Walking around modern-day Cambridge with its magnificent colleges and student ceremonies, have you ever wondered at the lives of those who worked to make the University of Cambridge so revered academically today and a “must visit” on the tourist trail?
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have analysed the bones of 400 medieval residents found in the long-gone St John the Evangelist graveyard and other sites. Interred between 1000 and 1500AD, the bones are giving up their secrets and providing a rare window into a town’s diverse population and the changes in the city and the lives of its inhabitants. Using a range of modern techniques, from DNA to isotope analysis, academics have been able to learn how a person lived, whether they were privileged or poor, the type of work they may have done and what they ate.
Hard manual labour, disease and poor nutrition show up in bone mass, with differences between the two sides of the body and the quality of bone itself. In contrast, bones of the well-fed and disease-free tell archaeologists a different life story. Thus the team at the University of Cambridge are able to construct a picture of individual lives.
A guild tradesman?
One of the earliest is “Roger”. Born in the 12th century, he lived in the parish of All Saints by the Castle, which then would have been a small, semi-rural parish on the outskirts of the city. Roger lived to a good age for the day, at least 60. His bones do tell of multiple injuries, including fractures not set by a doctor, but he was in good shape. His upper arms and shoulders had pronounced muscles, more so on his right arm, suggesting he worked especially hard, habitually performing some repetitive and very physical activity. Perhaps he was a skilled tradesman working wood, stone, leather or metal. With a trade, it’s possible he held guild membership, an important social status at that time, and such a position might explain his good fortune to live to old age.
Enduring poverty, famine and plague
Someone who had a much worse hand was “Maria”. She was a young adult woman from an impoverished background, repeatedly ill with tuberculosis and cared for in the hospital of St John the Evangelist, where she spent a significant portion of her life. It seems likely either that she had no family to care for her or that they were too poor to do so. We do know from her bones that she ate a better diet when living in the institution and that she remained there for five to ten years before death.
The biggest event in this period was of course the Black Death, which had a huge impact. Here, we have an example in “Dickon”, a common name for Richard. He lived in the 14th century and had a tough time. His bones tell us that as a child he lived through the worst recorded famine of medieval Europe. During the Great Famine of 1315–20 harvests all over England failed year after year, and 10-20% of the population died. Malnutrition probably affected his growth, leading him to be small in stature. At only 160 cm, he was one of the shortest men studied. Dickon died of the plague, probably in the 1349 outbreak. After death, he was buried in his local church cemetery and not, as many others were, in a plague pit.
“Thomas” led a different life. He was not a native of Cambridge and grew up elsewhere. His bones are symmetrical, unlike most working men and women. He was also taller, had no signs of childhood poverty and had enjoyed a more enriched diet. Maybe he grew up in the hills east of the Peak District, came to Cambridge as a student, and stayed on as a professional scholar in a hall, hostel, or college. His bones show traces of several later distinct episodes of infectious disease. Perhaps that is what killed him. Diseases were very common in overcrowded towns without proper sanitation.
Living in medieval Cambridge
These bone biographies tell us a little of how medieval Cambridge was organised hierarchically. There were fewer colleges than today, and they were often associated with religious institutions. The university at this time was, in historical terms, very small. Although there is evidence of a significant academic community from the 1220s, the first college, Peterhouse, was only founded in 1284. Both the university and the town grew over the following centuries.
Like today, the university and the many religious houses needed builders, cooks, washerwomen, and local farmers and victuallers providing them with meat, vegetables, cheese, and lots of ale. One can imagine the sights and smells of live animals coming to into medieval Cambridge to be sold at a lively market.
But what happened when disaster came upon you? A work injury, an accident with a cart, a serious illness or extreme old age. Then, there was only one answer outside the home: help from a religious community infirmary or hospital. Helping the sick is a key part of the ministry of religious orders, and Cambridge had several foundations, including the Hospital of St John. Some had a few live-in residents, and others were cared for in the infirmary. Those who received help were generally the ‘deserving poor’, but also there were some older scholars and wealthier visitors.
So old bones can speak. They tell us that medieval life was varied and hard for some – as it is now. Cambridge has evolved today into a marvellous city. Over the centuries, social hierarchy – the division between town and gown – food poverty, and tensions about who should be helped in times of need have on occasion led to disorder and riots. And some Cambridge residents still today resent the impact of gown on town.
If you want to learn more, there is a dedicated project website ‘After the Plague – Health and History in Medieval England’.