Project Number: 525
Project pseudonym: "Agnes"
Site: Augustinian Friary
Feature/Burial Number: 314
Born between: 1450 and 1478 (probably after 1450)
Died between: 1500 and 1538
Wealthy older woman buried in the Friary’s Chapter House, a high-status place.
Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley
“Agnes” is among the latest people in the sample. She was born in the mid-late fifteenth century (probably between 1450 and 1478). Living to old age, she died between 1500 and 1538. She lived through some of the final dramas of the Middle Ages, such as the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudor dynasty. Locally, she witnessed the growth, under royal and aristocratic patronage, of the late medieval colleges which still dominate the townscape, and she died during the reign of Henry VIII, at the threshold of the modern era. Shortly after she died, the Friary where she was buried was forcibly dissolved, along with the rest of England’s monasteries, friaries and nunneries – which, in Cambridge, were mostly absorbed into colleges.
As a young girl, “Agnes” had an adequate childhood, with no signs of insufficiency. She grew to 158 cm, 2-3 cm above average stature for Cambridge women. We know little of her activities as an adult, though she broke a rib at some point, and like many people in medieval Cambridge she suffered from chronic sinus inflammation. Her nutrition was good, with her adult isotope values among the highest for women in medieval Cambridge – unsurprisingly, as she almost certainly lived in a prosperous family. A bunion in her left foot suggests that she wore fashionable pointed shoes. “Agnes” shows the maladies of age; with some dental disease, osteoarthritis in her back, hips, shoulders and feet, and a herniated vertebral disc in her back, she was well-supplied with aches and pains to grumble about. As with other older women in medieval Cambridge (presumably as a result of reduced metabolic activity) these resulted in unhealed hairline fractures in her vertebrae that would have hurt chronically.
In her last years, "Agnes" was not well, suffering from systematic inflammation throughout her body, which resulted in heavy deposition of new bone throughout her long bones, especially in her legs. The exact medical cause is unknown, but it is likely to have been a long-term, chronic infection of some kind. She may have sought medical treatment for this ailment, or perhaps used folk magic to try to help it. A copper alloy jeton (a coin-shaped token) with a rose-and-orb design was found by her lower legs, a heavily affected area. Such tokens were sometimes used as healing amulets.
When she died, “Agnes” was given an unusually elaborate burial. Ordinarily townsfolk would have been buried in their parish church’s cemetery. But it was not uncommon for people to be buried at more prestigious places such as monasteries and nunneries, particularly if they had a long-standing family connection to one (for instance, if they were benefactors of the place, and/or kinfolk of some of the monks, friars or nuns, which in itself might suggest a prosperous family background). Such burials were usually accompanied by a substantial donation, and burying people was a valuable source of income to these religious orders.
As a large, prosperous, centrally located and internationally-connected institution, the Augustinian Friary would have been a desired place for burial. Indeed, even among the townspeople buried at the Friary, "Agnes" received an unusual burial. She was buried not in the cemetery, but inside the Friary building itself, in the Chapter House, the room where friars met for their regular meetings. Burying someone in the Chapter House was a complex task which required taking up an elaborate tiled floor, digging the grave beneath it, and carefully re-laying the tiles. Only a handful of people were buried there, including few women. “Agnes” is likely to have come from a prosperous, well-connected family, part of Cambridge’s upper stratum of senior craftsmen and property owners, and perhaps from a family with long-term ties to the Friary.
Notes on interpretation/open questions
• Is the interpretation of her as a prosperous townswoman, based mostly upon her burial context, compatible with the idea of Schmorl’s nodes and stress fractures in her back? We discussed this among our team, and there are several possibilities. There may be multiple medical reasons why she might have had weakened, osteoporotic bones liable to vertebral fractures. She may have been prosperous and still actively doing heavy work (for instance, if she ran her own business brewing and selling ale). More elaborate scenarios might seen her buried in the Chapter House because she was particularly devout, and for someone who was prosperous to voluntarily undertake physical labour might have formed part of this. Or, perhaps her elaborate burial was an upwardly-mobile family’s claim to a prosperous status which they did not in fact have – rather like Chaucer’s merchant who was such an excellent merchant that nobody could tell that in fact he was actually in debt.