top of page

Medieval health in context: the long-term picture

We can study history over a few years, a century or two, or thousands of years. Historians and archaeologists often refer to the longue durée: the big sweep of history. To investigate this, the project looked at samples from different periods from the Neolithic through to the ninteenth century; the goal was to see the changes in the medieval period in the context of wider history. If late medieval people are a centimetre taller or shorter than earlier medieval people, is this a big change or a trivial one? It helps to compare it with changes over a much longer period.

For example, using skeletal data, it is relatively straightforward to track changes in stature. In the Neolithic period people are relatively small, and they generally increase in size through time. But the process is not a constant increase; it has ups and downs. The tallest people before modern times were the early Saxons, who have a big jump in stature over preceding Roman populations. After the Saxon period, heights reduce again until the late medieval period, when people are at their shortest. Since there is strong genetic continuity in our samples from Anglo Saxon times through to the present, this implies that people in later medieval periods are not actually doing as well nutritionally and health-wise as they may have been earlier.

We compared about a dozen bioarchaeological indicators of health and lifestyle across multiple periods. Some of these indicators show little change. There were always high levels of cribra orbitalia (which probably relates to multiple factors, including nutritional gaps and illness), maxillary sinusitis (which reflects sinus infections and irritation, perhaps related to smoke from wood fires in poorly ventilated housing), traumatic injuries, new bone formation due to infectious and other diseases, and osteoarthritis. In contrast, others show historical changes. In the medieval and post-medieval periods, there were increasing levels of enamel hypoplasias (lines in tooth enamel registering growth interruptions in childhood) and tuberculosis, a serious infections disease. Together with the stature data, we may be seeing the effects of urban crowding, infectious disease and poverty. 

A graph showing stature in and around Cambridge over long term history

Stature in and around Cambridge over long-term history

Chart:  S. Inskip

bottom of page