacks (“Moors”) that she declared, “These kind of people should be sent forth of the land”—a declaration that she repeated in a 1601 license to deport as well.21 Prior to 1923, women of all races were not eligible to become freemen but could inherit their husband’s privileges on his death (they would lose those privileges if they remarried).22 While the bills gathered information on women who “did away with themselves,” usually by hanging, and those who died in childbirth, the royal motivation for the mortality bills was to capture the deaths of adult white Anglican men who were considered important factors in the growing economic engine of the British Empire. At the same time, the bills were themselves an economic engine for the Company of Parish Clerks, and inaugurated the larger-scale public consumption of news about death and dying that has been central to periodic media ever since.

While women were not, and still are not, formally allowed to serve as parish clerks, women’s work was central to the production of the bills. Parishes employed poor London “women to serve as nurses to care for the sick [and] paid female ‘searchers’ to examine diseased bodies.” Those who refused to care for the sick were often assigned to the more gruesome work of the “searchers” who were responsible for inspecting those who had fallen ill to determine if the plague was the cause and certifying the cause of death for corpses.23 Engaged in official governmental business, these female searchers were required to take an oath before the London mayor and were paid per body examined.24 According to historian of science Deborah Harkness, a woman could earn as much as seventeen shillings and four pence a year for the inspection of dead bodies, in addition to their alms allotment as members of the parish poor.25 That seventeen shillings would have been roughly half a year’s cash wage for a well-paid female domestic servant at the time, making this work lucrative, if dangerous, for women who were frequently older and dependent on the parish for alms.26

Mediations of Death as News

The London parish clerks were given the sole right to publish the mortality bills, which were themselves highly compressed documents, derived from records of deaths kept in parish registers and accounts gathered by the often-female searchers. While parish registries recorded major life events, providing information on the age at death, cause of death, baptisms, and occasionally, contracts, the bills reduced this information into a table of deaths by category. Even though original parish register books were comparatively rich accounts, subsequent remediation into mortality bills entailed borrowing the mercantile format along with erasing a great deal of labor and content so that the bills could be quickly consumed by court officials. Printed as tables in early newspapers or a stand-alone broadside—an inexpensive, quickly produced single sheet with printing on one side that conventionally carried the news, proclamations, and royal decrees—the bills could be bought for a pence, and were easy to circulate and consume.

Like the “spatial ordering” of the double-entry book, the form of the mortality bills stabilized access to information and proclaimed the “rectitude of a company, which included individuals of a variety of social ranks.”27 By printing the same orderly formal account each week, the parish clerks were able to erase any mark of uncertainty or error in the counting of the dead. If the double-entry books produced an idealized world, one in which “risk and human labor have disappeared from view,” the bills produced an ironically idealized world in which the reporting of epidemic disease and mass death appeared as clean and orderly as an account book.

Further, while women’s work was everywhere embedded in the making of the bills, the formal structures of the text effaced those labors (as it did with account books). As a new use for the enormously popular broadside, the bills illustrate the ways in which public accounts and their “transformation into a codified system of public accountability—tended to privilege not just a rule-governed kind of writing but also the system of education and credentialing by which particular individuals (almost always men) were rendered obedient to such rules.”28 As a public form, they argued to readers that a rule-based medium produced a factual account of a chaotic social experience. What’s more, the repeated completion of each week’s tally with the requisite predefined categories effectively hid all that was left out of this particular public account, including youth, non-Christians and dissenters from the Church of England, and people of color who also died during the massive plague outbreaks that rocked seventeenth-century England. In addition to mediating readers’ experiences of the plague, the bills mediated the engagements of clerks and searchers with the dying and dead. People were quickly placed into categories; their dying and dead bodies were enumerated, and then left for burial.

Mortality bills were available for purchase as broadsides from the Company of Parish Clerks’ own printing press, which was instrumental in creating a new media ecology in which the weekly news drove epistolary exchanges as well as prompted conversations with neighbors and friends throughout London. Samuel Pepys famously recounted many of his discussions, such as the one from May 24, 1665, “where all the newes” at the local coffeehouse “is of the plague growing upon us in this towne.”29 As Slauter suggests, the weekly death count led to a “periodic rather than cumulative” understanding of the epidemic.30 This periodicity was intimately wrapped up in the daily lives of readers, and was further enhanced by the somewhat-incongruous inclusion in each bill of an account of the weekly cost of bread as set by the mayor of London and aldermen. With the publication of the bills, death counts came as regularly as the bread prices, and both were mediated by an inexpensive textual interface that drew on the rigors of accounting forms. The form, along with the periodic repetition, worked to produce everyday experiences of life and death in London as rule bound, spatial, and clearly defined. One could plan shopping routes based on the parish infection rates with the same interface that allowed budgeting for basic food needs. While Londoners’ sense of security may have broken down as the death counts grew, the function of the bill as a mediator of experience remained. As the news continued to argue for an increased rate of infection, London’s elites fled the city for the countryside, where they often remained until the news reported abatement in new infections. The handbills were an especially generative media form, creating possibilities for both the state and its subjects to understand their city in terms of the geography of death. They were also vectors through which, as Foucault’s work on biopolitics suggests, the sovereign could manifest state power in the ability to know, count, and publish human death.31 It also gave each reader insight into the categories of death that were available and mattered to the official apparatus of the British Crown.

