Life and death in medieval Cambridge

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Individuals buried at the Hospital of St John the Evangelist had the lowest incidence of fractures, possibly because the inmates of the hospital were too ill to participate in risky activities. CREDIT: Cambridge Archaeological Unit/St John’s College

Analysis of more than 300 human skeletons, recovered from three different medieval burial sites across Cambridge, has provided interesting new details of the city’s inhabitants, and the individual risks they may have faced based on their position in life.

The sites all date to between the 10th and 16th centuries, but vary significantly in who was buried there. They include an Augustinian friary, which would have buried both members of their order and more well-off members of the laity; the parish cemetery of All Saints by the Castle, which mainly interred people from poorer working backgrounds; and the Hospital of St John the Evangelist (see CA 286), which would have included some modest benefactors, but the vast majority would have been the destitute, ill, and infirm.

As part of the ‘After the Plague’ project, a team from the University of Cambridge analysed each skeleton for signs of fractures, creating a ‘map’ of the types of trauma which were most common and where they were located on the body. Based on modern fracture causality, they were able to infer what may have led to some of the identified injuries, and as the three cemeteries represent a broad spectrum of society, the researchers were also able to identify differing fracture patterns based on social status.

The results show that individuals from All Saints by the Castle had the highest frequency of trauma, with 44% of all those analysed showing signs of at least one fracture. This was compared to 32% of individuals from the Augustinian friary and only 27% of individuals from the Hospital of St John. The team believes that this probably reflects differences in the types of hazards that were encountered by people from different spheres of medieval society.

Based on their social status, individuals from All Saints were likely to have participated in manual labour or other forms of physical work, which may have increased their individual risk of injury. On the other hand, while many of the individuals from the Hospital of St John may have come from even poorer backgrounds, their low fracture count may be due to a higher prevalence of illness, which may have prevented many from participating in injury-inducing activities.

Although the better-off individuals from the Augustinian friary may have led more leisurely lives and hence were less likely to be in risky situations, several case studies highlight the fact that members of the church were not immune to injury. Out of 19 individuals believed to have been friars (based on them having been buried with distinctive belt buckles), six had at least one fracture, two of which are particularly notable. In the first, one of the friars had a broken neck and unhealed butterfly fractures to both femurs – injuries pointing to a forceful direct impact, such as being struck by a cart. The fact that these fractures were unhealed suggests that he probably died as a result of the incident. In the second case, another friar had evidence of healed blunt-force trauma to the head, as well as a fracture to the distal left ulna (an injury that is commonly associated with blocking a blow) – it is possible that these injuries were the results of interpersonal violence.

The results of the study were recently published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and can be read for free here:

This news article appears in issue 373 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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