Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Reading's online course, Archaeology: from Dig to Lab and Beyond . Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds So here we’re going to look at what the study of human bones can tell us about Medieval life. The medieval period had a series of major climatic and disease events. In 900 AD, people were living in an almost Mediterranean climate known as the Medieval Warm Period. But this changed in 1300 when colder, wetter climate led to a series of crop failures. in 1315 to ‘18, we know there were a series of famines that resulted in the death of between 10% to 15% of the population. Many of these were rural peasants who were dying of disease known as ergotism. This is caused by fungus that grows on crops and is eaten by starving people and cattle who die of poisoning.

Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds By 1348, the Black Death hits Europe. 50% of the population died. It’s thought that most of the people who were dying were young children and the elderly as their poorer immune systems made them susceptible to disease. By 1470, the population has began to recover from the series of climatic and disease events. And by 1520, the population has begun to increase, and we start to see the development of urbanisation and industrialisation in the medieval period.

Skip to 1 minute and 23 seconds What do we know about the living conditions of the medieval period? We have a vision of polluted towns and idyllic rural situation with people living in very polluted environments in the town where lots of fresh air and green open spaces existed in the rural populations. We have lots of laws or edicts about mending leaky middens into towns. This suggests that sewage is spreading from one house to another. There are also reports and complaints of pigs roaming the streets and attacking small children. And contaminated water supplies were known to exist, particularly the Thames and the Ouse in York. Medieval people tended not to drink water.

Skip to 2 minutes and 4 seconds They would prefer to drink beer or wine if they could afford it in order to avoid contaminated water supplies. We also know that they had, compared to modern standards, a lack of personal hygiene. And this again was probably resulting from their aversion to water. They usually had a bath once a year or on special occasions, because they felt that bathing was bad for their health. In 1332, Edward the third described York as the most foul smelling city in the kingdom. However when we take these written descriptions of what it was like to live in a medieval urban town, we need to be aware of Victorian propaganda.

Skip to 2 minutes and 45 seconds A lot of these documents were being written by Victorians who were trying to explain to their populations how they were lucky to live in such a progressive Victorian city, and that in the medieval period, life was nasty, brutish, and short.

Skip to 3 minutes and 2 seconds Where we really get information what it’s like to live in the medieval period is from the skeletal data. We have human skeletons that come from many different samples. so those from general cemeteries or lay cemeteries as well as more specialist areas like priories and nunneries, war cemeteries, plague pits, and even religious burial grounds such as Jewish burial grounds. We even have access to some royal skeletal remains or very high status individuals from castles. When we study the skeletal data, we like to look at our skeletons within their context. Calvin Wells was the pioneer of human skeletal analysis in the UK.

Skip to 3 minutes and 43 seconds And he wrote that, “The pattern of disease or injury that affects any group of people is never a matter of chance. It is invariably the expression of the stresses and strains to which they’re exposed, and a response to everything in their environment and behaviour.” And this is how we choose to interpret our data.

Skip to 4 minutes and 3 seconds So I study paleaopathology, which is the study of ancient diseases. And this allows us to map diseases through time and space and compare diseases in different populations.

Skip to 4 minutes and 16 seconds In order to do this though, you need to be able to recognise the macroscopic and radiographic appearance of disease. So macroscopic is really just looking at the bones and identifying lesions or taking X-rays to examine the lesions more closely.

Skip to 4 minutes and 32 seconds In order to show up on the skeleton though, a disease needs to be chronic. It takes about 10 days for bone cells to turn over and for the skeleton to show any visible sign of disease. So diseases such as typhoid, the plague, typhus, and cholera that we know were rife in the medieval period only affect the soft tissue because people were dying too soon for the bone to actually react. So although we know these diseases were there, we can usually only identify them indirectly through the appearance of mass graves in cemeteries that suggest an epidemic. Normally though we cannot determine the cause of death.

Skip to 5 minutes and 10 seconds Sometimes we find wounds, trauma to skulls in the body that suggest somebody had a fatal injury. But most of the time, we don’t know why someone died. And in fact the very fact that we can see a disease on the skeleton suggests that this disease didn’t kill them.

Skip to 5 minutes and 28 seconds A lot of what we know about medieval health comes from the osteological evidence, which was compiled in 2003 by Roberts and Cox. And this is a good source if you want to go and find out more about particular periods and what we know about health in those times. In general though, they discovered that in the early medieval period, there was an increase in infections and the number and varieties of congenital diseases, which are diseases people were born with. Babies born with different kinds of diseases usually suggest internal stress, and by its same token, maternal stress. But also we start to see cancers appearing in the skeletal record. In general though, people in the early medieval period were relatively healthy.

Skip to 6 minutes and 14 seconds By the later medieval period, you have urbanisation, and economic differences begin to grow. So there are greater divides between the rich and the poor in the population. There are fluctuations in the population, mostly due to famine and Black Death we discovered earlier, but also climatic changes that affect health. Venereal syphilis also first appears in the skeletal record, as does leprosy and tuberculous will become increasing social problems.

Medieval life

In this video, Mary Lewis explains how the study of human bones can tell us about medieval life.

In the next Step we will look at the new data we have on adolescent (10-25) health in the medieval period to try and unpick a more detailed picture of what life was like for a medieval teenager.

Image of Wharram Percy © Historic England Archive

Image of the skeletal data ©The National Library of Medicine

Image of Rowlandson’s ‘The English Dance of Death’ (Gemmell 20) used by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Archaeology: from Dig to Lab and Beyond

University of Reading