top of page

Project Number: 92

Project pseudonym: "Wat (Walter)"

Site: Hospital of St. John

Feature/Burial Number: 363

Born between: 1316 and 1347

Died between: 1375 and 1475

Older man who survived the Black Death and many other events, perhaps becoming impoverished in old age.

Reconstruction image of an older man in medieval Cambridge

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

​“Wat” was probably born between 1316 and 1347. He grew up in or around Cambridge. He lived to at least 60 years old, and he died between 1375 and 1427. In his early years, he consumed more animal protein in his diet than a typical child in the town, and more than the average person who ended up in the Hospital. However, at some point he experienced a minor episode of disease or malnutrition. He grew to about 160 cm: about 6-7 cm below the average for his time. He was small and stocky, with brown eyes and dark brown or black hair.

In his adult life, “Wat” does not show many signs of heavy physical labour; he has little skeletal degeneration (osteoarthritis) for somebody of his age, aside from some in his right wrist, and he only has two lesions suggesting damaged intervertebral disks (many of the skeletons show far more, even if they died at much younger ages). We do not know what he did for a living, but it was probably not heavy manual labour. As an adult, he experienced several accidents. He broke three ribs on his left side, most likely in a fall. He also broke two bones in the palm of his right hand, probably in a single incident. Both of these happened sometime before he died, and they healed well.

He also had other wear and tear that goes with a long life. He had severe osteoarthritis in his neck. He had lost several teeth before death; a remaining tooth shows the gross caries that may have claimed some of the others, and his tooth wear shows that he had been chewing upon the stumps of teeth broken down by decay. Some of his surviving teeth had heavy deposition of calculus. Moreover, bone scans show him to be one of the frailest people in the population, perhaps from long inactivity or from cancer.

“Wat’s” diet appears to have dramatically changed in his adult life; his bones, reflecting the last decade of life, suggest that he consumed much less animal protein than when he was a child. In fact, his late-in-life isotope readings are among the lowest in the anyone studied in the entire town. This is very unusual; almost everybody else's diet seems to have remained the same or improved over their lifetime. This is particularly so for people buried at the Hospital of St. John, whose adult diet often seem noticeably improved over their childhood diet, probably because the Hospital gave them a more varied diet containing more meats, dairy and fish than most poor people lived upon. There are several possibilities. Perhaps by the end of his life, his teeth were so bad that he lived on broth, porridge and gruel. Alternatively, it is possible that he may have lived reasonably well most of his life, but fell into poverty towards the end of it, perhaps because of some inability to work. If so, he may have been taken into the supportive surroundings of the Hospital late enough in life that the Hospital’s relatively nutritious diet did not register in his bones before he died. If this is so, it may account for his presence in the Hospital; in late medieval theories of charity, people who had formerly well-off but who fell into poverty were considered to be the pauperes verecundi, the 'shame-faced poor', and were particularly deserving of charity.

“Wat” was ill and frail when he died; he had a metastatic cancer which affected his pelvis, spine, skull and other bones. Perhaps a month or so before he died, he fractured at least one vertebral body, as well as his right forearm (ulna) near the wrist and two metacarpal bones in his hand. These may have happened all together in one episode such as a fall. These bones were unhealed or only partially healed when he died, and he probably broke these bones in part because they were weakened by cancer and age-related bone loss. Although we cannot be certain, the cancer probably caused his death or at least contributed to it.

“Wat” lived through an eventful time, the later fourteenth century. As a child or young adult, he almost certainly lived through the great Black Death plague of 1348-9, seeing half the population of Cambridge – friends and family among them – dying around him. He certainly lived through at least one subsequent major epidemic, in 1362, and perhaps others in the 1370s. There was much social change in Cambridge in the later fourteenth century. Much of the town was semi-depopulated by plague. The university was expanding with the foundation of new colleges. Civil unrest appeared in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which in Cambridge also involved riots against the University and monasteries. Perhaps we can imagine him as an old man, frail but surviving to an age few achieved, reflecting upon all he has seen.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • He was chosen for biography as we wanted to present someone who survived the Black Death, as well as someone who perished in it (see PSN 766). Thus, he’s depicted as an old survivor of the Black Death and many other events, watching the world go by from the edge of the Hospital cemetery, across the road from the Hospital dormitory and chapel.

  • The suggestion that he may have been regarded as someone deserving charity specifically because of falling into poverty from former prosperity is intriguing, and reflects a medieval sense that one’s fortunes are variable and beyond an individual's control, liable to rise or fall at any time. But it depends upon a particular reading of the isotopic evidence; it’s plausible, but other readings are possible.

bottom of page