The quiet unassuming St. Botolph’s church in Hadstock, near Cambridge, has a gruesome myth attached to it. In the late 19th century, during repairs, it was discovered that the doorway contained a large fragment of skin under its metal bands. Legend says that the skin was from a Danish (Viking) raider who tried to pillage the church in the 11th century. Subsequently, he was flayed alive and nailed to the door as a gruesome warning
This church is not the only one that has this "human leather" decoration on the front door. At least three medieval churches in England have these skin remains: St. Botolph’s; St Michael & All Angels Church in Copford, near Colchester; and Westminster Abbey in London.
In the past, scientists have been interested to know if these myths were true, performing scientific examinations on some of the samples. However, there has been some controversy about what it was actually made of.
In the 1970s, Ron Reed from the University of Leeds, UK – an expert in leather – analyzed the St Botolph's skin and concluded the skin was human and probably from “a person with fair or greying hair”, supporting the myth. However, during the BBC program Blood of the Vikings (2001), DNA analysis revealed that the sample was of Bovid origin, although the accuracy of the results was uncertain.
At the UK Archaeological Sciences Conference 2022 (UKAS), Ruairidh Macleod and his colleagues further analyzed the skin fragments from all four sites using a non-destructive technique called "Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry" or ZooMS.
This technique reveals the collagen peptide sequence in samples, allowing scientists to identify which species the sample once belonged to. In this instance, the scientists applied rubber erasers against the surface of the skin, and then extracted and trypsin-digesting peptides that adhered to the eraser waste.
It was discovered that none of the skin samples were human at all. Two samples were bovine in nature, whereas the St Michael & All Angels Church sample came from horse or donkey. The latter sample could not be identified any further as these species have a very similar collagen fingerprint.
But why did this story even occur in the first place?
“So, it's interesting that very convergent myths seem to have arisen for all the churches that we analysed that the skins originated from Danish (Viking) raiders. Specifically, this is first attested by Samuel Pepys in his diary in 1661, so the idea that these are flayed human skins from Danes has been around for a long time.” Macleod told IFLScience.
“In the absence of any samples actually proving to be human, it looks like this story might have originated for one of the churches as a local myth first (the accounts for Hadstock and Westminster are among the oldest), and then spread to others quickly where traces of desiccated skin were also found nailed to the door.”
There may be another reason for animal skins to be placed on the doors of churches. Theophilus suggested that the function of nailing treated (not tanned) animal skins to doors may have more of a contemporary function and bear a more aesthetic explanation.
“Nonetheless, the morbid fascination associated with this myth likely explains its persistence, as well as serving as deterrent to would be church-desecrators!” says Macleod.