The complex nexus of gender, labor, expertise, and commercial power that the mortality bills represent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is part of a larger knowledge project described by Timothy Reiss as “aesthetic rationalism.” As cultural and epistemological phenomena, Reiss sees aesthetic rationalism as a general pursuit of “depth with clarity, variety without confusion, and interest with pleasure” in early modern European textual as well as verbal practices.32 In the ever-increasing compression of the mortality bills, we see an emphasis on the clean and orderly tabular presentation. The pleasures of mathematical and numerical texts in the early modern period were many, but in this specific case it is the pleasure of rational control that we see in the mortality bills. Erasing the labor of women searchers, parish clerks, and the dying body, the table carefully controls what is within the scope of a mortality bill.

The eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant described this particular kind of pleasure as deriving from an experience of the mathematical sublime.33 Kant distinguishes between aesthetic and mathematical judgment, with the former a measurement of “mere intuition,” and the latter a quantitative process by which measurement brings things into relation “by means of numerical concepts.”34 The mathematical sublime is thus encountered in two ways: aesthetically or mathematically.35 It is only in the case of our most monumental of media, like the pyramids discussed by Kant, that we encounter the mathematical sublime aesthetically, as something that our eye cannot fully see, and therefore that our intuition and imagination cannot fully measure in terms of its magnitude. In the case of the plague, the scope of mortality in a geographic space such as London or the much-larger British kingdom would similarly fall outside the scope of what the eye/intuition/imagination can measure. While our sensitive faculties might fall short, Kant suggests that when faced with the unimaginable, we turn to the powers of reason—to the mediation afforded by quantification, and in that moment we experience the sublime power of our rational faculty. What we see, then, in the mortality bills is a mediation process working to give shape to the sublime experience of epidemic disease encountered as a city, perhaps even a nation, littered with the dying and dead. Struggling to understand the waves of the plague epidemic in which it may have seemed as if entire towns were dying en masse, early modern English (as well as continental Europeans) leveraged textual interfaces in order to impose order on an unruly epidemic.

The pleasures of aesthetic rationalism and an encounter with the sublime operated in a different context in other media forms, like the Oxford/London Gazette.36 During outbreaks, the final section of the paper included a portion of the weekly bill (see figure 2.3). A typical report from early April 1666 reads, “The Account of this Weeks Bill runs thus. The Total 251. Of the Plague 26, Decreased in all 13, Increased of the Plague 9.”

Figure 2.3 A typical report of the weekly bills from the London Gazette, number 41, from Monday, April 2 to Thursday, April 5, 1666; the bill appears in the far-right bottom corner. Image courtesy of The Gazette: Official Public Record.

These running tallies remained periodic, and were fundamentally comparative in nature with the use of the “decreased (or increased) in all” and “increased (or decreased) of the plague” operating as markers of the ebb and flow of disease and death in the city. In this respect, the tabulations enacted the normalizing power of comparative and statistical analysis, creating a baseline or norm for human mortality.37 They also made it clear that while the numbers of deaths in general were of interest, the only major subcategory that mattered was “Of the Plague.” Gone were any indications of parish particulars, gender breakdowns, or counts of the other kinds of death suffered that week. The newspaper reports were designed to document only the rise and fall of death by the plague in the city.

In addition to functioning as a monitoring technology in the face of epidemic, the Gazette death counts became news in the sense that all other reports about battles, meetings, weather, and so on, were news in the paper. In this way, early modern death counts in London became a matter of not just personal or state interest but instead general public concern on par with the political and social news of the day. The bill always appeared in the right-hand bottom corner, at the end of the news. This location was the only formal marking that the bill was different from the other news items. Consequently, this particular interface allowed for a quick assessment of the weekly count at the same time that it formally argued for the inclusion of death counts as part of the news that mattered. With this new mediation, being an informed citizen meant also knowing the course of a highly contagious disease and its impact on the freemen of the city. This final point is worth pressing further; the elevation of public health concerns about white Christian men to the level of news meant that all readers and all those who might discuss the news were now measuring as well as modifying their daily lives based on the lives and deaths of a subset of the population. While it is neither cognitively strange nor poor practice to use a subset or sample of the population to understand large-scale events, the barometer of daily life was silently set by these death counts as a measure of the lives of relatively prosperous white Christian men. The absence of any contextual material obscures the limitations of the selection, and allows it to rhetorically and visually function as a measure of all that matters.

In addition to the official mortality bills and running newspaper updates on mortality rates, a third class of early modern body counts—unofficial bills—were published by a variety of individuals and sold in the markets to a consumer base that eagerly bought up news about the “dreadful visitation.” These unauthorized bills began to transform the temporality invoked by this particular kind of periodical. By gathering cumulative data and also comparing against previous outbreaks, the unauthorized bills argued for a different period or timescale in order to understand the plague. This change would eventually be matched by the publication of the collected official bills in the Dreadful Visitation, which included annual summaries too, but it was first the unauthorized bill that transformed how people understood time, space, and causality with respect to the plague deaths. The General Bill (figure 2.4) serves here as an example of a class of unofficial death-counting media that flourished in the context of the seventeenth century.

