The People and Their Life Stories
Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley
Facial reconstruction of PSN 727 who was buried at All Saints by the Castle.
Image: Dr. Hayley Mickleburgh
The After the Plague Project chose sixteen human skeletons from different sites to reconstruct the biographies of these inhabitants of medieval Cambridge in as much detail as possible.
Out of the hundreds of skeletons we studied, we chose these individuals for biographical reconstruction because each of them has a story to tell. They are all well-preserved enough to yield a lot of detail, including some molecular data, and each one represents a good example of others like it, some neighbourhood or group of our data and of medieval Cambridge. . PSN90 probably had a childhood of serious deprivation and died young in a poorhouse. PSN766 almost certainly died in the Black Death. We chose PSN92 to illustrate someone who had survived the Black Death, but he also was an old man with an active metastatic cancer who may have become poor in his old age. PSN911 may have died in childbirth, a common medieval life risk. The friars PSN522 and PSN524 represent the numerous religious professionals in a medieval town, especially Cambridge. PSN525 was a prosperous older woman, probably a patron of the Friary. PSN332 probably came from far away and died on a visit to Cambridge. And so on.
For more information on how we create osteobiographies, see further down this page. But for now....
These are human stories. Come and meet the people of medieval Cambridge.
The portraits on this page are the result of these multidisciplinary archaeological investigations. Click on each image tile in the gallery to read what we have learned about the life and death of this medieval person.
All reconstruction images: Mark Gridley
Did these people know each other?
Quite likely, at least sometimes.
Cambridge was a small town – less than 5000 people. If you have ever lived in a village this size, you will know how you run into the same people repeatedly. This was probably even more so in a medieval town, where many people lived and worked their entire lives among networks of kin, friends and neighbours, and where a lot of life was lived in public spaces – the streets, taverns, churches. A parish such as All Saints probably contained 200-300 people at any given time, and everyone in it probably knew everyone else, at least indirectly. Indeed, of the 37 people buried at All Saints whose skeletons yielded adequate mitochondrial DNA for analysis, we’ve found one pair with first-degree kinship (a mother and son or brother and sister), another pair with second-degree kinship (an aunt and niece, or grandmother and granddaughter), and a group of three people who were probably a grandmother, father and daughter.
Similarly, within smaller, bounded communities such as the Augustinian Friary, all the brethren would certainly have known each other. The Hospital of St. John was also a very small community, with perhaps a dozen residents who all lived together. But some people may have lived there for years, while others may have died fairly soon after being given a place there; so even if we know that two people were buried there between (say) 1280 and 1300, we still can’t be certain that they knew each other.
Among the 500+ medieval people whose skeletons we have studied, there must have been many personal relationships, whether or not we can identify them. For the 16 people whose biographies we present here, the best we can do is to note several clusters of people who may have been active around the same time. Perhaps they knew each other; perhaps they passed each other in the streets; perhaps one belonged to the generation of the others’ parents or grandparents.
Around 1275, the people living in the Hospital may have included two older women, PSN331 (“Alice”) and PSN335 (“Anne”); if they weren’t both living there, they may have been active somewhere around town and soon to reside there. At about the same time, PSN522 (“Eudes”) may have been a young friar in the Augustinian friary, and PSN332 (“Christiana”) may have been a girl or young woman somewhere far away, perhaps looking ahead to the journey that would take her – forever – to Cambridge.
In the early 1300s, PSN522 (“Eudes”) would have been one of the older friars in the Augustinian Friary, someone who had lived there for several decades; PSN524 (“Adam”) would have been a younger brother, a promising novice perhaps, part of a second generation of friars at the Friary. At the same time, outside the Friary, PSN766 (“Dickon”) would have been a young man, perhaps between them in age, growing up on the north side of town. The two friars would die, “Adam” young and “Eudes” old, sometime before the Black Death of 1348-9; the plague would kill “Dickon”.
In the later 1300s – say, in the generation after the Black Death, perhaps between 1375 – PSN90 (“Maria”) would have been a young woman living in the Hospital; PSN92 (“Wat”) would have been an old man living the last few years of his life there; and PSN99 (“Thomas”) would have been a middle-aged University scholar, perhaps retired from active teaching due to illness and living in the Hospital. Since each one may have lived in the Hospital for only a few years, they may not have overlapped and lived together there, but they may have, or at least known of each other.
Excavation in progress at the cemetery of the Hospital of St. John.
Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
Reconstructing a life story based on a skeleton is a challenge. Here we follow a method called “osteobiography”. This involves putting all the facts we know about the person together into a story that makes sense given the circumstances we found them in.
Getting to know somebody from their skeleton is different from meeting them in a tavern, workplace or church, or from reading what people wrote down about them at the time. Sometimes their skeleton can tell surprising details about their lives. But it won’t tell you someone’s name, or what they did for a living, or whether they were a saint or a sinner. Some things are blurred, such as exactly when somebody lived. And you need a translation guide to understand the data. When we use carbon and nitrogen isotope values to talk about diet, we usually consider only how much of their protein came from animal sources such as meat, dairy or fish -- though this is actually quite useful for medieval times, since how much fish or meat somebody ate often correlated with how wealthy they were. When we say “they probably came from the local area,” it means “when their teeth were forming in childhood, they lived somewhere with the same strontium isotopic signature as here” -- which is not a definition of “local” anyone medieval would have recognised. And, contrary to television programmes, you can almost never tell what caused someone’s death from their skeleton. Even when they clearly had a serious disease, something else might actually have killed them.
