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Project Number: 766

Project pseudonym: "Dickon (Richard)"

Site: All Saints by the Castle

Feature/Burial Number: 82

Born between: 1289 and 1317

Died between: in the 1300s; probably 1349


Older man dying of plague,

probably in Black Death outbreak in 1349.

A reconstruction picture of a medieval man with bubonic plague

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

​“Dickon’s” life was shaped by the early fourteenth century – a tough time. He was born between 1289 and 1317, most likely between 1295 and 1303. As a child or young man, he lived through the worst recorded famine of medieval Europe, the great famine of 1315-20, when harvests all over England failed for several years in a row, and 10-20% of the population died. He may have been at any age between new-born and his late 20s during the famine, and there is a strong likelihood that it affected at least some of his growth period. This may well be why, at 160 cm, he was among the very shortest men studied.

Nevertheless, “Dickon” grew up – small, but stocky and muscular, with a large, prominent nose. By young adulthood, his arms were strongly built. He may have been built like a wrestler; his bones are strongly marked by his muscles throughout his body, but particularly in his shoulders and upper body, and his hips. He clearly did heavy physical work. Living to a relatively advanced age, between 45 and 60 years old, he developed osteoarthritis in his elbows, hips and his left knee, as well as tearing a muscle in his right arm, losing most of his molars, wearing down his front teeth severely (probably from chewing with them), and fracturing his right big toe. His diet was typical for people in his neighbourhood. When he died, he had low-level, active infections in his sinus, thorax and legs – perhaps all manifestations of a single, systemic infection.

“Dickon” lived in All Saints by the Castle parish in the last decades of its existence. Though it was an outlying area of the town, it was not entirely without incident. On several occasions – four times in 1346, for example – prisoners who had broken out of jail at the castle a few hundred yards away fled to its church to claim sanctuary.

The most notorious event of the fourteenth century was the Black Death, an epidemic which swept through Europe in 1347-51, killing between a third and a half of the population. It hit Cambridge hard in 1349, killing more than half the population in some villages and neighbourhoods. It killed townspeople and academics alike; three masters of the Hospital of St. John in a row died in 1349, as well as many priests, monks, friars and scholars. There were small mass burials; at least five people were buried in a pit next to St. Benet’s Church in the centre of town. In the parish of All Saints by the Castle, so many people died that the zone was partially depopulated and, after the subsequent epidemic in 1362, the church was abandoned, and the parish was merged with an equally devastated neighbouring one.

Plague doesn’t leave traces in the skeleton; bone remodels slowly, and plague kills people too quickly to change their bones. Until recently, archaeologists could identify people dying of plague only when they were buried in mass burials (the so-called 'plague pits'), which are actually quite rare and certainly don't account for the perhaps two million people the plague killed in England. Recently, however, it has become possible to identify the plague bacterium’s DNA in the skeletons of its victims.

“Dickon’s” skeleton contains plague DNA: he was one of the thousands who died from it in Cambridge. It is most likely that he died in the first and biggest wave of plague, the Black Death itself (1348-9), rather than the follow-up, less severe plague 14 years later. After the first victims in the area, people would have known what to expect. With little warning, “Dickon” would have begun to experience fever, thirst, muscle spasms, and delirium. Death came swiftly; the plague usually killed its victims in 2-3 days at most. He would have died at home, perhaps with some family or neighbours trying to care for him, others perhaps having fled. As death approached, it was critically important for a priest to hear his confession, grant him absolution and give him last rites; his afterlife was at stake. When “Dickon” died, he was buried in his local church cemetery, in the same way as he would have been before the epidemic. Though he died at a moment of crisis which threatened to overwhelm society, this is not apparent in his burial; as with almost all the plague dead, the survivors fought their fear and anguish to bring the dead to a proper burial and keep their world in order.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • PSN 766 died of bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis). Given his general date range, this would place his death either in 1348-9 or in the 1362 epidemic; after 1365, the cemetery of All Saints was closed and no more burials were made there. It seems most likely that he was killed in the 1348-9 plague rather than the 1362 one. The earlier one killed half of Cambridge’s population; the later plague killed about 10-20% of the smaller population of remaining survivors. This means that for every person plague killed in 1362, it killed 5-10 people in 1348. Thus, a plague victim who could date to either episode is overwhelmingly likely to date to 1348-9 – or even more so if being exposed to the earlier plague developed resistance in survivors and made it less likely someone would die from it later, as has sometimes been suggested.

  • He was chosen for biography to give a sense of how the plague might have affected people, and the picture thus emphasises his death – the physicality of the disease, the sociality of medieval death.

  • Given the rest of his skeletal data, it isn’t clear why he does not have Schmorl’s nodes (a very common sign of destruction to the intervertebral discs). Was it because he was small, compact and strongly muscled, and could support weights on his back? Was it because he worked a lot with his trunk and arms but didn’t actually lift heavy weights much (for instance, as a blacksmith)? We must also remember that people vary and all biological generalisations such as 'lifting heavy weights causes back damage' have a margin of error -- was it just one of those things that happen?

  • He also has slight facets on the heads of his metatarsals which suggest habitually holding his feet with the toes flexed upwards at about 135° degrees, as in kneeling with the toes flexed forwards. It isn’t clear how this fits into any of the scenarios proposed above.

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