Figure 2.4 “The General Bill of Mortality: With a Continuation of this present Year, 1666. Being A true Relation of Seven modern Plagues or Visitations in London, with the number of those that were Buried of all Diseases; viz the first in the year of Queen Elizabeth, Anno 1592, the second in the year 1603, the third in (that never to be forgotten year) 1625, the fourth in Anno 1630, the fifth in the year 1636, the sixth in the year 1637 and 1638, the seventh this present year, 1665.” Image courtesy of Harvard University Houghton Library.

In a U-shaped border of sections separated by thin lines, the General Bill offers a tally of “seven modern” outbreaks of the plague in London, beginning with the 1591–1592 outbreak on the top left, and ending with the 1666 summary through January 23 and the most recent week’s tallies in the far-right bottom corner. Thus in one broadside, the General Bill presents a view of the ebb and flow of the plague epidemic across a seventy-five-year span, replacing what had been a weekly period with an intergenerational one. The scope of control and normalization enacted by tabular mediation grew with broadsides like the General Bill. Like the authorized bills produced by the Company of Parish Clerks, these unauthorized broadsheets depended on the regularity of the ledger format to create this sense of control, along with the developing cultural authority for counting/accounting. What differs in this account is that the plague is understood almost completely in terms of time. Each row contains a week’s date range—the month and days—and then the count of those dead from the plague. The shift to focus on time included the elision of all place information. We no longer have parish identification; it is simply the plague in all of London. The mediation enacted, then, creates an impression of a single geographic space known as “London” that has remained relatively stable over time, when in fact the city was experiencing explosive growth and change across the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The columns are occasionally interrupted with the information that new outparishes have been added, but by and large “London” is produced here as a unified city under siege. While the sense of place has shifted, the elision of labor that went into the production of counts endures, as does a continued silence with respect to the criteria for counting. Despite these omissions, the broadside assures us that this is a “true and accurate” account.

While seven outbreaks are captured here, there are additional data for the three years between 1646 and 1648, during which there were more modest numbers of plague deaths that still were sufficient to merit the closing of theaters (that threshold was thirty deaths per week). As Slauter explains, one effect of the inclusion of weekly data in ordered table format was to make plain the seasonality of the outbreaks; they began in the spring, peaked in the summer, and largely subsided by December.38 The rational reader could take comfort in the assurance provided by observation and data gathering: the plague may sweep through the city again, but it will also subside. It may seem a strange pleasure to know that an epidemic is likely coming in the spring, but it is not so strange to imagine the hope afforded by the promise of a December taper. The inclusion of the more minor outbreaks in the 1640s serves as yet another kind of formal assurance of accuracy: the accounts are so complete that they include totals of all plague deaths, not just those during the known outbreaks. Unlike other mortality bills, the unofficial bills focused on death by the plague only. Conspicuously absent from all general bill media are accounts of war casualties, which were recounted in a separate section of the Gazette during the English Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651. Further diverging from the news accounts, the General Bill drew on other broadside genres to mix the death counts with poetic and medicinal information. The poem pictured in figure 2.4 (at the center of the broadside just below the engraving) is a meditation on the inevitability of death and is typical of many of the pamphlets printed at the time. Slightly above and to the left is an “approved” recipe to help protect against infection. These poetic/narrative elements are centered right in the heart of the broadside, asserting that care of self and the soul should be the primary focus of readers. Unauthorized bills like the General Bill depended on the formal construction of accuracy found in the weekly bills while framing death counts in terms of a multigenerational time span, and outside or above the contexts of the great political and social interruption that was the Interregnum.

A New Class of Quantum Media: From the News to Statistical Science

John Graunt’s 1662 Natural and Political Observations was a landmark text that brought together the various broadsides into a synthesized, bound account of English mortality events. A haberdasher by trade, Graunt further compressed the content, and changed the media form of the bills and their cousins, thereby creating what is conventionally heralded as the first text in demographic and human statistical sciences. With this bound text/book, we see a rapid transition from media concerned with localities (as the broadsides were) to media of and for the generalized masses. It also marks a return to a general interest in mortality events beyond that of the multiple plague outbreaks. This is a critical step in the development of modern quantification media, which depend on both the social and political prestige of abstracted and aggregated data ushered in with demographics and actuarial science and the ethical frame of narrative life writing (as we will see in chapter 4). Graunt’s work exemplifies the shift from a focus on the tracking and reporting of individual bodies to a state-supported effort to transform concrete existence into “an abstraction, an object of scientific knowledge, administrative concern, and technical improvement; the shift to biopolitics.”39 As would be the case later with small pox reporting, the mathematical and tabular nature of the media provide authors with the “mathematical support” of aggregated numbers and statistics while also acting as an “agent of their integration into acceptable rationality.”40

