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Project Number: 90

Project pseudonym: "Maria"

Site: Hospital of St. John

Feature/Burial Number: 360

Born between: 1358 and 1374

Died between: 1371 and 1404

Young adult woman from an impoverished background, ill and cared for in the Hospital, where she spent a significant portion of her life.

Reconstruction image of medieval woman in Cambridge

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

“Maria” was born between about 1358 and 1374. She lived for about two decades, dying a young woman sometime between 1371 and 1404.


Growing up in or around Cambridge, she had a rocky childhood; her teeth show that she experienced at least five episodes of growth interruption between the ages of two and about ten. Her childhood diet may have included little animal protein, and, perhaps affected by poor nutrition and/or chronic illness, she reached a very low adult stature of 148 cm. As an adult, “Maria” was quite small, with a narrow face. A dental abscess and lost molar may have given her some pain. Her arms, however, were strong; her upper arm bone architecture, formed in late adolescence and early adulthood, is very robust on both sides, and her arm muscles are strongly marked; it seems likely that she engaged in strenuous physical work.


During her young adulthood, she suffered from serious illness. Tuberculosis actively affected her spine and pelvis, with two vertebrae collapsing and both hip joints altered; with such extensive changes to her bones, it is very likely that her whole body was also affected, leading to chronic coughing, limitation of activity, and making her increasingly weak and unable to continue working. It is likely that this illness led to her being taken into the care of the Hospital of St. John. The Hospital was not a place providing medical care; it existed to help the poor. It seems likely either that “Maria” had no family to care for her, or that they were too poor to do so.

In the last years of her life, her diet appears to have included more animal protein than during her childhood. This probably reflects her coming to live in the Hospital, with a balanced, nutritious institutional diet including meat and fish, as some other inmates of the Hospital show such an improvement in their final years too. Since it takes some time for a change in diet to register in bones' composition, this suggests that she lived in the Hospital for some time, perhaps up to five or ten years, suffering increasingly severely from tuberculosis, which may have killed her in the end. She died at between 18 and 25 years old.

“Maria” is an individual, but she also represents a type; there were half a dozen others in the Hospital cemetery we studied who tended to be quite small, poorly nourished in childhood, ill (especially with tuberculosis) and who died relatively young. Such individuals may have been identified by the Hospital administrators as particularly deserving of charitable support.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • She has been depicted ill and cared for in the Hospital, as this represents a significant portion of her life and the one we have the most information on.

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