top of page

Project Number: 99

Project pseudonym: "Thomas"

Site: Hospital of St. John

Feature/Burial Number: 372

Born between: 1295 and 1374

Died between: 1330 and 1400


Probably a University scholar.

A reconstruction image of a medieval scholar at Cambridge University

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

“Thomas” was not a native of Cambridge, or indeed of East Anglia at all. When he was a child, he lived in a very different geological setting; this is revealed by the strontium isotope values in his tooth enamel. There are many places in Britain which would fit these values, although it is not possible to definitely identify where. The closest is a zone between Nottingham and Doncaster, about 120-170 km (75-100 miles) away. Areas further afield include parts of Cornwall, Devon, Wales, Morecambe Bay, and areas of Scotland – not to mention Normandy, Brittany, Central France, and some parts of Ireland and Norway. Wherever he was, he seems to have had an unexceptional, perhaps prosperous childhood, growing to above average stature with little sign of illness or want.


“Thomas’s” arms give an important clue as to why he moved to Cambridge. His upper arm bones are highly symmetrical. In the medieval people we studied, men tended to have asymmetrical arms, with the right arm more strongly built. Women tended to have symmetrical arms; even when they were quite robust, both sides were robust. This probably reflects the nature of the stresses put upon them, with men more likely to do specialised tasks working with specific tools. But there were about ten men who bucked this clear pattern. Between 1200-1500, all but one of them were buried in the Hospital of St. John’s; the exception was a friar. Compared with the other people buried at the Hospital, they tended not to have signs of childhood poverty, they were taller than the average Hospital male, they sometimes ate a more enriched diet, and they lived slightly longer.


Who were these men? The overall form of the arm bones develops mostly during late adolescence and early adulthood. Most men developed asymmetric arms doing manual work at that stage of life. These men seem not to have done so. It probably wasn’t because they had some long-term chronic illness and were unable to work, since they show little signs of incapacity and they often lived for many years into adulthood, even old age. Instead, these males had some other pattern of work during that period, one that did not involve heavy manual labour. Such as, for instance, studying.


One of the explicit purposes of the Hospital, specified in its charter, was to provide support for “poor scholars”. Unless they earned money by teaching or had family money, university scholars had little income. In the heavily clerical medieval university, studying glorified God. Helping scholars to live and study was a recognised form of charity. Of course, if you were inclined to help a scholar, you could simply give him money for his room and board, or donate money, land or goods to one of the colleges. As a live-in charity for those destitute and unable to work, the Hospital didn’t support working scholars. Instead, its role was to provide places for the studious to live when they became too old, too ill or too poor to work as scholars anymore. After all, many of them would not have family homes or religious houses they could retire to. Particularly in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as the University became larger and more active in the town, at any given time, there were probably a couple of ex-scholars among the Hospital’s dozen or so residents – the men in our sample with the symmetrical arms.

"Thomas's" exotic origin supports this interpretation; university study was the main reason for men from distant places to come to Cambridge. Conversely, if “Thomas” was a university scholar, this potentially helps us narrow down his origins a little. In the Middle Ages, there were few foreigners at Cambridge, so (for example) it isn’t likely that he came from Norway or France. England was carved up geographically. Someone from the West Midlands, southern England and the Southwest was almost certain to go to Oxford. Most people from East Anglia studied at Cambridge. London was up for grabs. Of the areas “Thomas” might have come from geologically, this tends to rule out the Southwest and Wales. But Cambridge had a fair number of scholars from the North, particularly from the Diocese of Lincoln (which included a big swathe of the East Midlands, the Peak District and Humberside) and the Diocese of York (which extended across most of Yorkshire and Lancashire and Cumbria). We cannot definitely rule out anywhere or identify his origins with certainty. But combining the historic information with the geological information, the most obvious possibility is that “Thomas” came from the area between Nottingham and Doncaster, perhaps around Mansfield, Worksop, Retford or similar towns.

So “Thomas” may have grown up in the hills east of the Peak District, come to Cambridge as a student, and stayed on as a professional scholar in a hall, hostel, or college. In the University, he would have been understood as a northerner, easily identifiable by his regional accent (in English, if not in Latin!). This way of life may have lasted between five and ten years. The principal trace it left upon his skeleton may be the facets on some of his footbones which reflect holding his feet habitually in a kneeling posture. Then, presumably, he became incapacitated in some way and unable to continue, and was given a place to live in the Hospital. It is not clear what the nature of his incapacity was. Many of his bones show the traces of several distinct episodes of infectious disease. It was probably not tuberculosis, as it lacks several characteristic features of that disease, but several common bacterial infections might fit what we see. It was active in his lower legs when he died. What we see on the bones wasn’t sufficient to cause his death, but it may have been associated with more serious infections in muscles, organs or nervous system. However, such infections were common in medieval Cambridge and some entirely different medical problem may be responsible. He died between 26 and 35 years old, having spent probably about half his life in the pursuit of knowledge.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • We chose PSN 99 for a biography because we wanted to include a probable university scholar, since the University was an important aspect of the medieval town. We actually would have preferred one who was local to East Anglia, as eastern England was the most common place for scholars to come from, but practical considerations intervened: we wanted to do a facial reconstruction as well, and he was the only one in this group whose skull was well-enough preserved to reconstruct a face from.

  • This biography results from combining several distinct lines of inference: the question of his origins, based upon strontium isotopes in his tooth enamel, and identifying university scholars, based upon CT scans of his humeral architecture. Both seem likely to be correct, but we’ve tried not to bring in further inferences (for instance, about his infectious condition and reason for being in the Hospital). Making inferential arguments always means playing the odds, and the challenge is knowing when to stop.

  • It also shows the strengths and weaknesses of bioarchaeology. Scholars were not buried with their library cards in their hands: there are no burial samples containing only identified university scholars, and so we have no external way of knowing the 'right answer' and verifying whether males with symmetrical arms are indeed university scholars. This means that this interpretation carries all the usual risks of inference; it is only as solid as its assumptions, background information and logic are. But it also means that it can add new insights: if we already knew who was a scholar and who was not from some other source, identifying them from their skeletons would be mostly a party trick, rather than adding new information we could not know before.

bottom of page