01/29/2021

A Skeletal Record Of Medieval England Society

12:07 minutes

an aerial view of an excavation site that was formerly a hospital. there are several full skeletons of human remains
The remains of numerous individuals unearthed on the former site of the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, taken during the 2010 excavation on the site of the Divinity School building, St John’s College, University of Cambridge. Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Whether you like it or not, a record of your life is constantly being chronicled. No, not through the internet or on social media—through your bones.

If you’ve ever fractured a bone, that skeletal trauma stays with you forever, even after it heals. So researchers across the pond are using bones from medieval times to put together a picture of what life was like.

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black and white image of x-ray scans of femur bones in different views. each of the bones have a fracture or are broken in the middle
X-rays of butterfly fractures to both femora of an adult male buried in the Augustinian friary. Credit: Jenna Dittmar

The bones in the study came from ordinary people in medieval Cambridge in the United Kingdom, from between the 10th and 14th century. The researchers found that you can often guess who was working class, and who had more money based on what their bones looked like.

SciFri producer Kathleen Davis talks to Jenna Dittmar, a research fellow in osteoarchaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, about this new research.

If you want to explore what bones tell us about the lives of people in the past, the Natural History Museum in London has an interactive map documenting their detailed analysis of human remains across London. Learn more about these remains using the museum’s guide to the clues found in skeletons. But bones aren’t the only clues to past life. Curious about what people in the past ate? Check out our archaeobotany resource What Did Ancient Civilizations Eat? to investigate further!


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Further Reading

Segment Guests

Jenna Dittmar

Jenna Dittmar is a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Whether you like it or not, a record of your life is constantly being recorded. And no, I’m not talking about social media, but through your bones. Every time you fracture a bone, even after it heals, that skeletal trauma, that scar, stays with you forever.

Researchers in Scotland are using bones from medieval times to put together a picture of what life was like. Here to tell us more about it is Sci-Fi’s Kathleen Davis. Hi Kathleen.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Hey there, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: OK, so why are these bones so special?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, they’re special, because they actually came from ordinary people in medieval Cambridge in the UK. So we’re talking about people who lived sometime between the 10th and the 14th centuries. And these researchers found that you can often guess who was working class and who had money back then based on what their bones looked like.

IRA FLATOW: Really? How do the bones tell that to them?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, that’s what I wanted to find out. So I spoke to Dr. Jenna Dittmar, a research fellow in archaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, who is the lead researcher of this study. And I started by asking her just this– what can we learn from bones?

JENNA DITTMAR: So this study analyzed human skeletons that were excavated from three different cemeteries in Cambridge, England. By comparing individuals that were buried in different locations within a town, we can begin to investigate the lived experiences of these people and what types of spheres they could have occupied within medieval society.

So for this study, for example, we looked at the skeletons of inmates from a charitable institution, which was a hospital; members of the clergy, specifically of an Augustinian friary; a number of wealthier individuals that were buried within a religious institution; and a number of what we call ordinary working members of the population.

So by looking at people from multiple different walks of life, we’re able to look at the differences that could have existed between these groups. But we’re also able to get a better picture of the living conditions within the town, because the sample is broadly representative of what medieval society would have looked like as a whole. So from this, we can begin to identify the hazards of daily life that were experienced by everyone, as well as those that were unique to specific groups of people that we can tell based on their burial location within this town.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So back then, it seems like where you were buried actually said a lot about what kind of person you were.

JENNA DITTMAR: Absolutely, and it also told us a lot about where you fit within the social hierarchy of medieval England.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So tell me a little bit about what you actually learned from studying these bones, about what life was like back then. What was it like to be a person living in medieval Cambridge?

JENNA DITTMAR: So the economy in medieval England was largely based on agriculture. And the vast majority of people would have been directly involved in agricultural activities and pursuits and would have spent most of their days working in the fields plowing, or herding, or something like that.

But there were actually a number of occupations that people could have had. So Cambridge was a medium-sized market town that had a population of about 2,500 to about 4,000 people during the mid-13th century. And we know that close to 50 different trades would have been practiced. These included construction workers, which included carpenters, tilers, stonemasons, and thatchers, in addition to artisans like shoemakers and tailors.

Most of the specialized occupations were dominated by men. But we know that women also worked and received wages in this time. They could work brewing ale, for example, or washing clothes, or pursuits like weaving.

So another major subgroup of people that existed during the medieval period were members of religious institutions, such as friaries, and in the case of Cambridge, the university colleges. So people in this group had a highly specialized lifestyle that was governed by the specific institutional rules. And they varied greatly by the particular order that an individual belonged to.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So the University of Cambridge existed back then?

JENNA DITTMAR: Absolutely. It was founded about 1208.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Wow. So you mentioned that there were some people who were a little wealthier in this community. What did those people do with their days, as far as you can tell?

JENNA DITTMAR: Typically people that were considered wealthier at this time– and when we’re talking about wealth here, we’re certainly not talking about members of the ruling class. All of the individuals within this study would have been what we would colloquially term as peasants.