Familiar with both mercantile accounting practices and human measurement through his trade, Graunt promised an innovative new approach to understanding large-scale patterns of death during the plague outbreaks in London and continental Europe in the 1650s and 1660s. The Natural and Political Observations first appeared as a fine artifact; a leather-bound quarto with two foldouts, including Graunt’s new “Table of Casualties” (figure 2.5). The volume went through four editions during Graunt’s life, including the 1665 edition ordered by official decree of the Royal Society. While pop-ups and foldouts were not new to European and English printing, they were costly and a clear indicator of the value ascribed to the text. They also give us a sense of the kind of remediation enacted by Graunt, who wanted readers to be able to capture the whole scale of the plague in a single view but needed something more than a quarto page. Frustrated by the “confused volumes” and “multiloquious deductions” of the previous death-counting media (presumably he’s talking about parish registers and bound collected bills here, given that broadsides were single sheets), Graunt argued that his new science of statistics could “reduce several great confused volumes into a few perspicuous tables.”41

Figure 2.5 The “Table of Casualties” foldout in Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations. Image courtesy of Echo Cultural Heritage Online.

The aggregated tables were a significant innovation that Graunt hoped would open up new ways of seeing, allowing readers to quickly “have a view of the whole together.” Graunt’s dedication to Lord John Roberts makes the time-saving function of the tabular media explicit: “To present your Lordship with tedious narrations, were but to speak my own ignorance of the value which his Majesty and the Publick have of your Lordship’s time.”42 Published in 1662, Graunt’s “Table of Casualties” enumerated the number of deaths by cause per year between 1629 and 1660. While the table is laid out in a rather familiar form, with the causes of death labeling the rows on the far-left side and the years labeling the columns at the top, the ordering of the years is unusual; the first column is 1647, and the columns run sequentially through to 1660. Immediately following 1660 is the series 1629–1636, and following that is a set of columns with four-year clusters: 1629–1632, 1633–1636, 1647–1650, 1651–1654, and 1655–1658. The final two columns are clusters with 1629, 1649, and 1659 as one, and then the final is “in 20 years.” With this unusual layout, Graunt published a set of “Advertisements for better understanding of the several Tables,” which included the following for the “Table of Casualties”:

The first Column contains all the Casualties happening within the 22 single years mentioned in this Bill. The 14 next Columns contain two of the last Septenaries of years, which being the latest are first set down. The 8 next Columns represent the 8 first years, wherein the Casualties were taken notice off. Memorandum, that the 10 years between 1636 and 1647 are omitted as containing nothing Extraordinary, and as not consistent with the Incapacity of a Sheet. The 5 next Columns are the 8 years from 1629 to 1636 brought into 2 Quarternions, and the 12 of the 14 last years brought into three more; that Comparison might be made between each 4 years taken together, as well as each single year apart.43

It is clear from Graunt’s “Advertisement” and the table itself that he considers his list of eighty-two causes of death to be complete. Not only does the “Table of Casualties” not admit the possibility of other modes of mortality, it excludes the many forms visible during the multiple wars that rocked England during this time. It does not include public execution despite there being a spectacular series of such events during the regicide and subsequent transfers of power. Additionally, as with the previous tabular genres like the bills and news reports, there is a formal erasure of the labor of counting and the persons counted. Graunt’s compilation from the authorized bills of mortality includes the excision of all location information and returns to a broader survey of all causes of death in a supposedly stable, unified British kingdom. The “Table of Casualties” neither marks the inclusion of outparishes, as the General Bill does, nor does it gesture toward completion in the same way. In fact, the “Advertisement” asserts that the decade between 1636 and 1647 contained “nothing Extraordinary,” and given space constraints, was left out of the sheet entirely. This is rather remarkable given that the General Bill and other sources attest to plague outbreaks in 1636, 1637, 1638, and 1646–1647.


While tabular media worked hard to control the messiness of human death, and excluding entire years could help to contain the mess, their subject was often unruly. Take, for example, the account of a woman who “hanged herself at St Savior’s Southwark,” which appeared in the 1665 London’s Dreadful Visitation: Or a Collection of All the Bills of Mortality for This Present Year.44 I frequently feel haunted by the various records of lives and deaths that I encounter in my work, and I have been haunted by this one for a long time; I first saw this record of her death in 2005. What I can say about this woman is spare: her death is recorded in the mortality bills, and so would have circulated first as a broadsheet or handbill, and then later in the collected volume shown in the image. This was an entry in a category of death known as “hang’d and made away with themselves,” and this is one of seven such deaths that year. Because hanging was presumed a suicide, she would have been buried in nearby Crossbones/Crossroads cemetery, where prostitutes and suicides could be received in unconsecrated grounds. Given her death by suicide, her name is not likely to have been recorded in official church rolls, and I have been unable to locate any additional information about her either in the parish registries or elsewhere. But she is here, in this text, and her death was circulated in the coffeehouses and on the street posts of London where weekly mortality bills were displayed. News of her death could have been purchased for two pence, and shared along with news of those who died of the plague or other more mundane causes.

As I have suggested, the formal qualities of the mortality bills—the tight spatial arrangement, repeated tabular form, alphabetized categories of disease, and quantification by kind—work to produce death as unaffecting, routine, and even distant. The St. Savior woman’s death record, however, violates the sanitizing rules endemic to aesthetic rationalism and cracks open a space for affect with the smallest of deviations (figure 2.6).

