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Project Number: 331

Project pseudonym: "Alice"

Site: Hospital of St. John

Feature/Burial Number: 900

Born between: sometime in the 1200s

Died between: Mid 1100s to mid 1200s

An older working woman, perhaps with a specialised job.

A reconstruction drawing of a woman in medieval Cambridge

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

​“Alice” grew up in or around Cambridge, sometime in the thirteenth century. She may have had a poor girlhood; she had at least three distinct episodes of growth interruption, and she reached an adult stature of 148 cm – among the smallest women in the town.

As an adult, her diet is likely to have contained little animal protein, certainly less than the average person in the town. Her teeth were good for her age, with little dental disease other than gross destruction of one molar from caries and another one lost to an abscess at its root; however, her front teeth were crowded and malpositioned, perhaps due to the small size of her jaw.

There is little doubt that “Alice” was a working woman. While her legs were unremarkable, her arms grew to be very strongly-built in her early adulthood – the strongest architecturally in our sample – and they remained so throughout her life. They were strongly muscled as well. She used them symmetrically, putting stress upon both sides, which suggests some heavy work such as lifting and carrying. Several of her vertebrae show signs of damaged intervertebral disks, which may be related, and which may have caused intermittent back pain.

What work was she doing? Everyday work involved tasks such as carrying water from a household well or neighbourhood source, though such tasks would have been common to most women and men rather than giving rise to such unusually strong morphology. While historic examples are known of women carrying on many skilled trades, often as a result of continuing their husband’s business after his death, these are statistically infrequent. More usually, women could participate in a relatively restricted range of recognised occupations, such as domestic service, selling things in the streets or market, weaving, brewing and selling ale, and laundering clothes. Women also worked in the fields outside town, and they doubtless carried out a much greater range of work unofficially. All of these would involve hard work. For example, domestic service and brewing may have involved hauling endless amounts of water, and laundering may have involved pounding, wringing and carrying heavy basketfuls of sodden clothes. Any medieval town was built on the continual hard toil of women such as her.

In some ways, “Alice” gives us an idea of what “Maria” (PSN 90) might have been like if she had survived rather than dying as a young adult. She has the same signs of a difficult childhood, low adult stature and heavy manual labour starting early in adult life. It seems likely that she never managed to work her way out of poverty, and when she found herself unable to work, she had few reserves or fallback. “Alice” lived to older middle age. We do not know when in her life she moved into the Hospital of St. John, and what impelled this. At the time of her death, her right foot and ankle were inflamed with an infection which would have rendered them painful and unstable; she may have developed problems walking or been unable to work. In the sea of need that was medieval Cambridge, she would probably not have been given shelter in the Hospital based on a medical condition such as this alone, but perhaps it prevented her from working and she had no other support. Whether or not she had had some other condition which is not visible in her skeleton, it implies that she lacked a family support network that could care for her.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • We’ve chosen to show her in her active working life, rather than in her final years as a resident of the Hospital, as this reflects most of her life.

  • We don’t know what her work actually was, but we have shown her doing washing by the river, as this was one typical possibility. Such work was hard and low-paid, and involved exposure to the elements and challenges such as keeping valuable garments from being stolen while hung out to dry. However, it was often done in groups and sociable as well.

  • Was it possible that women from very poor backgrounds may have had trouble marrying, and hence been more likely to be isolated and poor when older? Or considered appropriate people to be given institutional charity?

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