X-ray analysis reveals one grisly truth about Medieval life

"Life was toughest at the bottom — but life was tough all over."

cambridge skeleton from medieval england

Nick Saffell

The fall you took off the monkey bars in fourth grade may feel a lifetime ago, but to scientists who study skeletal remains, these pivotal — and sore — moments can be important clues as to how we lived hundreds of years after our deaths.

Skeletal trauma is evidence of accumulated breaks and fractures over a lifetime. These clues are especially important when it comes to decoding the lives of those who lived centuries before, including the denizens of the Middle Ages.

In a new study, archeologists used X-ray analysis of 314 skeletal remains uncovered in Cambridge, U.K. between the 10th and 14th century to peer back into the past. Specifically, the researchers were interested in documenting the toll social-class differences could take on the body. What they found was telling, to say the least.

Why it matters — The team uncovered some grisly truths about the lives of these Medieval Britons — life for the poor was especially brutal. They also uncovered the hard reality of domestic violence in the period.

The findings were published Monday in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

For this Cambridge residents, a history of trauma is hidden in their bones.Nick Saffell

Here's the background — Modern Cambridge is most readily associated with the city's university, which has played host to academic luminaries from Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking. But in Medieval times, Cambridge looked very different to the quaint colleges, cobble streets, and well-manicured river banks the city is known for today.

In the 13th century, the city was home to roughly 4,000 laborers, artisans, farmers, and religious friars who attended the then-emerging university.

The difference in the labor of a farmer to that of a friar may seem obvious, but the University of Cambridge research team who conducted this study took a deeper approach to truly reconstruct these peoples' daily lives.

The research team looked at skeletal remains from three different grave sites across the city:

The Augustinian friary: The final resting place of either wealthy religious patrons and friars
The Hospital of St John the Evangelist: Graves of the seriously ill or charitably housed
The parish of All Saints: The grave site of common laborers

Using the breaks and fractures left in these skeletons' bones, the researchers set out to reconstruct what each individual's life was really like.

What they did — The archeologists examined 75 remains from the Augustinian Friary, 155 from the Hospital of St John the Evangelist, and 84 from the All Saints cemetery. They used a combination of macroscopic examination — examinations done with the naked eye — and a portable X-ray machine to look below the surface of the bones.

The team used clues like teeth calcification, the shape or size of skull, pubic, and rib bones to judge each skeleton's age at time of death and sex. Once determined, the remains were categorized as adolescent (12-17), young adult (18-25), middle adult (26 - 44), mature adult (45 - 60), and old adult (60+).

Children younger than 12 were excluded from the study because they were less likely to have worked outside the home.

"Life was toughest at the bottom — but life was tough all over."

What they discovered — Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest number of skeletal traumas were seen in the remains from All Saints, with 37 of the 84 individuals showing evidence of some kind of bone trauma.

Jenna Dittmar is the study's lead author and research associate at the University of Cambridge's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. She explains in a statement why individuals buried at All Saints likely sustained their injuries during their day-to-day grind as laborers.

"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," she says.

"These were people who spent their days working long hours doing heavy manual labor. In town, people worked in trades and crafts such as stonemasonry and blacksmithing, or as general laborers."

"Outside town, many spent dawn to dusk doing bone-crushing work in the fields or tending livestock," she adds.

Off all the individuals analyzed, those at the hospital showed the least trauma, likely because their health prevented them from engaging in dangerous activities.Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The researchers found mature adult men tended to have more evidence of skeletal trauma than their female counterparts. But this isn't necessarily because women spent all their time indoors. Their tasks may have been less dangerous, but women would have also labored outdoors, especially on farms, the researchers say.

The relationship between poverty and physical hardship and injury is no shock. People who live below the poverty line today still suffer disproportionate trauma to those with more privilege. But the research did reveal other, counter intuitive findings about the lives of friars, domestic violence, and Cambridge's role in war.

For example, they found evidence to suggest some friars may have led dangerous lives before joining the church, while domestic violence may have been far more commonplace in the Middle Ages than previously thought.

What we don't know — Even though this evidence is set in bone, that doesn't necessarily mean the conclusions drawn in this study are set in stone, the researchers say. While it's possible to make educated guesses about how these individuals acquired their injuries — whether through work, accident, or interpersonal violence — it's difficult to know for sure.

Curiously, the study also found lower counts of interpersonal knife violence than previously reported, which the researchers say may be due in part of lack of soft tissue evidence, rather than any indication of the realities of life in Medieval Cambridge.

There is one thing they can say for certain, according to Dittmar: Life was hard across for the board for the Medieval Cantabrigians.

"We can see this inequality recorded on the bones of medieval Cambridge residents," said Dittmar. "Severe trauma was prevalent across the social spectrum. Life was toughest at the bottom — but life was tough all over."

Abstract:
Objective: To explore how medieval living conditions, occupation, and an individual's role within society impacted their risk of skeletal trauma.
Materials: The skeletal remains of 314 individuals from medieval Cambridge that were buried in the parish cemetery of All Saints by the Castle (n = 84), the Augustinian friary (n = 75), and the cemetery of the Hospital of St John the Evangelist (n = 155) were analyzed.
Methods: Macroscopic examination and plain radiographs were used to classify fracture type. The causative mechanisms and forces applied to a bone were inferred based on fracture morphology.
Results: The skeletal trauma observed represents accidental injuries, likely sustained through occupational or everyday activities, and violence. The highest prevalence rate was observed on the individuals buried at All Saints by the Castle (44%, n = 37/ 84), and the lowest was seen at the Hospital of St John (27%, n = 42/155). Fractures were more prevalent in males (40%, n = 57/143) than females (26%, n = 25/95).
Conclusions: Skeletal trauma was highest in All Saints parish burial ground, indicating that the poor, whether working urban or rurally, had the highest risk of injury. The pattern and types of fractures observed suggests that males experienced more severe traumatic events than females. However, females that were routinely involved in manual labor were also at increased risk of injury.
Significance: This article enhances our understanding of how traumatic injuries differed by age, sex, and burial locations in the medieval period.
Further research: Additional comparative studies in different geographical regions are needed to determine how representative these findings are.
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