Figure 2.6 Page in the collected bills wherein the Southwark/St. Savior’s hanging is recorded near the top of the second column. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Her death with its precious additional details breaks the rational control of the form by extending over the single line and offering more detail by including gender (female) and the agent of death (herself). The specificity, light as it is, is a departure from the rest of this particular bill and larger genre. My attention is drawn to her death record in the way that it might be attracted to an illuminated section of a painting.

Given the popularity and regularity of the bills across the seventeenth century, it seems unlikely that she would not have encountered this mortality media. Bills were posted in coffeehouses and markets, and sold as individual sheets; we have accounts of conversations that center the bills as the news of the day. I tend to think that the St. Savior woman knew that hanging herself in a church would ensure a record of her death; it is possible that she literally died in order to be counted, enacting a kind of resistant consent by choosing the manner and place of her death. Rather than experiencing a cool distance from her death, I am haunted by her death because in some way I identify with her. Did she suffer as a woman? Was she also subject to violence, sexual or otherwise, that made suicide a desirable option? Did she also experience crushing postpartum changes in her brain and biochemistry that made it feel as if the entire world was crashing down? Did she feel so erased by misogyny (and perhaps also racial or religious discrimination) that hanging herself in a church was a viable way to ensure that she counted—somewhere, even if only in a death record? We will likely never know, but the particular questions are made possible by a rupture in the controlling function of the table.

If the St. Savior woman did hang herself in the church in order to make a statement that would probably be recorded in some detail, it was a strategy that worked for the weekly bill but lost some of its attention-drawing power when the mortality bills were remediated into Graunt’s compressed 1662 “Table of Casualties.” Numerically her death is still counted in the casualty tables, but her agency, the locus and means of her chosen death, is lost. Why does this matter? It matters because Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations (in which the table appears) as I have suggested is a field-changing, episteme-defining text. Natural and Political Observations circulated not as broadsides but instead as a bound text, and with this shift in form we also see a rapid transition to media of the generalized masses. Graunt’s work exemplifies a state-supported effort to transform concrete existence into an abstraction, an object of scientific knowledge, administrative concern, and technical improvement—the shift to biopolitics. With the shift to biopolitics, we can now trace erasures and exclusions as well; the St. Savior’s woman is just one among too many.

I have suggested that we might read a kind of trace of resistant agency in the St. Savior record, but any such possibility is foreclosed by the aggregations that Graunt performed.45 There is no room, as he might put it, for loquacious details such as “herself” and “at St. Savior’s” in the “Table of Casualties.” Indeed, there was no room for other notable ways of dying in Graunt’s “Table of Casualties”; in addition to those pesky, affecting details like hanging oneself in a church, Graunt’s tables do not admit unusual deaths beyond those captured in the regular bills.

The complexity and incompleteness of the “Table of Casualties” is masked, though, by the now-familiar operation of the early modern account book or log detailed by Poovey in her History of the Modern Fact. Graunt’s tables are actively working to perform completeness with their list of causes so numerous that he needed a foldout and data carefully filling most columns. Graunt depends on the effect of formal accuracy and completion when he argues that his data tables could refute all “conceits, opinions, and conjectures,” capturing a complete, transparent, and objective view of the world. What data tables and the body counts therein promised was a new way to interface with the information contained traditionally in parish registers, weekly broadsides, and large compiled volumes. Rather than be burdened by what he saw as long and confusing narrative accounts (and mimicking the move from memorial to ledger in double-entry bookkeeping traced by Poovey), Graunt advocated on behalf of the large aggregate expressed in a single table as a way to compress both the material and cognitive time and space needed to process large-scale data sets. While we don’t often think of actuarial tables as visualizations, the promise of the “view of the whole” drew on the same logics that we use to today in celebrating data visualization. Then as now, media that could present abstracted information in a spatial and compressed form were celebrated as innovative as well as promising greater speed and accuracy. Natural and Political Observations helped solidify death counts as a genre of numerical and particularly tabular information, which became the British government’s preferred mode of knowledge.

While we can “see” the St. Savior woman in the weekly bill, aggregation into the life tables entailed a further elision of specificity. Seventeenth-century lives and deaths were rendered meaningful to the English Crown by Graunt’s life tables only insofar as they contributed to the aggregated data along with the knowledge it produced about vital statistics and population change. Individual particularities like those of the St. Savior woman weren’t just erased or left out of the tables—problem enough for the historian; the erasure of such representation meant that they were rendered meaningless to the state in their own moment. She mattered to the state not as a woman who hung herself at St. Savior but instead as one of many who “did away with themselves.” Her death, along with all the others, was remediated in the aggregation of data and publishing of life tables, which functioned as a “register of undifferentiated generality.”46 As such, their deaths mattered only for debates about governance and the fertility of the imperial nation, and in order to monetize the risk of death for the newly developing insurance industry. Recording deaths produced knowledge that was then leveraged to create profitable new industries and help manage the nation. In some sense the St. Savior woman is still counted, but her choices about where and when to die did not matter to the British government or the many men of the Royal Society working feverishly to advance political arithmetic.

