Evidence of Violence from a Late Black Death Cemetery

Plague Doctor via Wikimedia Commons

Plague Doctor via Wikimedia Commons

When we study history, we tend to focus on the big events. This is especially true for medieval England where history is defined by wars, plagues, famines, and major changes in political structures. Archaeology provides an important counterpoint to this perception of history as defined by big events and big names. It can give us a glimpse into daily life at different social levels, how those who lived in this period may have experienced these events, and how they effected the actual people. Events like the Black Death may have changed the world forever, but to those who were living in that period and experiencing it, life still went on. A new study by Krakowka (2015) looks more closely at the behaviors occurring between the living during a period of plague, war and famine.

Krakowka (2015) argues that the degree of violence one finds in the past is directly reflective of the overall stability of the population. In the case of 14th c. England, an era plagued by the Black Death, changing weather patterns and political upheaval, this means that violence during this period must have been quite high. While we have documentation of warfare and collective violence, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Scottish Wars of Independence and the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, less attention has been paid to patterns of interpersonal violence in this region and period. Documentary evidence supports Krakowka’s (2015) hypothesis, which suggests that 14th c. London had a recalculated value of 22.2 homicides per 100,000 people (surprising given that today’s rate is 1.6 per 100,000). While records like the London Coroner’s Rolls do record the violence, they are often incomplete, biased, and are limited to violence that occurred in death. Analysis of skeletal remains from this period can help correct for this lack of data, and reveal a more nuanced interpretation of what was happening in this period.

The sample includes individuals primarily from the cemetery at the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces. King Edward III commissioned the construction of the abbey in 1350 CE, although royal favor for the site declined in the 15th c. The abbey had three burial grounds: 1) within the abbey cloisters and church for the wealthy and elite, 2) churchyard burials for the less well to do, and 3) a western cemetery for those who died from the plague. This last section for plague victims was an extension of the East Smithfield plague cemetery, and likely they both contained a similar low status population. 363 skeletons were analyzed for this study: 187 skeletons from the western cemetery, 75 from the abbey churchyard and 101 from the abbey church and cloister.

St Mary Graces skeleton from the Wellcome Collection and Museum of London Archaeological Archive

St Mary Graces skeleton from the Wellcome Collection and Museum of London Archaeological Archive

In order to assess violence within a community, trauma needs to be carefully analyzed. We can never be definitive about whether the trauma was violence related- however, there are patterns in trauma that can be indicative of violent behavior. Krakowka (2015) recorded all evidence for trauma, but special attention was paid to potentially violence related injuries, including: fractures on the skull above the hat-brim line and greater than 0.5cm in length, facial fractures, fractures in the hands, fractures to the ulna (breaking of the bone associated with defensive maneuvers), rib fractures and sharp force trauma anywhere on the body. 86 individuals presented with at least one type of fracture, representing 24.0% of the total sample from St Mary Graces.

While there was no differences in prevalence of fractures between the churchyard and abbey burials, a closer analysis of types of fractures reveals a more nuanced interpretation. The highest prevalence of violence related injuries was found among males from the western cemetery (16.4%), likely low status individuals. The documentary record supports the evidence that low status men were the most likely to be the victims and perpetrators of violence. Males were more likely than females to have trauma to the skeleton, with 43.4% of all males versus only 25.4% of all females with skeletal injuries. However, there is no statistically significant difference between violence related injuries for males and females. Documentary records do not support this conclusion- noting that women were not usually involved in violent attacks, although since it records homicide, perhaps these attacks just weren’t fatal. High status women were the less affected by violence based on the skeletal remains. Only three subadults had trauma, 2 between 12-17 years and 1 around 6-11 years, and there is no evidence in the documentary records for widespread child abuse.

Based on these findings, Krakowka (2015) concludes that 14th c. London was not only besieged by plague, famine and war- community violence was also high in this period. Lower status males were the most likely individuals to be effected by this rise in violent interpersonal behavior, particularly from blunt force trauma to the skull. High status males also showed increased evidence of trauma, but more likely due to combat training or war, not community violence. Contrary to the London Coroner’s Rolls, females were also effected by this violence, however it may not have been fatal. The skeletal record provides us with more insight into this period, and provides an important counterpoint to the usual studies of this period that focus on plague, famine and warfare; low-level community violence increased with the social upheaval and had an impact on the living.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgKrakowka, K. (2015). Violence-related Trauma from the Cistercian Abbey of St Mary Graces and a Late Black Death Cemetery International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.2462

4 responses to “Evidence of Violence from a Late Black Death Cemetery

  1. How interesting. Finding out about what life was like for people in different times is one of my favourite parts of studying history, and this is a wonderful example that also includes another of my favourite subjects – forensics. Who knows, I might be able to use something like this in a story one day.

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