Violent signs of social inequality can be found all over the bones of medieval graveyards. The excavations of different burial sites in the historic city of Cambridge in the UK have found that working people were significantly more likely to have broken bones, likely a sign of occupational injury or violence, while the wealthy elites were buried in comparatively good shape.
The bones also reveal some curious stories from the Middle Ages, like a monk who was crushed to death by a heavy cart, as well as the grim reality faced by many people during this time.
As reported in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, archaeologists from the University of Cambridge excavated three different sites in the city: a local church graveyard for ordinary working people, a charitable “hospital” where the infirm were cared for then buried, and an Augustinian friary where clergy were buried alongside wealthy donors. X-ray analysis of 314 skeletons revealed that 44 percent of working people had bone fractures, compared to 32 percent of those in the friary, and 27 percent of those buried by the hospital.
“We can see that ordinary working folk had a higher risk of injury compared to the friars and their benefactors or the more sheltered hospital inmates,” lead author Dr Jenna Dittmar, from the Wellcome Trust-funded After the Plague project at the University’s Department of Archaeology, said in a statement.
“These were people who spent their days working long hours doing heavy manual labour. In town, people worked in trades and crafts such as stonemasonry and blacksmithing, or as general labourers. Outside town, many spent dawn to dusk doing bone-crushing work in the fields or tending livestock,” Dr Dittmar said.
Across the different cemeteries, broken bones were found in 40 percent of male remains and 26 percent of female remains. Even though working people took the brunt of these apparent injuries, the skeletons highlight that the medieval ages were a brutal time for everyone; violence-related skeletal injuries most likely inflicted by others were found in about 4 percent of the whole population.
One story unearthed from the cemeteries was the grisly death of a monk who lived at the esteemed Augustinian friary. Despite living a relatively comfortable life compared to much of the population, their skeleton was found with both femur bones in the upper leg crushed (image above).
“Whatever caused both bones to break in this way must have been traumatic, and was possibly the cause of death,” explained Dittmar. “Our best guess is a cart accident. Perhaps a horse got spooked and he was struck by the wagon.”
It appears quite a few of the monks had surprisingly violent lives, or deaths. Of the 19 skeletons believed to be monks at the Augustinian friary, six showed evidence of trauma.
One older female buried in the burial grounds for working people was found to have broken their ribs, multiple vertebrae in the spine, jaw, and foot throughout their lifetime. Unusually, these injuries were largely healed before death, leading the researchers to suspect the woman sustained these distinct injuries due to lifelong domestic abuse.
“It would be very uncommon for all these injuries to occur as the result of a fall, for example. Today, the vast majority of broken jaws seen in women are caused by intimate partner violence,” Dittmar explained.
All in all, the bones provide a fascinating look into the social inequalities of the period, and how tough it was for everybody.
“We can see this inequality recorded on the bones of medieval Cambridge residents. However, severe trauma was prevalent across the social spectrum," Dittmar said. "Life was toughest at the bottom – but life was tough all over.”