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Project Number: 709

Project pseudonym: "Jankyn (John)"

Site: All Saints by the Castle

Feature/Burial Number: 45

Born between: 1000 and 1365

Died between: 1200 and 1365

A boy who died as a child, probably from infectious disease representing the half of the population that never made it to adulthood.

Reconstruction image of a child in medieval Cambridge

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

Sometime between 1000 and 1365, most likely after about 1200, a baby was born to a family living in an outlying neighbourhood north of the river in Cambridge. It was a boy. He grew, but slowly; by the time he was 3 or 4, he was the size of a 2-3 year old today, with thin, fragile bones. He possibly suffered from anemia, but this may reflect infectious disease or internal parasites rather than poor nutrition. A sickly child, he had a chronic infection in his left knee, with new bone forming on his leg bones. Another infection or inflammation deposited new bone inside his skull, perhaps giving him headaches. These infections were active for at least several months, and possibly much longer. Then, around 3-4 years old, he died. It may have been from these infections – perhaps meningitis, tuberculosis, sepsis, or some other infection – or from some faster, skeletally invisible killer such as smallpox, typhoid or dysentery, or perhaps from hunger or the combined effect of all of these causes. His family buried him in the consecrated ground of the All Saints by the Castle churchyard.

“Jankyn’s” brief story would have been familiar to families in town and country, in any stratum of society. It was familiar above all among poor people, whose children died in droves as disease, stress and hunger combined to weaken their immune system and undermine their health. The medical details would have varied – obstetric difficulties, respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, malaria, and viral conditions such as whooping cough, measles, and smallpox were all major killers of infants and small children. Many children, perhaps up to half of all those born, died before reaching adulthood. Particularly in the disastrous fourteenth century and onwards, a mother might have 5-10 children during her reproductive years without the population increasing as a result; and the gravediggers were always busy. To look at it another way, every medieval adult represents a success story; almost half of medieval people weren’t so fortunate.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • Though he was chosen to illustrate the c. 50% of people dying in childhood, mostly from infectious disease, we’ve opted to show him playing with other children rather than being ill or dying. Hopefully that gives more of his point of view on the world.

  • Because they are remodelling and growing so quickly, children’s skeletons often do not show much evidence of illness, activity, and so on (other than the fact itself that the person died as a child); PSN 709's skeleton is a bit unusual that it shows evidence of infection in several distinct locations. Though we cannot diagnose the specific disease(s) he had, his lesions indicate that these infections were chronic, protracted conditions rather than sudden and acute ones.

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