Friday, 5 August 2011

Tales from the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda No.4: No Direction Home

We have two very sad tales this week from the summer of 1588, both of which illustrate the harshness of life on the streets of 16th century London. While the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda contain many instances of collections being taken up for parishioners who have fallen on hard times, they also document numerous tragic endings to the lives of those who, for whatever reason, have not had recourse to such a safety net. First, a tale of homelessness, and possibly mental illness, that resulted in the death of a nameless child:

5 Iuly Anno 1588
A man Chyld kept by Margerett Hewse the Wyfe of William Hewes alijs pewe a carpenter Sometymes Dwellinge in Islingtonn whose wyfe nowe beinge vagarant and caryeinge the Sayde chylde althowghe not beinge Her owne up and Downe wth Her and callinge it by the name of Markes Hewes Fatheringe it uponn Her Husband The Sayd chyld beinge no parishioneres Chyld Dyed in Her armes neare the Cadge by the tower beinge in the Libertie of est Smithfield, And Some Speeches beinge used that She had Starved the chylde where uppon the aldermans Deputie cawlinge to Hem Agnes Porter Jone More and the wyfe of william Pond beinge Searcheres, wt Dyveres other Honest neyghbors to vewe the Sayde chyld and fyndinge no Hurte done to the Sayde chyld, But that it Seemed to Have beene evell looked unto or tended, For that it was Full of Lyce and Dyed of a pynenge Sicknes as the wyves Sayde And the Sayd chyld Havinge Beene Thus vewed By the consent of The Aldermans Deputie the Sayde chyld Buried the vth Daye of Julye anno 1588 beinge Halfe a yeare and xiiij Dayes owlde [Cause of death] pynenge
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/002 f88r and f88v

Only a few days later, a short but evocative entry describes the lonely death of a 30-year old widow:

11 Iuly Ano 1588
Christiann [Blank] beinge a Widowe Whose Sur name Was not knowne and havinge no Dwellinge place but lyeinge Sicke amongst the Broome that Dothe Lye one the Hill before mr Crewes Dore beinge in the libertie of east Smithfield where She endid Her Lyfe and was Buried the xjth Daye of Julye ano 1588
yeares xxx She dyed of the pox
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/002 f92r

Although it would be comforting to think that such tragedies belong solely to a London existing over 400 years in the past, a quick search through the website for Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, reveals that 3,975 people slept rough at some point in London during 2010/11, of whom 38% were known to suffer from mental health problems. Today, rough sleepers have a life expectancy of just 42 years. We have more in common with the people whose lives are detailed in the Parish Clerk’s Memoranda than we sometimes might like to think.

ATTENTION HISTORIANS: If you are can tell us more about any of these issues in Early Modern England, or indeed, the exact meaning of “pynenge”, which is a very common listing for cause of death in the PCMs, we would love to hear from you. And many thanks to Lucy Inglis, whose comments on Tales from the PCMs No.3 were very illuminating regarding the question of what it meant to be “free” of a Livery Company in the 17th century.

Many thanks to St Botolph without Aldgate and London Metropolitan Archives for permission to reprint extracts from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda.

The Parish Clerks' Memoranda transcripts were prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their Economic and Social Research Council-funded Life in the Suburbs project (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260;


  1. Pynenge
    You have undoubtedly considered this already but could it be a form of 'pining/pinning/pinunge/pinnig/pinig' - languishing or suffering due to lack of food as per Kuhn's Middle English Dictionary definition d)

  2. Pynenge = pining? In other words, wasting away, cause unknown.

  3. Thank you for these comments. Kuhn's Middle English Dictionary certainly sounds a reliable source. "Pynenge" is such a romantic sounding name for such an awful way to die.

  4. 'Pining' may have been a term used as a catch all to describe a method of dying when a more specific 'diagnosis' wasn't available. However it certainly described a physical condition, despite the modern connotations of word. For example, in the Middlesex Session Rolls for the late 16th century the coroner recorded a verdict of:

    "died by Divine Visitation of the infirmity called "a pyninge sicknes" on the 29th inst., after three days of illness"

    for an inmate that died in Newgate gaol. Interestingly, nine inmates of that sinister institution died of a 'pyninge sicknes' in three months early in 1595, which may suggest that this was the standard verdict for any illness that couldn't be explained. Alternatively 'pyning' may have been the verdict when the authorities didn't delve too deeply into their demise...

  5. Thank you, Mark, this is getting more and more interesting!