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Department of Archaeology


After the Plague: Health and History in Medieval Cambridge

This is a multi-disciplinary research project focusing on the St. John's Hospital cemetery, a medieval burial ground excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit in 2010 with an aim to learn more about health, life, and death among the medieval urban poor - particularly during the bubonic plague epidemic known as the Black Death. Through a multidisciplinary bioarchaeological approach, which has subprojects in genetics, isotopic analyses, palaeopathology, geometric morphometrics, osteoarchaeology, and archaeology, we investigate the short and long term biological and social consequences of this catastrophe on the population of Cambridge.

How do historical conditions influence our health? How does health change history? This project investigates these questions by exploring health in later medieval England. The most famous health event here was the Black Death, the bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis) epidemic of 1348 which killed between a third and a half of Europe’s population. Historians have used textual sources extensively to trace how a catastrophe of such proportions affected society, not only immediately but over the following centuries. We supplement these studies in two ways: by using bioarchaeological sources and techniques to trace consequences not accessible through historical sources (for instance, whether the well-documented rise in wages following the Black Death really was accompanied by improved nutrition and well-being), and by asking new questions. For example, do epidemic diseases affect our biological evolution as well as our social history, for instance by exerting selection on our genomes?  

Beyond investigating the Black Death, however, this project also contextualises health more broadly. We investigate a wide range of health conditions. Was the social impact and historical burden of chronic, less visible conditions such as tuberculosis actually greater than plague? And how did health affect human experience, changing the courses of lives? Bioarchaeology gives us the chance of meeting the ordinary people of the past, the great majority of medieval people who never appear in any historical record. Using osteobiographical methods, we can reconstitute the outlines of their lives in considerable detail, understanding the life choices and issues they faced. The core of our project are the 400+ burials from the Hospital of St John, Cambridge, recently excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. This represents a sample of the urban poor who ended their lives within a charitable institution – a counterbalance to most medieval skeletal populations which favour the more prosperous groups within society, and one which reveals the challenges ordinary people strove with. But this sample will be contextualised within samples from parish churches, prosperous burghers buried in more privileged contexts, and rural groups, to see how health affected people across all the strata of a medieval town. To put changes within the medieval period in perspective, a long-term series of smaller samples representing the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, Roman and Anglo-Saxon and post-medieval periods will also be analysed.

This four-year project (2017-2021), generously funded by the Wellcome Trust Biomedical Humanities Collaborative Grant programme, brings together an unusually broad range of researchers to study medieval people and their health. Key components of the project include:

  • Social osteology: signs of activity and lifestyle evident in the human skeleton, including morphological variations, enthesopathies and statistical patterns related to gender, class and specialised activity (Dr. Sarah Inskip, Dr. John Robb).
  • Palaeopathology – evidence of infectious disease, congenital  and developmental conditions, metabolic conditions, and traumatic injuries, both visible in the skeletons and radiographically (Dr. Piers Mitchell, Dr. Jenna Dittmar).
  • Ancient DNA (aDNA) extracted from the skeletons, including both human DNA used to understand population relationships and biological characteristics, and pathogen DNA used to identify infectious diseases which the people of medieval Cambridge suffered from (Dr. Toomas Kivisild, Dr. Freddi Scheib).
  • Isotopic investigations of diet and how it varied socially (using carbon and nitrogen isotopes) and of how people moved around geographically (using strontium and oxygen isotopes) (Dr. Tamsin O’Connell, Dr. Susanne Hakenbeck, Ms. Alice Rose).
  • Studies of bone architecture to see how it reflects the functional stresses of medieval lifestyles and how these varied among social groups, using CT andmicro-CT scanning combined with geometric morphometric methods (Dr. Jay Stock, Mr. Bram Mulder).

Historical contextualisation is provided by Craig Cessford, one of the most experienced archaeologists of medieval Cambridge. A unique focus of the project is close integration of the various parts; by integrating these studies during the research phase and bringing different kinds of data to bear upon common questions, bioarchaeology can become more than an accumulation of specialist studies to provide a holistic biosocial history.

To read more about ongoing work, please go to the external project website

For general enquiries, contact Prof John Robb  


Welcome Trust

Project Tags

Science, Technology and Innovation
Periods of interest: 
Geographical areas: 
Research Expertise / Fields of study: 
Human Population Biology and Health
Biomolecular Archaeology
Biological Anthropology
Heritage Studies
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