But even within that very large band of what we call the peasantry, there was quite a lot of differentiation in the kind of wealth that an individual could have. Some of the workers within this sample certainly would have been tied to a piece of land. And they would have worked for a lord, for example, plowing and doing these kinds of activities.

But there would have been others that would have been involved in trading, or they would have been merchants. And they could have had a very different lifestyle to what we’re thinking of as medieval peasants nowadays.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Were there any specimens as you were going through these bones that stuck out to you in terms of what they probably went through in life?

JENNA DITTMAR: So in general, we found a lot of evidence for skeletal injuries. About 32% of the sample that we looked at had one or more fractures. But some individuals certainly stood out as having more severe injuries than others. One individual, who was actually a friar, had very severe traumatic injuries. Both of his femurs were broken as well as his neck.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Oh my gosh.

JENNA DITTMAR: And these were– yeah, these were perimortem injuries as well. So what that means is that these bones didn’t have time to heal before this person would have died. And given the extent of the injuries– both of his legs and his neck would have been broken– we expect that he died from whatever kind of accident that he was involved in. The injuries that he has are most similar to what pedestrians today experience when they’re hit by a car.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So you said that about 30% of these specimens that you studied had maybe not as extreme as this example, but had some type of fracture that you could look at and say, OK, that’s skeletal trauma. I mean, it seems shocking to me that so many people had this kind of trauma back then. I mean, was life just really hard back then?

JENNA DITTMAR: I mean, in general, I think yes, it definitely was. There have been a number of studies that have reported fracture prevalence rates from archeological sites all over medieval England that report very similar numbers of fractures to what we found in Cambridge. And all of this research, including ours, suggests that people, especially those that were involved in routine, manual labor, were at a high risk of being injured, no matter where they lived in the country, which really isn’t that surprising. We expected to find this.

But you have to remember that a family’s survival during the medieval period was based on their ability to work for a living. And a severe injury of a family member could result in the starvation of an entire family. That’s what this research really is trying to drive home. It’s the lived experiences of these individuals.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: The Black Plague happened around this time period, if I understand this correctly. Can you see the impacts of that on the bones of the people that you study or in the remains?

JENNA DITTMAR: That is actually one of the research questions that the larger project that I’m involved in is working towards. So I’m a post-doctoral researcher working for a project called “After the Plague, Health and History in Medieval Cambridge.” And our main research goal is to really try to identify the biological consequences of the bubonic plague epidemic, also known as the Black Death.

So we have found evidence of Yersinia pestis in a number of individuals from medieval Cambridge so far. And we’re working to process the data to try to figure out exactly what consequences the Black Death had on this population.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I want to shift gears for a second. I know that you’re originally from the States. So you may be able to relate to this. But every time I travel outside of the country, it strikes me that everything is so old.

I mean, you have in many countries modern buildings that are built on top of centuries-old ruins. I mean, there are buildings from medieval times that are still standing in the UK and in Europe. Does being surrounded by old things as a researcher who studies this time period change how you look at the research?

JENNA DITTMAR: I mean, living in a city like Cambridge where there are so many spectacular medieval buildings does help you get into the mindset of what it must have been like for normal, everyday working folk to come in to a place such as Cambridge, especially during the later medieval period when some of these buildings would have been constructed, because you’re still able to walk in the streets that the medieval people would have also walked. And you can go to the locations where these people lived. And you can see the places where they died. And this is– it’s a great privilege to be able to do this.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Medicine has changed a lot, obviously, since the Middle Ages. But I’m wondering if you think it could be possible to do the kind of research that you’re doing now on these people who lived back several centuries, if it would be possible potentially to do an analysis on our bones in, say, 500 years.

JENNA DITTMAR: This is a really interesting question. And I think certainly before we can answer a question like this, we need to consider how burial practices in modern times are different to those during the medieval period. So there was no such thing as embalming during the medieval period. The bodies weren’t preserved in the same way that bodies are now.

Another way that burial practices have changed quite drastically in modern times is the increase in the number of individuals that choose to be cremated. And a study like this wouldn’t be possible looking at cremated remains in the same way that it would be with remains that were buried traditionally in a coffin. But on the other hand, I really hope that it is. Looking at the medical advances and the way that fractures are now approached by modern medicine, the inclusion of things like pins or plates, could in 500 years time could tell you a lot about the types of medicine that was practiced during this time.

We do this in the past as well, actually. We find sometimes wooden dentures buried with individuals, or prosthetic limbs. I mean, one of the very first prostheses actually came from ancient Egypt. And it was a prosthetic big toe that was placed on the foot of a mummy. So I mean, we can learn a lot about a society by the types of medical interventions that they had at the time.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, this has been great. Thank you so much, Dr. Dittmar, for taking time to chat with us today.

JENNA DITTMAR: Yes, thank you very much.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Dr. Jenna Dittmar is a research fellow in osteoarchaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland. For Science Friday, I’m Kathleen Davis.

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Meet the Producer

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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