Medieval skeletons reveal social inequalities in Cambridge

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Wear of the body, bends or even fractures, each human remains delivers a mountain of information about an individual’s living conditions and social status, according to the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Researchers from the Archaeological Department of the University of Cambridge wanted to find this information on skeletons dating from the Black Death (1347-1350), under a project named After The Plague.

At three different burial sites in Cambridge, bones were excavated for analysis. The first site is at All Saints Parish, which housed the remains of ordinary people. In the second, at the hospital of Saint John the Evangelist, were those of the poor and workers of the time. The third is an Augustinian convent where there are cemeteries for religious brothers and the wealthy of the time.

Different death conditions“By comparing the skeletal trauma of the remains buried in various places in a city like Cambridge, we can assess the dangers of daily life experienced by different spheres of medieval society”, specifies the main author of the research, Jenna Dittmar. In the 13th century, the merchant city presented a varied social landscape. The specialized trades which gave access to a high social rank were practiced by a male elite. The rest of the population shared the other professions: agricultural workers, masons, craftsmen for men; beer brewer, housekeeper or weaver for women. The only people who combined the erudite character of high society with the manual labor of the poorest were the religious brothers.

The researchers found that the male skeletons showed more signs of fractures than women (44 against 27%). Women, exempt from heavy physical labor, were naturally less affected by fractures such as broken ribs. However, the difference in the state of the bones is revealed from one social rank to another. While the skeletons of workers are 44% to present fractures, the religious and the rich are only 40% to have suffered from it. But on the hospital site, where the poorest people were buried, only 01% skeletons showed signs of fractures. The researchers hypothesize that at the time, poor people suffered from chronic illnesses and died younger. The poorest class would therefore not have had enough time to experience physical damage due to work or else the fractures would have resorbed quickly due to the young age of the subjects.


Another one discovery somewhat surprised the researchers. During the exhumation of the skeletons, no evidence of murder with weapons was identified. Surprising for a time when “homicide was so common that in London and Oxford a person was more likely to be murdered than to die from an accident”, relates Jenna Dittmar.