Medieval Graveyards Unearth London’s Violent Past

A new analysis of hundreds of ancient skulls shows how often violent trauma affected the poor and the rich

London Violence
Brawling was one of the few ways available to settle disputes among lower-class Londoners, potentially leading to injuries and deaths Wellcome Images

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once described life as "nasty, brutish and short," and as Joshua Rapp Learn reports for New Scientist, a recent analysis of medieval skeletons found in London graveyards doesn't exactly refute his point.

Looking at nearly 400 skulls dating from 1050 to 1550 C.E. found in six cemeteries, archaeologist Kathryn Krakowka found that nearly 7 percent of them showed signs of violent trauma, reports Learn. Krakowka's research was published earlier this month in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

The distribution of which skulls showed evidence of that violence reflected a spectrum of gender and class in medieval London, a city slowly growing into a world metropolis.

Krakowka's research showed that men from ages 26 to 35 appeared the most susceptible to getting head trauma, perhaps reflecting the tendencies of young, hypermasculine men to more readily engage in violence.

The skulls were drawn from two types of cemeteries, Learn notes—monastic houses that would have cost money to be buried in, and church parish cemeteries that were open to poorer people. Comparing the skulls from these two different types of burial grounds shows a stark difference in evidence of violence. In parish cemeteries, an average of 9.1 percent of the skulls showed evidence of violent trauma, in comparison to an average of 2.5 percent of skulls found in the monastic cemeteries. In one parish cemetery with a particularly high evidence of violence, the percent affected averaged 11.8; the largest average in a monastic cemetery, as a point of contrast, was 5.3 percent.

Scrutinizing death records of the era reveals that a disproportionate number of deaths occurred on Sunday nights, Learn reports, when many men of the working class would spend their time at the pubs or with friends. For people unable to afford lawyers or more civilized means of settling disputes like duels with armor and guns, ginned-up fights were often the go-to method of exacting justice, and this would've resulted in more skull trauma.

In a city dating back to Roman times, studies like this show how graveyards can be useful windows into earlier times, particularly for people whose lives didn't get written down very often. For example, as Bess Lovejoy reported for in 2014, London's Cross Bones Graveyard has unearthed a rich history of some of the poorest outcasts of British society—including the many members of London's first red light district, who worked in the brothels nearby, as well as impoverished children, who reflect the high infant mortality rate of that section of 19th-century London.

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