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Project Number: 524

Project pseudonym: "Adam"

Site: Augustinian Friary

Feature/Burial Number: 341

Born between: 1295 and 1331

Died between: 1320 and 1380

Younger friar, robust, possibly studious.

A reconstruction image of two medieval friars in Cambridge

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

​“Adam” was born between 1295 and 1331. He grew up in the Cambridge area in the early fourteenth century, with a normal childhood. As he grew, two of the vertebrae in his upper back were fused together, a relatively common growth variation, which would not have been noticeable in life. As an adolescent, sometime between 1310 and 1345, he would have entered the Augustinian order. He was not poorly nourished as a child – perhaps he missed the great famine of 1315-20, or his family was prosperous enough that it didn’t affect him. Nevertheless, his diet seems to have changed between his childhood and adulthood, reflecting the transition to the institutionalised diet which we see in most of the friars, such as PSN 522 “Eudes”. In his case, this dietary change, with increased animal proteins, may have coincided with his adolescent growth spurt; he has relatively long legs compared to his arms, which suggests that much of his growth occurred late in his youth. He grew to about 179 cm, 4-5 cm above the town average, a tall, robustly built youth with a square jaw and small teeth in excellent condition.

“Adam” was left-handed. Unusually, his left arm is more strongly built than his right arm, reflecting heavier use. Remarkably, his clothing corroborates this. While ordinary people were buried unclothed and wrapped in a shroud, friars were buried robed and belted in their habits (very conveniently, this lets us distinguish friars from lay-people who were buried in their cemetery). On all other friars' burials, the buckle points to the right side; “Adam’s” points to the left side, suggesting that he habitually wore his belt the other way round. His belt may tell another story as well. Other friars wore belts with plain metal buckles. “Adam’s” belt buckle was costly and imported, carved of elephant ivory. Like all mendicant orders, Augustinians prescribed personal poverty and uniformity of dress, but, as "Adam" shows, individuals with a little wealth and a taste for more elegant appearance could often find ways to express it through minor accessories and footwear. Indeed, Adam and many other Friars suffered from bunions, a condition that can be caused by wearing fashionable, pointed shoes which constricted their toes. Friars were sometimes reprimanded for dressing fashionably rather than plainly; was “Adam” one?

Moreover, such carved ivory objects as his belt buckle were usually made in Paris; they were certainly more available there than they would have been in Cambridge or even London. “Adam’s” ivory buckle may have been brought from Paris by somebody who had visited there. Paris was the seat of the Augustinian order’s major study centre, and there is historical evidence that scholars from England studied there at this time; it is certainly possible that promising young scholars from England would have been sent there for a year or two to study. Was his ostentatious ivory belt buckle a memento of his time spent studying in Paris (and was this why he was permitted to wear it)?

A promising start to a friar’s career – but it did not last. After 5-10 years as an Augustinian, – long enough for its nutritional regime to register in his bone chemistry – “Adam” died. Although evidence is not enough to diagnose what killed him, incipient changes to his vertebrae suggest some chronic infectious disease. He also had an impacted wisdom tooth erupting while he died. That would not have killed him, though he might have wished it would. When he died, he was buried in the Friary’s cemetery amidst his brethren, in the classic position with his hands folded on his chest as if in prayer.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • We’ve chosen PSN 522 ("Eudes") and 524 to illustrate different sides of life as a religious professional. The image bringing them together is intended to give a sense of the social nature of such communities.

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