Project Number: 911
Project pseudonym: "Eadgifu"
Site: Cherry Hinton
Feature/Burial Number: 2377
Born between: 950 and 1150
Died between: 950 and 1150
Young woman moving into a rural village, possibly dying in childbirth.
Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley
“Eadgifu” lived in Hinton, a small village an hour’s walk outside Cambridge (now called Cherry Hinton). She lived between about 950 and 1150. She may have lived in the last century of Late Saxon times, or in the first century of Norman rule. It would not have made much difference to her. Although the Normans brought some visible changes – Hinton’s village church was rebuilt around the time of conquest – the basic organisation of the countryside and the routine of village life remained much the same.
It is possible that “Eadgifu” did not grow up in Hinton, but somewhere else. The giveaway here is that her childhood nitrogen isotope values are distinctly higher than her neighbours, but her carbon isotope values are not: in childhood, her diet probably included a proportion of freshwater fish that would be highly unusual among people living in Hinton. This does not have to mean moving from very far away, and she is unlikely to have moved from an area with different geology to Hinton (her strontium isotopes do not stand out). At this time, most of Cambridgeshire north of Cambridge was undrained fenland, with small settlements clustering on low islands wherever the ground rose slightly above the vast swamps, rivers and creeks. Fen-dwelling communities lived much like medieval people elsewhere did, but they had access to aquatic resources such as eels and fish. As a teenager, we may perhaps imagine her as a young woman of middle height (around 160 cm), with blonde hair and blue eyes, living in a fen-edge village.
“Eadgifu” lived to be adult, between 25 and 35 years old – an age by which most women might be expected to have married and have children, perhaps several. Sometime between childhood and young adulthood, she moved to Hinton. Why? Hinton wasn't a city like Cambridge, with opportunities for varied employment or social life; as a small farming village, it was probably much like the one she came from (though perhaps a bit drier). Instead, it is likely to have been for family reasons. DNA analysis suggests that she was second-degree kin with an adult woman also living in Hinton (PSN 945): she may have been PSN 945's paternal grandmother, paternal granddaughter, aunt (father's sister) or niece (brother's daughter). Or perhaps they were half-sisters whose father was the same but who had different mothers. "Eadgifu" may have moved to Hinton to be among kin, or perhaps she married into Hinton and PSN 945 followed her. The move probably did not involve much of a change in status; as an adult, her diet was entirely typical of the Hinton villagers.
When "Eadgifu" died, she had active inflammation inside her sinuses and inside her nasal cavity. She also had a 36-40 week old foetus, which was found in her abdominal region when her skeleton was excavated. It isn’t clear whether she died in childbirth, or died shortly before she would have given birth. If the latter, it may have been caused by some other, unrelated cause, or by the medical complications of late pregnancy (eclampsia, gestational diabetes, or infection associated with a lowered immune system). “Eadgifu” may illustrate a common story in medieval times, the risk of death in pregnancy or childbirth.
Quantifying this risk is vague, but if somewhere between one in 200 and one in 50 pregnancies ended in the death of the mother, and many women had five or more pregnancies during their reproductive years, it would be a serious risk, with somewhere between 2-10% of reproductive age women ultimately dying in childbirth. It is not surprising that women facing childbirth often prayed to holy mothers, Saint Mary and her mother Saint Anne, for protection.
Notes on interpretation/open questions
PSN 911 was chosen for biography to illustrate the possibility of death in childbirth, a real medieval life risk for women.
The picture involves a certain amount of dramatic irony, as the reader knows of her impending death, but it was intended to underline the positive aspects of motherhood as well as its hardships. It echoes medieval imagery of the Madonna, an understanding of motherhood which would have resonated strongly through many medieval contexts.
We have suggested an Anglo Saxon pseudonym for her, “Eadgifu” (which in Victorian times was revived as “Edith”), as there is a good chance that she lived before or during the Norman conquest and a Norman-derived name such as “Matilda” or "Joanna" would be inappropriate.
The narrative above doesn’t integrate the squatting facets in her ankles, and it leaves the connection between the infectious conditions evident in her skull and her possible death in childhood vague. Should it explore these routes more?
Reconstruction of kinship is based on the fact that 911 and 945 were second-degree relatives but had different mitochondrial DNA; since mitochondrial DNA is inherited through the female line, if the relative they had in common was a woman, their mitochondrial DNA would have been the same. Thus, they were related genetically through the male line.