‘Bone biographies’ reveal what life was like for Black Death survivors in medieval England

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Scientists have used the remains of some 500 people to create a series of “bone biographies” that provide a glimpse inside the ordinary lives of plague survivors of the English city of Cambridge.

The skeletons, which came from a series of archaeological digs that began in the 1970s, date back to between 1000 and 1500.

During that medieval era, Cambridge was home to a few thousand people. The bubonic plague — known as the Black Death — came to the city between 1348 and 1349, killing 40% to 60% of its population, according to the study.

Archaeologists used radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis to study the bones of townsfolk, scholars, friars and merchants, eventually focusing on 16 people by examining their DNA, bodily trauma, activities and diets to paint a fuller picture of their existence, called osteobiographies. The findings appear in a study published Thursday in the journal Antiquity.

“An osteobiography uses all available evidence to reconstruct an ancient person’s life,” said lead study author John Robb, a professor at Cambridge University, in a statement. “Our team used techniques familiar from studies such as Richard III’s skeleton, but this time to reveal details of unknown lives — people we would never learn about in any other way.”

An illustration shows a typical marketplace in medieval Cambridge. - Mark Gridley/After the Plague
An illustration shows a typical marketplace in medieval Cambridge. - Mark Gridley/After the Plague

The bone biographies are available on Cambridge University’s After the Plague project website.

“The importance of using osteobiography on ordinary folk rather than elites, who are documented in historical sources, is that they represent the majority of the population but are those that we know least about,” said study coauthor Dr. Sarah Inskip, researcher and osteoarchaeologist at the University of Leicester, in a statement.

Extracting stories from bones

The five-year After the Plague project, which began in 2016, focused on investigating burials from Cambridge’s Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, the medieval parish church of All Saints by the Castle, and the Augustinian Friary. Together, the bones tell a collective story about a cross section of people living in medieval Cambridge and the hardships they faced.

The researchers gave their subjects pseudonyms based on records from the time.

“Death and time ensure anonymity for our sources, but we wanted to them to feel relatable,” Robb said.

The osteobiographies provide windows into the lives of people such as Anne, a woman with repeated injuries that caused her to hobble on a shortened right leg, and Eudes, a friar with a square jaw who enjoyed a rich diet and suffered from gout.

The bones also tell surprising stories, such as that of Edmund, who suffered from leprosy but may not have been diagnosed and wasn’t ostracized. He lived among the general population before being buried in a rare wooden coffin, rather than a simple burial shroud. And then there was Wat, who survived the plague and died as an older man with cancer.

Wat was a resident of the charitable Hospital of St. John, which was founded to house the poor and infirm as a type of medieval benefits system.

“Like all medieval towns, Cambridge was a sea of need,” Robb said. “A few of the luckier poor people got bed and board in the hospital for life. Selection criteria would have been a mix of material want, local politics, and spiritual merit.”

A dozen or so people could stay at the hospital at a time and sometimes lived there for years. The hospital was founded in 1195 and lasted for hundreds of years before St. John’s College replaced it in 1511. It was founded to help the poor, rather than provide medical care, and statutes prevented the limited staff from taking in those who could not care for themselves.

This illustration depicts Wat, who survived the Black Death and died of cancer as an elderly man. - Mark Gridley/After the Plague
This illustration depicts Wat, who survived the Black Death and died of cancer as an elderly man. - Mark Gridley/After the Plague

“We know that lepers, pregnant women and the insane were prohibited, while piety was a must,” Robb said. The hospital residents were required to pray for the souls of the hospital benefactors, Robb said. “A hospital was a prayer factory.”

While many of the skeletons belonged to locals who lived in Cambridge or surrounding villages, three people buried at the hospital’s cemetery appeared to have traveled great distances to reach the city. One of them was a woman named Christiana.

An analysis of her bone chemistry suggests she came from as far as Norway. The researchers aren’t sure what brought her to Cambridge as a young adult, but it was likely for a short-term trip involving trade, traveling with merchant family members, or attending the annual Stourbridge Fair, one of the largest fairs in England held on the outskirts of the city.

Sometime during her visit, Christiana died. Her bones don’t reveal injury or severe chronic disease, but a rapid infection may have killed her.

While the hospital didn’t take in short-term residents for medical care, Christiana was laid to rest in the cemetery’s consecrated ground as a form of charity, according to the project.

Life in medieval times

Analyzing each skeleton gave the researchers insights into the diets of Cambridge’s residents, the physical toll of their daily lives, and any illnesses or injuries they endured. The bones revealed how tough life could be.

For example, half of those buried in the All Saints cemetery did not survive childhood. And children buried in the hospital cemetery were small for their age, showing signs of anemia, injury and illness such as tuberculosis.

This skull belonged to Dickon, who died of the plague. - After the Plague
This skull belonged to Dickon, who died of the plague. - After the Plague

The hospital residents bore traces of harsh childhoods shaped by famine and widespread diseases. But things often changed once they came to stay at the hospital, showing they were served a balanced and nutritious diet that allowed many to improve in their final years.

Because it can take years for dietary changes to be reflected in bones, the analysis showed that some residents, such as Maria, may have lived there for five to 10 years. Maria experienced illness from the time she was young, and likely died of tuberculosis between the ages of 18 and 25.

Things were different for the men at the Augustinian Friary, who were on average an inch taller than the townspeople and enjoyed a diet filled with meat and fish.

Studying arm bones also revealed a population of early university scholars buried in the hospital cemetery. The townsmen all had strongly developed right arms, reflecting the manual or craft labor of their trade, but 10 male skeletons stood out.

“These men did not habitually do manual labour or craft, and they lived in good health with decent nutrition, normally to an older age. It seems likely they were early scholars of the University of Cambridge,” Robb said. “University clerics did not have the novice-to-grave support of clergy in religious orders. Most scholars were supported by family money, earnings from teaching, or charitable patronage. Less well-off scholars risked poverty once illness or infirmity took hold. As the university grew, more scholars would have ended up in hospital cemeteries.”

Members of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit work on the excavation of the Hospital of St. John in 2010. - Cambridge Archaeological Unit
Members of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit work on the excavation of the Hospital of St. John in 2010. - Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Some skeletons belonged to those who did not survive the plague, such as Dickon, who died between 45 and 60 years old. After becoming ill, he likely lived only for two to three days, sheltering at home before succumbing to the Black Death. But those who cared for him made sure he was buried properly in the local church cemetery, according to the project.

While the Black Death was responsible for claiming thousands of lives, it wasn’t the greatest threat, the study authors said. Chronic infectious diseases such as tuberculosis affected populations across Europe.

“Everyday diseases, such as measles, whooping cough and gastrointestinal infections, ultimately took a far greater toll on medieval populations,” Robb said.

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