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Project Number: 332

Project pseudonym: "Christiana"

Site: Hospital of St. John

Feature/Burial Number: 901

Born between: 1256 and 1277

Died between: 1264 and 1308

Young woman from far away, dying on visit to Cambridge.

PSN 332

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

​“Christiana’s” story begins far from Cambridge. Her bone chemistry (strontium isotope values) suggests that she grew up in a very different geological region. In Britain, it could have been Cornwall, Wales, or some parts of Scotland. Outside Britain, there are a number of possibilities, including Brittany, Normandy, Central France, and Norway. Rather counter-intuitively, it may be less likely that she came from western Britain than that she came from further away. East-west travel was uncommon in Britain at this time; Cornish, Welsh or western Scottish visitors would have traded and congregated in regional centres between those regions and London, rarely in East Anglia. For eastern England, the obvious travel routes were to London, up the east coast of Britain as far as eastern Scotland, and to places around the North Sea basin. Outside of Britain, Norway seems the most likely source for her, as her geological signature is unlike that in Denmark, Germany, or Holland. There was a flourishing trade with Scandinavia, exchanging grain for timber and furs. Indeed, a century or two later, the Hanseatic league (a powerful Baltic trade cartel) had trading depots both at Bergen and in Lynn, the port where Cambridge’s river joins the North Sea. There was also trade between East Anglia and relevant areas of France.


“Christiana’s” childhood was average, with an unremarkable diet, a moderate amount of growth interruptions evident in her teeth, and some suggestion of periods of malnutrition. She reached a final stature of 164 cm, about 3 cm above the average for women in medieval Cambridge. She had a wide, prominent nose and good teeth; her eyes were blue and her hair was blond. She was slightly knock-kneed, though this would have been hidden by her long dress.


Sometime between forming her teeth in middle childhood and her death as a young woman, “Christiana” came to Cambridge. She probably wasn’t a long-term migrant to Cambridge. Most long-term immigrants to East Anglia came from Flanders, but the geology in that area does not match her childhood isotope signature. There is little historical mention of Scottish or Scandinavian migrants taking up long-term residence in medieval East Anglia – certainly not outside major port towns. It seems more likely that she came to Cambridge as an adult on some short-term trip. Trade is the most likely possibility, perhaps accompanying family members; for example, Scandinavian and French merchants may have attended the annual Stourbridge Fair, one of the largest fairs in England, held on the outskirts of Cambridge every September.


While in Cambridge, “Christiana” died. What would have killed a young woman abroad on a trading trip? We don’t know. She probably did not have a severe chronic disease, as this would have prevented her from travelling. She shows no sign of traumatic injury. However, she shows some signs of an active long-term, low-level infection of some kind. Perhaps this rapidly became worse, or perhaps she fell subject to some other rapidly-progressing condition, probably something infectious.


“Christiana” probably never lived at the Hospital of St. John. The Hospital did not take in people for short-term medical care, and the odds are low that it would have had a vacancy for a new resident during a short-term visit in any case. However, if she died while visiting Cambridge, she would have needed a place to be buried. Burial in parish church cemeteries was primarily for members of the parish, and burial in places such as monasteries may have needed money or personal connections. The Hospital could have provided the right place. It could take in people who did not belong to a specific parish; giving them burial in consecrated ground would have been another important form of charity it could provide.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • PSN 332 was chosen for biographical writeup as an example of people from elsewhere in Cambridge.

  • Geochemical sourcing is good at identifying people who aren’t from Cambridge, but less good at telling exactly where they were from. The challenge with her is not leaving it entirely vague, but not going beyond the evidence. It also depends upon assuming that everyone is typical, so that you can be guided by probabilities, saying (for instance) that somewhere around the North Sea is more likely than somewhere in Cornwall or Wales; you can never absolutely exclude a one-off single traveller from anywhere, but it may not be very likely.

  • We have given her a pseudonym which is not remarkably common in England, but which might work for various possible places of origin.

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