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Medieval Cambridge skeletons reveal inequality in daily life

In a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge, social inequality in medieval residents of Cambridge has been unveiled through an analysis of hundreds of human remains from three distinct burial sites within the historic city center.

The study focused on the skeletal remains of 314 individuals dating from the 10th to the 14th century, employing “skeletal trauma” as an indicator of the hardships endured during their lives. The burial sites included a parish graveyard for ordinary working people, a charitable “hospital” where the infirm and destitute were laid to rest, and an Augustinian friary accommodating wealthy donors alongside clergy.

Through meticulous examination and cataloging of bone fractures, the researchers aimed to construct a narrative of the physical challenges faced by the city's residents, be it from accidents, occupational injuries, or violence in their daily lives. X-ray analysis revealed that 44% of working individuals exhibited bone fractures, compared to 32% in the friary and 27% in the hospital burials. Across all burials, fractures were more prevalent in male remains (40%) than female (26%).

The study brought attention to specific cases, such as a friar resembling a modern hit-and-run victim and bones hinting at lives marred by violence. The detailed findings have been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Dr. Jenna Dittmar, the lead author of the study from the After the Plague project at the University's Department of Archaeology, highlighted the significance of comparing skeletal trauma across different burial locations in a town like Cambridge. According to Dr. Dittmar, this approach provides insights into the daily life hazards experienced by various segments of medieval society.

The study revealed that ordinary working individuals faced a higher risk of injury compared to friars, their benefactors, or the more sheltered hospital inmates. Dr. Dittmar explained that these were people engaged in labor-intensive professions, working long hours in trades such as stonemasonry, blacksmithing, or as general laborers. Those outside the town often toiled from dawn to dusk in physically demanding tasks such as fieldwork or tending to livestock. The research sheds light on the stark social disparities and physical toll experienced by different strata of medieval society in Cambridge.

The remains of numerous individuals unearthed on the former site of the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, taken during the 2010 on the site of the Divinity School building, St John's College, University of Cambridge. Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

At the embryonic stage of the University around 1209, Cambridge was primarily a provincial town with an emerging academic presence. Its population, ranging from 2500 to 4000 by the mid-13th century, consisted largely of artisans, merchants, and farmhands.

Despite the working poor bearing the physical labor burdens, medieval life overall was challenging. The University, still in its early days, played a small role in the town's dynamics. The toughest injury discovered belonged to a friar, identifiable by his burial place and belt buckle.

Dr. Dittmar, the study lead, highlighted a friar with complete fractures halfway up both femurs, the largest bones in the body. The nature of the injuries suggested a traumatic incident, potentially the cause of death. Drawing a parallel to modern clinical understanding, Dittmar speculated it resembled injuries from automobile accidents, possibly a cart accident triggered by a startled horse.

Injuries weren't solely accidental; another friar displayed defensive fractures on his arm and signs of blunt force trauma to the skull. Such violence-related skeletal injuries were present in about 4% of the population, spanning across genders and social groups.

One woman buried in the parish grounds bore signs of lifelong domestic abuse. Numerous fractures, including ribs, vertebrae, jaw, and foot, indicated a history of trauma. Dittmar noted that these injuries were unlikely to result from falls, drawing parallels to contemporary instances where broken jaws in women are often linked to intimate partner violence.

The Hospital of St John the Evangelist, established at the end of the 12th century, stood as the site with the fewest fractures. Catering to select needy residents, the hospital provided sustenance and spiritual care. Many exhibited skeletal evidence of chronic illnesses like tuberculosis, rendering them unable to work. The site also housed “corrodians,” retired locals who paid for the privilege of residing there, akin to a modern old-age care home. The findings collectively offer a nuanced glimpse into the challenges faced by various segments of Cambridge's medieval society.

of butterfly fractures to both femora of an adult male buried in the Augustinian friary. Credit: Dr Jenna Dittmar

The Hospital of St John the Evangelist, dissolved in 1511 to establish St John's College, underwent excavation by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) in 2010 during the renovation of the College's Divinity School building. Similarly, the CAU explored the Augustinian Friary in 2016 as part of building works on the University's New Museums Site. The friary, operational until 1538, offered burial rights to Augustinian order members since 1290 and non-members since 1302, allowing affluent benefactors to secure plots in the friary grounds.

The parish of All Saints by the Castle, likely founded in the 10th century, was active until 1365 when it merged with a neighboring parish after the population decline following the Black Death. Although the church itself remains undiscovered, the graveyard, excavated in the 1970s and located near Castle Hill, housed remains within the University's Duckworth Collection—a resource revisited for the recent study.

Dr. Dittmar emphasized that those interred in All Saints were among the town's poorest, more susceptible to incidental injuries. The graveyard, situated at the urban-rural interface, reflects a time when men may have engaged in labor-intensive tasks in the fields or town. Women, alongside domestic duties, likely undertook physically demanding work such as tending to livestock and assisting with harvest.

The study underscores the recorded inequality on the bones of medieval Cambridge residents. While life was undoubtedly toughest for the less privileged, severe trauma was evident across the social spectrum, emphasizing the pervasive challenges of life during this historical period.

Source: University of Cambridge

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