Life in Europe during the Middle Ages was difficult and dangerous for the majority of the population. Poverty, disease, and warfare were common, and the poor and working classes bore the brunt of these hardships including more broken bones. In one medieval cemetery, more than half of all the men and 40 percent of the women had broken bones!
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To learn more about the risks and hardships people faced during those grueling times, researchers from the University of Cambridge archaeology department performed detailed X-ray studies on the skeletal remains of 267 residents of medieval Cambridge, looking for evidence of skeletal fractures . These bones were excavated from three separate burial grounds, and included men, women, and younger people who were interred between the 11 th and 14 th centuries AD.
The locations of the three cemeteries used in the Cambridge broken bone study: 1. The All Saints by the Castle Parish. 2. The Hospital of St. John the Evangelist. 3. The Augustinian Friary of Cambridge ( University of Cambridge )
Medieval Broken Bones And Economic-Social Inequality
The goal of this research was to better quantify both the absolute and relative risk of broken bones among men and women from different classes and different backgrounds, to measure the role of economic and social inequality in determining exposure to serious physical hazards.
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It was possible to make such a determination, since one of the three cemeteries was reserved primarily for laborers and the poor, while a second was the burial ground of men and women who came from more privileged backgrounds and/or were less likely to have been required to perform risky manual labor . The third cemetery hosted a more mixed population, and essentially acted as a control to provide context to the overall numbers.
As would be expected, it was the people who performed the most physically demanding yet financially unrewarding tasks who had the highest risk for broken bones and severe skeletal trauma . The overall likelihood of suffering broken bones at various ages was about 50 percent higher for the poor in comparison to the protected and the privileged.
X-rays of butterfly fractures to both femora of an adult male buried in the Augustinian friary. ( University of Cambridge )
A Deeper Look At The Statistics Of Broken Bones
The Cambridge research team examined skeletal remains excavated from cemeteries at these locations:
- The All Saints by the Castle Parish
- The Hospital of St. John the Evangelist
- The Augustinian Friary of Cambridge
Out of the 267 skeletons evaluated in total, 86 shows signs of detectable bone fractures, which represents 32 percent of the total. Viewed by sex, approximately 40 percent of men had one or more fractures, compared to 27 percent of women. The likelihood of having had a fracture first surpassed the 50 percent mark among those who were classified as mature adults, which covered the 45-60 age group.
In terms of location, the percentage of medieval residents who had experienced fractures was highest among those buried at All Saints Parish (laborers and poor people), where 44 percent of the recovered skeletons had suffered at least one broken bone during their lifetime, including 51 percent of men and 40 percent of women. Significantly, the risk of fracture for men buried at All Saints Parish rose faster by age than at any other location, as 55 percent had already suffered at least one fracture by their middle adult years (ages 26 to 44).
“Those buried in All Saints were among the poorest in town, and clearly more exposed to incidental injury,” explained Jenna Dittmar, the lead author of the article that introduced these findings in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology . “At the time, the graveyard was in the hinterland where urban met rural. Men may have worked in the fields with heavy ploughs pulled by horses or oxen, or lugged stone blocks and wooden beams in the town. Many of the women in All Saints probably undertook hard physical labors such as tending livestock and helping with harvest alongside their domestic duties.”
In contrast, the numbers that had suffered fractures at the friary and hospital burial grounds were 29 and 26 percent, respectively.
The burial grounds at the friary were reserved for members of the Augustinian order, and for wealthier individuals who paid for the privilege of being buried on their well-maintained grounds. There were quite a few poor people and laborers of all types buried at the hospital burial grounds, but these included many individuals who were suffering from serious illness or other chronic health maladies that prevented them from performing physical labor . In addition, the hospital burial grounds were yet another location where wealthier individuals sometimes paid for luxury burials.
But even at these locations, between one-quarter and one-third of all the recovered skeletons showed signs of broken bones and fractures.
“We can see this inequality recorded on the bones of medieval Cambridge residents,” said Dittmar. “However, severe trauma was prevalent across the social spectrum. Life was toughest at the bottom—but life was tough all over.”
The remains many individuals buried at the Augustinian friary. ( University of Cambridge )
Why Cambridge Was Chosen For The Broken Bone Cemetery Study
The Cambridge researchers chose to study cemeteries in their own backyard not because it was convenient. They chose medieval Cambridge as a data source because it was a socially and economically diverse and differentiated community, which offered an excellent cross-sectional view of how English society functioned and was structured at the time.
With a population that ranged between 2,500 and 4,000 throughout the medieval period, Cambridge featured a thriving market economy, bolstered by its proximity to the River Cam and its consequent identity as a bustling inland river port. Cambridge was also a university town, and the presence of the college helped draw an educated population to the city, along with multiple chapters of the many revered religious orders that were active at that time. Cambridge was surrounded by ample fertile agricultural land, and despite job opportunities available in the city the majority of the population in the area still made their living off the land.
Overall, it is estimated that more than 50 trades were practiced in Cambridge during the height of its medieval-era prosperity. Its population diversity was highly representative of medieval society as a whole, making it an ideal excavation site for archaeological researchers seeking a broad-based understanding of lifestyles and living conditions during that period.
Among the injuries that were discovered, the majority were traceable to accidents or occupational hazards. Overall, about four percent of the skeletal traumas discovered were believed to be linked to intentionally inflicted violence (which may or may not have been the final cause of death).
Crime, domestic violence, and warfare would have been the main causes of most of these injuries. While this statistic does show that the risk of exposure to violence for medieval Cambridge residents was real and not insignificant, it is clear that the challenges of daily living posed the greatest threat to people’s physical health and survival.