How do historical conditions influence our health?
How does health change history?
The After the Plague project investigates these questions by exploring health in later medieval England. It is centred on studying about 1000 medieval skeletons from the cemetery of the Hospital of St. John, Cambridge and from other medieval sites in Cambridge. The people we study date to between 1000 and 1500 CE.
The most significant health event of this period was the Black Death, the bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis) epidemic of 1348-9 which killed between a third and a half of Europe’s population. We investigate the short and long term biological and social consequences of this catastrophe on the medieval people of Cambridge.
Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley
After the Plague takes a multi-disciplinary bioarchaeological approach, with subprojects in skeletal studies, palaeopathology, geometric morphometrics, genetics, and isotopic analyses.
Excavation in progress at the Hospital of St. John.
Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
Beyond investigating the Black Death, however, this project also contextualises health more broadly. We investigate a wide range of health and lifestyle conditions. Did different kinds of people have different kinds of health? Was the social impact and historical burden of chronic, less visible conditions such as tuberculosis actually greater than plague? And how did health affect human experience, changing the courses of lives?
Most ordinary medieval people never appear in any historical record. Bioarchaeology gives us the chance of meeting them. By using osteobiographical methods, we can reconstitute the outlines of their lives in considerable detail, understanding the life choices and issues they faced.
The core of our project is the 400+ burials from the Hospital of St. John at Cambridge. These are the the urban poor who ended their lives in a charitable institution. The site provides us with a counterbalance to most medieval skeletal populations, which favour more prosperous people. But we also study the ordinary townspeople from All Saints by the Castle, and friars and prosperous laypeople from the Augustinian Friary in Cambridge. Our goal is to study a cross-section of the town and to reveal the challenges that ordinary people strove with in the Middle Ages.