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Project Number: 335

Project Nickname: "Anne"

Site: Hospital of St. John

Feature/Burial Number: 904

Born between: 1249 and 1265

Died between: 1296 and 1323

Older woman whose life was changed by serious injury but who remained active.

A reconstruction image of an older woman in medieval Cambridge

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

“Anne” was born in the mid-thirteenth century, between 1249 and 1265. A local girl, she consumed a diet typical for a child in the town and had a few growth interruptions as a child. She reached adulthood as a blue-eyed, brown-haired young woman, her front teeth slightly crowded, and at 154 cm, she was slightly below the town average. Her genes gave her an elevated risk of sepsis and hepatitis, though there is no evidence that she contracted these conditions.

The later thirteenth century was generally prosperous for Cambridge, but also at times violent. Ongoing conflict between the university and townspeople led to the punitive execution of 16 townsmen in 1261. The town was assaulted several times in 1266-7 by a rebel army sheltering in the swamps around Ely, who captured the town on one occasion, taking the opportunity to massacre some of the Jewish population (to whom its aristocratic leaders were in debt). Cambridge was a small town. These tumults would have occurred within a few hundred metres of “Anne”, and she may well have witnessed them, known their participants (and victims), or even participated in them.

As an adult, “Anne” continued to have nutrition typical of people in the town, and she shows no signs of particular ill-health or stressful activity other than accidents. What is remarkable is how many fractures she has. She is clearly what is sometimes called a 'trauma recidivist' – somebody who repeatedly suffers injuries. At least seven injuries are visible in her skeleton. She broke her right third rib, her right 10th or 11th rib, and a group of three adjacent ribs on her left side. These are all in quite separate areas of the rib cage, and most likely happened on three separate occasions. All healed well. She also broke her right forearm, which healed slightly out of position, leading to arthritic degeneration in her wrist, and she has a healed hairline fracture in her left kneecap. The largest and most obvious fracture is in her right hip; she broke her right femur neck. It healed out of position, leaving her right leg about a centimetre shorter than her left leg. This changed her gait and led to arthritis in her right hip and foot. This happened some years before her death – long enough for her legs and arms to remodel in response to her changed way of walking. Last of all, she suffered a micro-fracture of a vertebra in her lower back; unlike the other injuries, this was shortly before her death, and it remained unhealed when she died.

It is hard to imagine all these of injuries happening in a single, complicated episode. They are probably from accidents. While broken ribs are common in injuries from violence or domestic abuse, broken hips are not; her forearm fracture is typical of falls, and typical targets of violence such as her face and head are not injured. We don’t necessarily have to imagine her having a career as an acrobat; injuries are common in both medieval men and women. An accident every decade or so throughout her long life might not be out of keeping with the level of general risk in medieval Cambridge. Some of her fractures are probably also partly due to an evident loss of bone mass with advancing age. And her fractured hip might make her more prone to falling.

 

“Anne” lived to an age of 45-60 years, dying late in the thirteenth century or in the first decades of the fourteenth century (between 1296 and 1323). In her later years, she walked on her injured, shorter right leg, developing an unusual gait. Her right hip became severely arthritic, and osteoarthritis in her foot suggests that she walked with her right big toe pointed downwards, almost on tip-toe, bearing most of her weight on her left leg and using her right foot mostly to balance herself. Her arms had developed symmetrically in her growth and early adulthood, but their internal structure shows that they became asymmetrical later in life. She probably did not walk with crutches, which would have loaded both arms, but it seems certain that she walked with a cane or crutch supporting her right side, both to bear her weight on that side and to help her keep her balance.

It is likely that medieval people did not have our idea of disabled people, particularly as they were not able to correct many conditions and didn’t have social services to support people with activity-limiting conditions. Instead, walking the streets of a town such as Cambridge, one would have seen a great variety of people walking, running, limping, hobbling, or sitting. The most severely limited would have been sheltered at home in their families; the poorest would have lived as beggars. The rest would have participated in work and social life to the extent of their abilities; they were not 'disabled' so much as differently-abled. “Anne”, for example, lived her final years with an injury which caused her pain, limited her gait, and prevented her from carrying anything large or heavy (which seems to have been a central part of most women’s work). But she continued to walk with this condition rather than remaining immobile; it was a fact of her life but would not have necessarily limited all of her activities or social interaction.

The statutes of the Hospital of St. John expressly forbade them to take in 'contractis' (a poorly understood term for severely disabled people). This rule was probably made because the Hospital’s staff were limited and could deal only with residents who could care for themselves. How then did “Anne” come to live her last days in the Hospital and be buried there? Perhaps the rule was not followed, or meant something different, or she was seen as self-sufficient enough. Or perhaps her hip fracture happened after she was already living in the Hospital. In any case, she would have been given a place in the Hospital based upon poverty and social need, not upon medical need or disability. Perhaps her injuries prevented her from working to support herself and her family network broke down – she may have outlived a husband, children or relatives who could take her in.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • As the alert reader will note, we created the picture of her after generally diagnosing her condition but before a detailed analysis of her gait. On her right side, she should be resting her weight on her downwardly-curled big toe and using her stick to really support her weight rather than just stabilise herself. It does however give the sense of someone who is walking slowly and very carefully, even just to cross the gutter in the middle of the alley.

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