Graunt’s tables were part of a larger trend in Western Europe and colonial America that elevated numerical reasoning and aesthetics over the long-standing traditions of verbal and written narrative, especially in the long form of legal rhetoric. As Patricia Cohen notes, “An urge to measure had caught the fancy of a number of men, many of whom knew each other through the Royal Society of London or local mathematics clubs. They became intent on measuring, counting, and weighing as a method of acquiring knowledge.” Cohen goes on to observe that the “quantifying men” of early modern England focused their quantitative attentions on “not only what was thought to be necessary but also what most urgently needed to be made certain.”47 In terms of the mortality bills, we see a shift in who merited such careful attention from the parishioners in good standing in the case of registers, to the city freemen in the case of the bills, and then through their aggregation, into Graunt’s life tables. Where parish registers offered an account of a community and memorial of its members, the new sciences of “political arithmetic,” as William Petty would soon call it, were invested in creating an account of something much more like the modern nation. A mathematician and Royal Society colleague of Graunt, John Arbuthnot suggested that such counting and calculation regarding “the whole state of a commonwealth, as to the number, fructification of its people, increase of stock, improvement of lands and manufactures, balance of trade, public revenues, coinage, military power etc,” was the true and necessary political knowledge that Britain needed for itself.48

Dead or Alive in the Arithmetic Sublime

The existence of new media for counting and accounting does not mean that the quantification of bodies, land, or objects had swept the early modern Anglo-American world. While a table may seem obvious and mundane for twenty-first century readers, these tabular accounts were innovative new technologies. Accordingly, quantifying media were initially the special privilege of the elite few. But with that scarcity came power. Consequently, political arithmetic (the use of economic and demographic statistics in the service of a polity) in early modern England saw a major efflorescence after the publication of Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations and Petty’s posthumous Political Arithmetick, written in 1676, but published in 1690. The emerging sciences of wealth and society, as Poovey calls them, were increasingly important to the administration of the nation and the growing British Empire during the colonial period. They were also increasingly important to what it meant to be an informed, educated (white Christian male) citizen in Western Europe, and quantifying media impacted humanist training broadly. The “promotion of mathematics was a central part of the humanist programme,” and both algorithmic and arithmetic thinking were popular as early as the seventeenth century in both Europe and the colonies.49 While few were engaged in counting up bodies, goods, and money, the increased administrative as well as political and aesthetic prestige of counting as a way of knowing the dimensions of the British Empire was undeniable.

While it may seem paradoxical to read media like the plague bills or casualty tables as pleasurable, they in fact are an excellent example of the way that the tables and charts are pleasing precisely because they appear to master the overwhelming magnitudes of plague deaths. The bills and then life tables create in their formal compression and presentational aesthetics the possibility of a descriptive as well as predictive set of sciences that not only can measure the seemingly infinite mortality but can also render those deaths meaningful in terms of seasonality, national wealth, and urban activity. This particular arithmetic sublime is produced through layers of mediation that erase women, non-Christians, and people of color in early modern Britain, and these mediations obscure this erasure through their iterative compression and reuse. As a consequence, this media history makes it clear that we have inherited entire epistemic, political, and social regimes that are invisibly based on the pleasures derived from trying to control and contain the deaths of wealthy, white Christian men as those who matter and make meaning for the nation-state.

Quantum Media in the Americas

Yet this is not the whole story. While Graunt, Petty, and the emergent sciences of wealth and society are major touchstones in the history of the quantification of human life and death, they are importantly not the first instances of the British using body counting as a way of managing its interests. Before Graunt’s 1662 casualty tables, there were early colonists engaged in the work of measuring, weighing, and enumerating bodies, and they leveraged tables printed as popular pamphlets and broadsides as well.

With plantations in Virginia (1607), Maryland (1620), and the West Indies (1624–1655, with all the islands but Jamaica being settled by the 1630s), English colonialists made their first forays into the so-called new world roughly sixty years before Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations. These colonial efforts occurred in the midst of the rise of the Parish Clerks as an organization (incorporated in 1611) and just before the mortality bills became its major urban media product (1639). While the census and fiscal reports of the early colonists are rarely, if ever, included in the history of demographic and economic sciences, these were crucial media forms for the British nation, and they were often printed as promotional broadsides for the English public. Numbers, Arjun Appadurai remarks, “were a critical part of the discourse of the colonial state because its metropolitan interlocutors had come to depend on numerical data, however dubious their accuracy and relevance, for major social or resource-related policy initiatives.”50 Englishmen were attempting “to subdue with numbers” the new colonial territories at least twenty years before there was a high-profile effort to subdue death and disease with the same, and as much as sixty years before the casualty tables and mortality statistics.51

While the colonial censuses are an important addition to the history of quantum media, they were not the first to enumerate and record living bodies in the Americas. In fact, processes and media for political arithmetic were a well-integrated part of fifteenth-century Incan statecraft, suggesting that these textile-based censuses were an even earlier innovation (perhaps in the eleventh or twelfth century). Quipu (or khipu) is a system of cords and knots, frequently made of cotton and dyed in a variety of colors (see figure 2.7). Like a table, a quipu is “a numerical-logical system expressed in tangible spatial configurations.” It is also a handcrafted item, prepared by professional quipu makers, and then “filled out” in a sense with knot tying and cord linkages.52

Figure 2.7 A quipu from Peru. Meaning is conveyed through a combination of cords that vary in color, lengths, and knot locations. Image courtesy of Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher.

