Project Number: 727
Project pseudonym: "Margery"
Site: All Saints by the Castle
Feature/Burial Number: 176
Born between: 1040 and 1320
Died between: 1100 and 1365
Robust physique, a hard-working woman. At death, age is catching up with her and she may not be able to do the heavy work as she used to, but she is still working.
Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley
Sometime during the long life of the church of All Saints by the Castle (1000-1365), a woman was buried in its churchyard. Her life is poorly dated, but in some ways that matters little: the story her skeleton tells could belong to any century of the Middle Ages.
“Margery” grew through an unremarkable childhood, though her diet probably contained less animal protein than her peers, perhaps being based almost entirely upon grains and vegetables. A blue-eyed girl with blond or dark blond hair, she reached an adult stature of 162 cm, close to the average for her time.
In adulthood, she broke two right ribs, which healed well but slightly out of line. By the time she died in middle to old age, her teeth were (not surprisingly) poor, with caries, periodontal disease, and many teeth lost before death. Several small cavities in one of her lower vertebrae reveals the early stages of some serious spinal infection. From maturity through to her death at between 45 and 60 years old, the principal story her skeleton tells is one of ongoing degeneration – dental decay, osteoarthritis, damage to her back. Such signs should be understood in context: medieval life was physically challenging, and the slow accumulation of such responses to the stresses of life is a sign of success, the scars of a toughened survivor living to a ripe age.
As she grew, her arms became very robust; this is evident in both the right and left arms, suggesting some strong stresses on both arms. This pattern of work continued throughout her adult life. Her bones are strongly marked by her muscles, particularly in her shoulders and arms, she suffered from osteoarthritis in her spine and both shoulders; the cartilage of her ribs had also started to ossify under accumulated mechanical stress. The most striking evidence lies in her mid-lower back. Seven vertebrae show the typical response to ruptured disks – a common thing, but not often seen so extensively as in her. Furthermore, in healthy bone, vertebrae respond to such stresses by actively remodelling to form new bone. But her vertebrae are weakened by an infectious disease, and her bone deposition has been slowing with advancing age; in three of her vertebrae, the ruptured disks have caused unhealed pressure fractures. She wouldn’t have known about structural damage to her vertebrae, but she would probably have felt chronic back pain. In her lower back, we see somebody with a lifelong pattern of strenuous physical work who is continuing at an age when her body is no longer able to keep up with it. Presumably retiring to a comfortable chair by the fireside was not an option; her work was needed.
The neighbourhood of All Saints by the Castle lay on the northern outskirts of town, closer to the great fields that surrounded the town than to the marketplace at its centre. It also encompassed the outlying farming hamlet of Howes. Much medieval women’s work – brewing, washing, dairying – involved a lot of heavy lifting and carrying. But in villages and towns throughout England, many women laboured in the fields, sometimes all year round but particularly during harvest when all available hands would be needed to gather crops. “Margery’s” strong arms and damaged back may reflect her years of work providing hauling water, carrying sheaves, and pitchforking hay.
Notes on interpretation/open questions
Her pelvis has pitting (at the left sacroiliac joint) which has traditionally been interpreted as traces of having borne at least one child, presumably implying marriage and the formation of a family. This would be unsurprising; marriage and children were assumed to be the norm for both women and men (though 10-20% of medieval women never actually married). However, anthropologists in the last two decades have questioned the reliability of such interpretations and the issue remains open.
We’ve chosen to show her doing farm work rather than urban or household work; some women in Cambridge would certainly have worked in the fields. The image has echoes of well-known medieval depictions of farm work such as the Luttrell Psalter illustrations. But it would also have been reasonable to show her working in a town setting.