Inequality in Cambridge was “written on the bones” of residents

Remains of a person buried in the Augustine priesthood taken during excavations at the University of Cambridge’s New Museums site in 2016. Credit: Nick Saffell

According to a new study of hundreds of human remains excavated from three different graves within the historic city center, social inequality is “written in the bones” of medieval Cambridge residents.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge examined the remains of 314 people from the 10th to the 14th century and collected evidence of “skeletal trauma,” a barometer for life-threatening levels of difficulty.

The bones were removed from the social spectrum: a church cemetery for ordinary working people, a charitable “hospital” where the poor and needy entered, and an Augustine baptism where the rich donors were buried with the clergy.

Researchers have carefully cataloged the nature of each fracture and fracture to create a picture of the physical hardships that city dwellers face in their daily lives, such as accidents, occupational injuries, or violence.

Using X-ray analysis, the team found that 44% of the workers had bone fractures, 32% of those in this room, and 27% of those buried by the hospital. Fractures were more common in male remains (40%) than in females (26%) in all burials.

The team also uncovered notable cases, such as a priest resembling a modern-day stroke victim and bones hinting at people under the influence of violence. Finds American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Excavation of the hospital

Remains of numerous individuals excavated during the 2010 excavations at St. John’s College, Divinity School, University of Cambridge, on the site of St. John’s Hospital. Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

“By comparing the skeletal trauma of remains buried in different places in a town like Cambridge, we can measure the dangers of everyday life experienced by different areas of medieval society,” said Dr. Jenna Dittmar. In the Department of Archeology of the University.

“We can see that ordinary working people have a higher risk of injury than friars and benefactors or more sheltered hospital inmates,” he said.

“These were people who worked long hours with their hands,” he said. In the city, people worked in crafts such as stone and blacksmithing, or in handicrafts, or as general laborers. Outside the city, many spent the early hours of the morning digging in the fields or looking after the cattle. ”

The university was an embryo at this time – the first mix of the academy, which emerged in 1209, and Cambridge was primarily a provincial town of artisans, merchants, and farmers with a population of 2,500-4,000 in the mid-13th century.

X-rays of Friar Femur Fractures

X-rays of butterfly fractures on both femurs of an adult man buried in the province of Augustine. Credit: Dr. Jenna Dittmar

Although the working poor could afford the weight of physical labor compared to those of the religious establishment, medieval life was generally difficult. In fact, the most extreme injuries were found on a friar identified by the burial site and the belt buckle.

“The pope had complete fractures in half of both bones,” Dittmar said. The femur [thigh bone] is the largest bone in the body. “Anything that caused both bones to be broken in this way must have been traumatic and possibly fatal.”

Dittmar noted that today’s clinicians will be familiar with car injuries – this is the right height. “Our best guess is a car accident. Maybe a horse got addicted and the wagon hit him. ”

The injury was also caused by others. Another priest was living with defensive fractures in his arm and signs of blunt trauma to his skull. Skeletal injuries associated with such violence have been found in approximately 4% of the population, including women and people from all walks of life.

An elderly woman buried in a church area turned out to bear traces of lifelong domestic violence. “There were a lot of fractures, all of them healed before he died. Several ribs, multiple vertebrae, jaw and leg were broken, ”Dittmar said.

“It would be very rare for all these injuries to occur, for example, as a result of a fall,” he said. The vast majority of broken jaws seen in women today are caused by intimate partner violence. ”

Out of the three areas, there was the least fracture at St. John’s Hospital. Founded in the late 12th century, it is home to a select number of Cambridge residents who need nutrition and spiritual care. Many had skeletal evidence of chronic diseases such as tuberculosis and were unable to function.

Although most of the remains were “prisoners,” the site also included “corrodians”: retired locals who paid for the privilege of living in a hospital, like a modern nursing home.

The hospital was abolished in 1511 to form St. John’s College, and was excavated in 2010 by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), part of the University, during the renovation of the University’s Divinity School building.

CAU excavated the Augustinian Friary in 2016 as part of construction work on the University’s New Museums Area. According to records, the sect won the right to bury members of the Order of Augustine in 1290, and in 1302 allowed non-members – the wealthy benefactors – to conspire on the basis of a friary.

The library operated until 1538, when King Henry VIII deprived the country’s monasteries of their income and assets to strengthen the Crown.

The Church of All Saints was built by the Castle north of the Cam River, probably in the 10th century, and was used until 1365, when the local population merged with a neighboring church after the Black Death fell after a bubonic plague pandemic.

Although the church itself was never found, the cemetery – still called Castle Hill – was first excavated in the 1970s. The rest were placed in the University’s Duckworth collection, allowing researchers to review these findings for final research.

“Those buried at All Saints were among the poorest in the city and were more likely to be accidentally injured,” Dittmar said. “At that time, the cemetery was in the inner part of the city where the village met. Men may have worked in the fields with heavy plows drawn by horses or oxen, or with stone blocks and wooden beams in the city.

“Most of the women in all the Bibles probably did heavy physical work, such as looking after the cattle and helping with the harvest, in addition to their domestic duties.

“We can see this inequality in the bones of medieval Cambridge residents,” he said. However, severe trauma is widespread in the social spectrum. Life was the hardest at the bottom – but life was hard everywhere. ”

NOTES:

  • Skeletons must be more than 25% to be employed. Participation in adult work often began in earnest at the age of twelve, so those who were estimated to be younger were given a discount.
  • Researchers analyzed the bones from 84 people taken from All Saints by the Castle Church, 155 from St. John’s Hospital of the Evangelist and 75 from the Augustinian Friary.

Reference: “Medieval Injuries: Skeletal Trauma, An Indicator of Past Life Conditions and Risk in England Cambridge” Jenna M. Dittmar, Piers D. Mitchell, Craig Cessford, Sarah A. Inskip and John E. Robb, January 25, 2021, American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
DOI: 10.1002 / ajpa.24225

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