‘Bone Biographies’ Reconstruct Lives of Medieval Cambridge Commoners

Researchers have used skeletal remains to compile information about the lives of ordinary residents of the city

Illustration of medieval Cambridge
An illustration of life in medieval Cambridge Mark Gridley

Archaeologists from the University of Cambridge have compiled a series of “bone biographies” that shed new light on residents of medieval Cambridge. The project’s website, called After the Plague, chronicles the lives of 16 ordinary individuals who lived between the 11th and 15th centuries. This period notably includes the bubonic plague, which hit the city between 1348 and 1349.

“Our team used techniques familiar from studies such as Richard III’s skeleton, but this time to reveal details of unknown lives—people we would never learn about in any other way,” says John Robb, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, in a statement. In other words, these are commoners: townsfolk, friars, merchants and scholars, among others.

Since the project began in 2016, researchers with the University of Cambridge have been working to pair historical evidence with personal narrative. “We have to humanize people we study because we have trouble relating to things that are alien,” Robb told the Washington Post’s Peter Holley in 2017. “We gravitate to familiarity.”

In the new bone biographies, the team even assigned the subjects common historical names. The individuals in question include “Wat,” a plague survivor who passed away from cancer; “Edmund,” who had leprosy but remained a valued member of the community and was even buried in a wooden coffin (a rare commodity, as most of his peers were wrapped only in shrouds); “Agnes,” who likely came from a prosperous family and whose left foot suggests that she wore pointed shoes; and “Christiana,” who was knock-kneed, had a wide nose and came to Cambridge from an unknown, faraway home.

The 16 bone biographies are meant to represent various “social types” in Cambridge, but they are only a small selection from a larger study that analyzed almost 500 skeletal remains. Most of these were excavated from the hospital of St. John the Evangelist for the “poor and infirm,” while some came from a former Augustinian Friary and a medieval parish church called All Saints by the Castle. The study, published on Friday in the journal Antiquity, aims to reveal new information about the lives and health of everyday people experiencing poverty during and after the plague.

Researchers studied bone, molecular and DNA data, as well as signs of any physical traumas, to reveal information about these individuals’ diets and activities. For example, adults buried at the hospital were about an inch shorter than the local average and showed more signs of childhood malnutrition and disease, though they had fewer marks of physical trauma. Children, on the other hand, were small for their age and showed signs of physical injury, anemia and respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis.

Besides orphans and “long-term poor,” the hospital also took in “shame-faced poor”: previously wealthy individuals who fell into poverty, identifiable through evidence of malnutrition in later life.

“The people in the hospital weren’t purely an underclass; there were different ways people arrived there,” Robb, who is also the lead author of the study, tells Esther Addley of the Guardian.

By studying arm bones, the researchers also concluded that some of the individuals had likely been university scholars. Whereas most of the townsmen had a stronger right upper arm bone than the left—suggesting difficult physical labor—some men buried on the hospital grounds had symmetrical arm bones, and their skeletal remains suggested a relatively long and healthy life. So why were they buried in a charitable hospital cemetery? Robb points out that most scholars did not have lifelong economic stability and so were at risk of destitution if disease or old age forced them to stop working.

Not everyone in need, however, received help. “Only a limited number of people could go into the hospital, and there must have been many more who might have deserved help,” Robb tells the Guardian. “That poses the question of how decisions were actually made.” The research team suggests that supporting a diverse variety of long-term patients could have been a strategy to attract funding from an equally wide variety of donors.

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