The next step is turning these facts into a coherent narrative. Generally, most of the facts about any particular individual turn out to be pretty mundane. But for most skeletons, there may be two or three points of particular interest which give us hooks to hang a narrative on – an unusual illness, an unaccustomed dietary pattern, a strange morphology revealing a particular activity.
Then, skeletal data have to be placed in a cultural context. This means diving into an alien world. Being medieval was far more than wearing robes, tights and pointy shoes and saying “By Our Lady” in every sentence. If you were walking the streets of Cambridge in 1300, you would be in an alien world. You would need a translator to understand their Middle English. Beyond this, a lot of ways we see the world would be strange to them. For example, we see reason and the supernatural as opposed worlds, so that people who believe in scientific evidence are not supposed to believe in ghosts and demons. Medieval people didn’t have this hang-up. Conversely, in many ways they believed in a divine order permeated the universe. Here are a few ways skeletal data fit into medieval contexts:
Gender was understood very differently: many medieval discussions and habits would certainly send modern visitors into gender shock. When we evaluate a medieval skeleton as “female” or “male”, it carries a lot of social baggage about them.
Physical life and death were part of a bigger journey souls made through existence. Thus, well-off and poor people were buried in much the same way, even if they lived differently; sometimes looking at where they were buried and what they ate may be the only way to tell them apart.
When we treat a medical condition, modern clinical medicine doesn’t involve examining your spirit; their definition of “health” also included the state of your soul. They didn’t count calories, they counted sins. Thus, one of our main sites, the Hospital of St. John, was a poorhouse/ care home funded by donations from donors who wanted the inmates to pray for their souls, and the people who lived in it were chosen from among the town’s needy population because they fit particular spiritual criteria.
Even as we collected this basic data on hundreds of skeletons, we chose selected individuals for particularly detailed biographical reconstruction. Each one represents some aspect of medieval Cambridge.
To name or not to name?
Of the 500+ medieval people we’ve studied, not one has a name we know. Should we give them one?
Traditionally, the answer is “no”: most scientists studying skeletons avoid giving them names. Many believe that scientific detachment requires us to regard the people we study only as biological specimens, much like the subjects in medical studies. Naming the anonymous dead can sometimes be an act of cultural appropriation and feed into political agendas. And, if we give a skeleton with no historical records a name, it will almost certainly be wrong, since we cannot know the person’s real name. We owe a duty of truthfulness to our readers, who may think that the name we give someone is really their true name.
On the other hand, a name is one of the most fundamental features of a person. Indeed, giving someone a number for a name is almost a stereotype for dehumanising them, as in a prison or concentration camp. We can at least acknowledge that they had a personal identity by giving them a place-holder names. And names help us to humanise ancient people and relate to them. If we want to think about a medieval person as a person rather than as dry bones, it may be important to give them a name.
Archaeologists have come up with several creative solutions for this dilemma. One is to make up plausible-sounding pseudo-names. Thus, when hikers found a spectacularly-preserved prehistoric ice mummy in the Ötztal Alps, a journalist invented the name “Ötzi”. Similarly, the “Bamburgh Bones” project coins new words from Anglo-Saxon word roots to serve as made-up names for the Anglo-Saxon skeletons they study. As a different strategy, some archaeologists call bodies by where they were found (such as “Tollund Man” or “the Egtved Girl”). Or they use epithets such as “The Ancient One”, or, as at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, “The Cook” or “The Carpenter”. This is conveniently evasive, and, for medieval people, it also has a nice Chaucerian ring to it. But it is actually extremely rare that we can look at a skeleton and say what someone did for a living. It would also result in calling over half the medieval population things like “The Housewife”, “The Old Man” or “Yet Another Small Child Who Died”, which hardly does justice to their individuality. Thus some scholars, such as at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, go ahead and assign their biographees real historical names with no evidence that the person was really called that.
In our view, the issue is surprisingly complex and every strategy is without pitfalls. Naming skeletons is outside most anthropologists’ traditional comfort zone, but refraining from naming is also naming: an ancient person named Mary may well have preferred to be called “Anne” than to be called “Burial 335”. “The Ancient One” wasn’t ancient when they were alive. “The Cook” or “The Egtved Girl” might have considered it unfair to be known for eternity by their job title or the place they were buried just because that’s what we know about them. Ultimately, there isn’t really a categorical right answer; it is basically a choice between dehumanising the people we study and humanising them in ways which may or may not be appropriate. A good way forward depends upon context and the reason you are studying them. In our case, we found that, as we got to know our biographied skeletons better, we began to understand them not so much as faceless skeletons but as individuals, much perhaps as a doctor might understand an individual patient. Yet identifying them as “the old woman with the bad hip”, “the boy who died young”, or “the man with the facial reconstruction” felt like an artificial and reductive pathway.
In these osteobiographies, we experiment with yet another middle route. Journalists often need to refer to a source by a personal name while still keeping them anonymous to protect their privacy or safety. The solution is to give the person a name while making it clear that it is not in fact their name. We follow this strategy here. As a source of pseudonyms, we used historic documents such as tax lists to tabulate the most common names in medieval Cambridge. When we use such a pseudonym, we always write it in quotation marks to highlight that it is a journalistic pseudonym rather than the person’s real name. Hopefully this treads the line carefully enough that they would not mind.
Men’s names in Cambridge, 1200-1350; vertical scale is the percentage of men mentioned in historical documents with that name. Graph: John Robb
Women’s names in Cambridge, 1200-1350; vertical scale is the percentage of women mentioned in historical documents with that name. Graph: John Robb