Monday 6 May 2013

Review - How Our Ancestors Died, by Simon Wills

I have a few Pen and Sword books that have been sent to me for review, and now that I am finally getting time to go through them, I thought I would start off with an absolute cracker!

How Our Ancestors Died: A Guide for Family Historians by Simon Wills sounds a fairly morbid title with which to lure in the readers, but is actually a thoroughly clever idea for a family history book. We're used to reading how somebody died in a death certificate, and tend to just dismiss it as 'it's just cholera' or 'it's just smallpox', but in fact that one word can carry much more of a story than a simple certificate can ever convey.

The author's preface introduces us to the concept that what our ancestors fought to survive against in the past is something that we take for granted today. Smallpox is gone, as are cholera, typhoid and other horrendous diseases and plagues, and with such a simple statement we are immediately forced to leave the comfort of our modern day way of thought and to open our minds to the differences of the past. In the first chapter he then takes us on a journey to understand how medical conditions were once diagnosed and treated, whether by medicines or blood-letting, and whose responsibility it was to administer to the sick in times gone by. In Chapter 2 he then explores how causes of death were recorded, in the records of civil registration, parish burial registers, newspapers, headstone inscriptions, and via other means.

Then the 'fun' really begins. Chapters 3 to 26 deal with different causes of death on a chapter by chapter basis - accidents and disasters, alcohol and alcoholism, cancer, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, the list goes on. Not all are medical conditions, with chapters on execution and murder, as well as war, amongst other candidates in the list. For many conditions a simple history and epidemiology is recorded, others are explored in considerably more depth, such as the chapter on mental illness and suicide. It all adds up to provide a remarkable encyclopaedia of methods by which our forebears expired - but also an understanding of what it was like to live with and suffer from such conditions, some of them lasting for many years. As a final flourish, Chapter 27 lists many useful museums and cemeteries to visit to learn more about the conditions described within the book.

I like books that add something a little different to the library, and this one is going to be simply indispensable. A chunky and packed book at some 214 pages in length, it is definitely worth its weight in gold at the cover price of £14.99.

To order the book visit

(With thanks to Pen and Sword for the review copy)


My new book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, is now available from Pen and Sword. My next Pharos Scottish course, Scotland 1750-1850: Beyond the Old Parish Registers, starts May 15th - see Time to smash a few brick walls...!

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