Incan officials used quipu to record and preserve censuses of newly colonized communities, track the productivity of mines, communicate the composition of workforces, and track and calculate tributes owed by colonized communities.53 Additionally, Tepetlaoztoc (Valley of Mexico) documents from the first half of the sixteenth century evidence a pictoral and numerical accounting system that was used for both census and taxation purposes.54 The Anglo-American use of print/manuscript tabular media for both tracking human life and human death was by no means natural or inevitable as even just a few examples such as the above demonstrate. Other communities used three-dimensional textiles and other forms of visual representation to accomplish many of the same goals. Despite the radically different materials, each of the census traditions is deeply tied to statecraft, colonial oversight, and systems of taxation and management, suggesting that the process of enumeration is foundational while the media are variable.

Slavery and Quantum Remediation

If the counting of plague deaths was an effort at remediating the sublimity of the plague into something that a person could grasp in a single view and thereby feel some control over, the counting of free and bonded emigrants to the new colonies, along with enslaved peoples, enacted a different kind of remediation despite using formally similar media. This variance suggests that early modern tabular accounts of people could perform data about human life and death in more than one way.55

Like their broadside media siblings, colonial accounting pamphlets were popular media in their era: “In the early and middle years of the seventeenth century a lively production of promotional tracts flooded England, each pamphlet raving about the wonders of particular American plantations.”56 Early modern Anglo-American pamphlets were short, printed, multipage works that were usually sold without a cover and with minimal binding, and the multisheet format of the pamphlet favored longer narrative accounts over the tabular data presented in the mortality broadsides. As with broadsides, pamphlets were inexpensive, quick to produce, and usually reused in a number of ways. At an average price of two pence, they were accessible to even the manual laboring classes.57 These early arithmetic records were more narrative in form than Graunt’s tables, but nevertheless took advantage of the growing prestige of enumeration and tabulations of assets to produce the sense that the Americas were a bounty of riches, replete with flocks of fowl and individual fish of enormous size, harbors of great depth, and endless stretches of empty land.58 “Such numbers were rarely the result of actual measuring,” notes Cohen, “and the authors clearly did not discuss everything they could think of quantifying, for they usually declined to comment on the number of deaths.”59 This despite the royal mandate that community heads should assemble an annual “true account of all Christenings, burials and marriages,” just like those seen in English parish registers and collected by the Parish Clerks Company.60 The colonial encounter with the arithmetic sublime, then, depended on a great deal of selectivity. Natural abundance, space, and rate of emigration were all touted in specific, if not accurate, numbers. Meanwhile, the loss of life due to disease, lack of food, and fighting with Native Americans already on the land was reluctantly reported, and only in general terms.

The anonymous “A Perfect Description of Virginia,” published in 1649, serves as an example of the popular genre (figure 2.8). While the pamphlet format encouraged and allowed for a more narrative account than we see in the broadside, the enumerated list functions much like the registers of the period. There is a short narrative element to the entries, but the use of a list rather than prose paragraphs encourages reading this more like an accounting table than as a story. By covering fifty-nine areas of “abundance,” the list is designed to testify to the bounty of the new colonies, and the final section is itself an enumerated list of all the (harvestable) plants and animals, thus closing the pamphlet in a flurry of countable bounty. Within each of the list items, the number is clearly a significant rhetorical tool. The first line claims that “there are in Virginia about fifteene thousand English, and of Negroes brought thither three hundred good servants.” Items two through eight give an account of the livestock of Virginia—cattle, horse, sheep, and so on. The swine are “innumerable” according to this account, and it is the media type, as a list in a pamphlet (instead of a single sheet table), that enables the author to assert a bounty so large that it can be described only in terms of its uncountability. Where the mortality counts in the Gazette created death-as-news by colocating news items and counts, the colonial counting project transformed human bodies into commodities by colocating people, livestock, and goods as the cargo of the ship. This was a matter of both national and corporate interest. It was mandated by the Crown that “Captains and heads of every particular Plantation or Hundreds as likewise every Chief officer that hath people under his Charge deliver several Catalogues at one of the four Quarter Sessions of the Counsel.” While these careful accounts may have been more wished for than produced, it was considered essential that all shipmasters and plantation settlers would keep records that could be regularly reconciled with officials back in Britain.61 Though they operated differently based on goals and readership, both the promotional materials and internal accountings were early instances of the market-based logics of the mortality bills even if they weren’t counting dead bodies in quite the same way. As Cohen observes, “The Virginia Company of London was busy collecting censuses and totting up ship lists of emigrants, because in their enterprise people had been reduced to commodities.”62 The commodification of human life was already present in the death counts of those considered most important to the developing economic engines of early modern London. It became a much more explicit move with the colonial enterprise, and as we will see in chapter 3, commodification’s most powerfully negative effects were borne by enslaved peoples.

