Written in the bones: Medieval skeletons tell story of social inequality in Cambridge

Zoom / The remains of an individual buried in an Augustinian monk, excavated in 2016 on the site of the University of Cambridge’s new museums.

There is rarely time to write about every great science story that comes our way. So this year, we’re once again featuring a special post series, Twelve Days of Christmas, highlighting one science story that fell through the gaps in 2020, every day from December 25 through January 5. Our latest entry in the 2021 series: Skeletal Remains excavated from medieval sites in Cambridge reveal occupational and social disparities among the population.

A working-class woman who suffered from domestic violence. A monk may have been the victim of a horse and cart ramming operation. These are just two examples of the remains of 314 people excavated from three very different medieval burial sites in Cambridge, England. Evidence for structural trauma on many of those remains sheds light on what medieval Cantabrian life looked like, in terms of occupation, living conditions, and social status, according to a paper published last January in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

The research stems from the After the Plague project at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archeology, which explores how historical conditions affect health and how health, in turn, shapes history. The project focuses in particular on the period of the Black Death (1347-1350 AD) in England later in the Middle Ages, which wiped out between a third and a half of Europe’s population.

“By comparing the skeletal traumas of buried remains at different sites within a city like Cambridge, we can measure the risks of everyday life to which different areas of medieval society were exposed,” said lead author Gina Dittmar, a paleontologist at Cambridge. “We can see that ordinary working folk were more likely to be infected compared to monks and their donors or more protected hospital residents.”

By the 13th century, Cambridge was a thriving market town with an active river port and a rural agricultural component on the outskirts of the city. Its famous university had just been founded. “Although a small town by today’s standards,” the authors wrote, “Cambridge presented a diverse social scene.” Most of the population was labourers: agricultural workers (such as plowers and shepherds), construction workers (such as carpenters, tilers, masons, and thatchers), and artisans (such as shoemakers and tailors).

Men practiced specialized crafts primarily, according to the authors, but women found work brewing beer, washing clothes, weaving, working in the fields, and entering domestic service. The city also had many ecclesiastical institutions, including the University of Cambridge itself, which was founded sometime between 1208 and 1210 CE. The monks could have been scholars or would have been involved in various pastoral tasks, with very little manual labor in the mix. Like every city, Cambridge had its share of the poor, as well as a few particularly prosperous families, with large property and servants.

Dietmar and her colleagues chose to examine remains from three different burial sites representing a broad stratum of Cambridge society. The first is All Saints’ Parish next to the castle, and it was first excavated in the early 1970s. The parish, founded between 940-1100 AD, is likely where the vast majority of common people are buried. It was eventually merged with a neighboring diocese in AD 1365, after the Black Death devastated the people of Cambridge.

The second site is the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, which was founded around 1200 AD. This church charity cared for the poor and infirm until it was dissolved to create St John’s College. Those buried here were likely to live a life of poverty, receiving food, housing, and clothing from the hospital.

Finally, there is the Augustinian Abbey in Cambridge, established around 1280 AD, with tombs catering to the monks and wealthy city dwellers.

Dietmar and others. It found that male skeletons in general were more likely to show signs of fractures than female skeletons (40 percent versus 26 percent). About 44 percent of working-class skeletons had fractures, compared to 32 percent of skeletons from a prey site and 27 percent of skeletons from a hospital site—perhaps because the latter’s often chronically ill or frail residents did not. . Engaging in risky activities. The older people get, the more likely they are to suffer fractures.

Rib fractures were the most common injury. “These are the people who spent their days working long hours doing hard manual labour,” Dittmar said. “In the city, people were employed in trades and trades such as masonry and blacksmithing, or as public laborers. Outside the city, many spent dawn at dusk doing bone-breaking work in the fields or tending livestock.”

Their skeletal remains are a testament to the lives they spent working hard. One of the skeletons had a broken collarbone, likely suffering a fall on the shoulder and attempting to break the fall with an outstretched hand. Another skeleton of an older man showed evidence of several broken ribs, as well as a broken collarbone – most likely the result of strong trauma from falling from a height, being crushed or suspended by cattle.

“Those who were buried at All Saints were among the poorest in the city, and were clearly more vulnerable to accidental injuries,” Dittmar said. “Perhaps the men labored in the fields with heavy plows drawn by horses or oxen, or drawn stone blocks and rafters in the city. Perhaps many of the women at All Saints did hard physical labor such as tending livestock and aiding in the harvest along with household duties.”

A female skeleton buried in the parish grounds showed signs of domestic violence: numerous fractures healed before her death, including broken ribs, a broken jaw and foot, and a broken vertebra. “It would be uncommon for all of these injuries to occur as a result of a fall, for example,” Dittmar said, hence the domestic violence suggestion.

The team found fractures in the middle of the femur (femur) of one skeleton of the thigh, a common injury today in those hit by motor vehicles. “Whatever caused the two bones to be broken in this way, it must have been painful and possibly fatal,” Dittmar said. “Our best guess is a cart accident. Maybe a horse got scared and got hit by the cart.” Another monk showed signs of defensive wounds on his arm and a powerful skull shock, which seemed like the perfect fodder for a medieval murder mystery.

Somewhat surprisingly, Dietmar and others. No evidence of high-power shock, the kind caused by weapons, was found. The authors wrote: “Murder was said to be so common that an individual in London and Oxford was more likely to be killed than to die in an accident.” “It may be that bladed weapons such as daggers and knives were not commonly used to commit acts of violence in Cambridge”, even though 73 percent of murders in this period were committed using slashing or piercing weapons.

DOI: American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2021. 10.1002/ajpa.24225 (about DOIs).

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