A friar crushed by a cart, another the victim of an attack by bandits: it sounds like the plot of a medieval mystery. But according to new research these are some of the possible misfortunes to have befallen those in centuries gone by.
An analysis of bones from 314 individuals aged 12 or older, dating from around 1100 to the 1530s, and found in three different sites across Cambridge, reveals that bone fractures were common among those buried in a parish cemetery – where many ordinary workers would have been laid to rest. But the team also found evidence of horrific injuries among those buried in an Augustinian friary, suggesting the clergy were not protected against violent events.
“Medieval life was difficult for everyone,” said Dr Jenna Dittmar, study lead author from the University of Cambridge.
Writing in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Dittmar and colleagues report how they analysed previously excavated medieval bones dating up to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. While she said not all bones at the three sites have been excavated and analysed, those examined so far give insights into different spheres of society.
“[Our results] are going to be fairly representative because we have a parish cemetery, we have a hospital and we also have an Augustinian friary,” she said.
The team found bone fractures were most common among those buried in the parish graveyard, with 44% of the skeletons analysed showing signs of such damage compared with 32% of those buried in at the friary. Multiple fractures were also most common among those buried the parish cemetery.
“The people that were buried in the All Saints parish cemetery would have led really hard lives,” said Dittmar, noting many were ordinary folk who would have had manual jobs, from agricultural work to builders. By contrast those buried in the friary would either have led a clerical life or been wealthy benefactors.
While such injuries were more common among men, some women showed them too. “[One] poor woman had her jaw broken at some point in her life, and it did heal … but she had a number of other injuries as well including broken ribs and [a] foot,” said Dittmar – although she said it is not clear if the injuries were from one event. While the broken jaw could have come from a fall, there are other possibilities said Dittmar: in modern times women generally sustain broken jaws as a result of domestic violence.
Only 27% of individuals excavated at the Hospital of St John the Evangelist had evidence of bone fractures – although one man appeared to have fractured his knee in a fall.
“People would assume that a hospital is a place where individuals that are sick or poor or infirm would go, and you would expect them to have more fractures – which turned out to not be the case,” said Dittmar.
Dittmar said the hospital was focused more on pastoral care. “The concept of a medieval hospital takes a bit of getting used to in modern times,” she said, noting that many people in the hospital would have been poor, elderly and chronically ill with conditions like tuberculosis.
Another surprise, said Dittmar, was that there was no evidence of weapon-related injuries, whether healed or not, among the dead – despite wars being common during medieval times.
But that did not mean violence was unknown: indeed the team report the remains of a friar who survived what Dittmar said may, among other explanations, have been an attack by bandits, with signs that he was hit on the head with a blunt object.
“He could have bumped his head on something,” said Dittmar. “[But] he also has a fracture to his arm, which is a defensive injury, so it suggests that he raised his arm to protect himself . ”
Another friar was not so lucky: his skeleton showed a broken neck and legs – with one possibility that he was run over by a cart.
“The injuries that he has are most similar to what people experience when they are hit by the car, right at about thigh level,” said Dittmar. “We think it is safe to say he probably died as a result of whatever serious kind of accident he was involved in.”