Figure 2.8 The beginning of the account of Virginia with the heading and the first twelve areas of enumeration. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Despite familiarity with the traditional parish register death counts (as burials), such promotional pamphlets left the issue of mortality vaguely addressed, if at all. List item thirty-eight argues that the residents of the Virginia colony have “health very well, and fewer die in a year there, by proportion, than in any place in England.” “Seasoning,” John Smith’s term for the process whereby the English became acclimated to the Americas and various causes of mortality therein, was a topic treated only in the vaguest of terms, notwithstanding the vogue for counting.63 On the occasions when death counts were a topic of reporting, “a simple magnitude was as far as any quantifier went in the seventeenth century.” Colonial accountants articulated even heavy mortality in qualitative terms and “aggregate accounts of the number of deaths … were extremely rare” at the outset of the colonial project.64 It is not particularly controversial to say that pamphlets and broadsides were instruments of persuasion, but it is important to note that the technologies and interfaces for counting as well as reporting on the counting of human bodies could be leveraged as a way of exerting control over death, or as in the colonial accounts in order to draw attention toward life.

While they differed in what was counted, procolonizing pamphlets shared with the mortality bills an emphasis on a male, fighting body. The body that would come to be valuable as a marker of English economic activity could also be cast as the valuable colonial body. For instance, the anonymous 1622 “The Inconveniences That Have Happened to Some Persons” argued that any seasoning or loss of life and property was due to insufficient preparation.

Figure 2.9 Anonymous 1622 “The Inconveniences That Have Happened to Some Persons.” Image courtesy of the University of Virginia Special Collections.

As a remedy, the broadsheet offers a full account, both as a list and value register, of what a new settler should bring with him. The list itself shifts between accounting for the needs of one (man), as in the case of “victuals” listed for “a whole year for one man,” and between a household, as in the tools needed for a “household of six persons,” which may well have been a house of men rather than a family given that female-gendered and youth clothing are nowhere mentioned. Each man should come prepared with clothes, bedding, and food. The author comforts the potentially concerned colonist by suggesting that only half the men need full armor so long as all “your men” have “peeces and swords.”65 Thus furnished with goods valued at twenty pounds, the seventeenth-century colonialist was promised a smooth emigration experience and a total of a hundred acres of what had been Native American land.

The arithmetic sublime of the colonial project uses the same formal modes of early modern death counts but is differently focused. I argued above that early modern death counts in broadsides and pamphlets should be read as working to mediate the experience of an arithmetic sublime. In the case of the plague epidemic, the mortality bills were designed to help English readers comprehend and experience some sort of control over the repeated waves of the plague in seventeenth-century England and Europe more broadly. Rather than working to control experiences of extraordinary death, the public-facing broadsides of the colonial enterprise sought to bring the massive uncertainty and risk of colonizing America under control, and present it as an economic investment. Whether in England or the Americas, British subjects were reading and using relatively inexpensive media that rendered the experience of the arithmetic sublime pleasurable and easy. The spatial logics of the broadsides and pamphlets suggested that readers had a view of all the important information at once. While the fact of selectivity may not surprise, the impacts of media forms that erase the labor of women and the many layers of human mediation between the searching women, parish clerks, colonial accountants, and published accounts should not be discounted. Similarly, each of the early body-counting media discussed here has an obscured racial, religious, and class-based logic. If every text imagines its own ideal reader, then these media imagine white, Anglican, affluent subjects who will either drive the economy of Britain at home or through the colonial enterprise.

While the mortality bills and other casualty media share a number of formal features with the procolonial ship logs and resource accounts, they also differ in how power and legal obligation are articulated in and through them. Both were publications in which the British government had a vested interest. But the mortality bills were printed at the pleasure of the king and for the profit of the Parish Clerks Company. Similarly, Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations and his casualty tables were dedicated to the king, in the service of the Royal Society, and would have brought in income for both Graunt and his publisher. In a crucial sense, they are media of state knowledge. By contrast, ship and colonial manifests, logs, and musters were requested as part of a legal agreement between a colonial governor and shipmaster, and had bearing on taxation and the shipment of supplies to the colony. Colonial accounts were also important to state knowledge, but at a greater distance and with more explicit mercantile entanglements. While counting bodies as economic losses is suggested in the largely hidden selectivity of the mortality bills and related media, in the context of colonial counting the lumping of goods and people together is a more visible and easily read transition to seeing bodies as insurable property. The formal, epistemic, and political similarity between media that measure in order to know (how the city is doing or where the epidemic has slowed) and media that measure in order to assign value to bodies has profound consequences for our modern engagements with quantified and tabular media.

But there is more to this story, including the use of body counts to measure people—particularly enslaved people—only in commodified terms. Before we can understand more about why The Nicholas Shadow suggests that we need to again perform/remediate body counts, we have to understand how the history of quantifying media transformed the kinds of lives and lived possibilities available to enslaved peoples in the colonies of the British Empire. This will entail mapping a clear set of relationships between measuring bodies and counting deaths at both the individual and community levels, bringing us to the ways in which colonial counting and war casualty accounts are informing twenty-first-century quantum mediations of black and brown lives.

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