‘Bone Biographies’ Show Lives of Ordinary People in Medieval England

Bones from Cambridge, England have revealed the surprisingly detailed stories of the ordinary people who lived in the city 600 to 1,000 years ago.

Researchers excavated over 500 skeletons from burial grounds across Cambridge. These remains all dated from the 11th to the 15th centuries. Experts in archaeology, osteology, genetics, medicine, and biochemistry then all pitched in to create these “bone biographies.”

They looked at the DNA, diets, causes of death, and potential activities of each individual. Then they used these to piece together the lives of these individuals.

Much of their study revolved around the 16 most revealing remains that represent the different social types “who jostled in Cambridge’s narrow streets many centuries ago.”

“As our work progressed, we stopped seeing the remains as faceless skeletons,” said lead researcher John Robb.

They not only built up the stories of people’s lives but gained insight into the systems of the time. Most of the remains came from Cambridge’s Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, a medieval parish church, and the Augustinian Friary.

An artists impression of Wat

An artist’s impression of Wat. Image: Mark Gridley


The luckier poor

The Hospital of St. John housed the poor and infirm and has been likened to a medieval benefits system.

“A few of the luckier poor people got bed and board in the hospital for life,” said Robb. “Selection criteria would have been a mix of material want, local politics, and spiritual merit.”

One such person was an individual whom the researchers named Wat. His bone biography shows that he survived the bubonic plague and eventually died in the hospital from cancer as an old man. His early diet was full of protein, but in the later stages of his life, his circumstances changed drastically. Researchers think he was once quite well off but later fell into poverty.

Those buried at the hospital did not fit one social class. There was a mix. The hospital had room for only about a dozen patients at a time. Staff seem to have favored the people they deemed the most worthy of help — orphaned children, scholars, and the “shame-faced poor” — people like Wat who had once been relatively well-off but who had lost everything. Many men buried at the hospital had well-developed right arms, indicating manual labor.

Members of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit work on the excavation of the Hospital of St. John.

Members of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit work on the excavation of the Hospital of St. John. Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit


Toll on children

The number of children’s remains shows how hard daily life was. Their bones reveal widespread disease and famine. The children buried in the hospital were all very small for their age and tended to show signs of anemia and tuberculosis.

Similarly, half of all the skeletons from All Saints cemetery were those of children. People assume that the plague was the biggest killer in medieval times, but according to Robb, “everyday diseases, such as measles, whooping cough, and gastrointestinal infections, ultimately took a far greater toll.”

One place showed a very different picture of life at this time. The remains from the Augustinian Friary were of men with symmetrical arm bones. They did not do manual labor or craft work. Early scholars of the university were an inch taller than the average townsperson. Their diets included a lot of meat and fish and they died at an older age.

The team has put together a website that goes alongside their research paper. Here they have published the stories of those 16 people whose bone biographies were the most revealing.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.