Canterbury skeletons tell tales like Chaucer about class
Jane Faure-Brac explores lessons about social class from the recent discovery of skeletons dating back to the Middle Ages.
Here we had access to a vast cross-section of society whose bones were revealing what people in different classes ate, how they lived and how this lifestyle affected their health.
When British archaeologists excavated the site of St Gregory’s Priory at Canterbury, its adjacent cemetery gave up thousands of skeletons buried between the 11th and 16th centuries AD, all carefully stratified according to class.
The church’s hallowed ground was reserved for kings and noblemen, but those with money could buy their way into the high-status area of the cemetery. The poor and the sick, in death as in life, were isolated from the rest of society and buried in a separate section.
For historians, the class-segregated cemetery was a clear picture of the feudal system in action.
Hundreds of the skeletons were curated at the local university where they caught the eye of a young PhD student, Justyna Miszkiewicz, working on her thesis.
Now an expert in skeletal biology, ARC funded Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) research fellow and senior lecturer in biological anthropology at the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Justyna sensed the career-long value in this unique collection of individuals.
She embarked upon a two-year odyssey where every day, from nine to five, Justyna peered down the microscope examining leg-bone samples taken from 450 medieval skeletons from every class.
“The beauty of these bones was that they were not fossils, their internal preservation was very very good, and we also had skeletons in their entirety; their legs, teeth, skulls, the lot. This was really exciting because often we only get to examine a single bone that has fossilised like rock,” said Dr Miszkiewicz.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales written in the Middle Ages from 1387 have been feted for centuries as a lively commentary on the class system.
His stories from such a wide range of social classes - the nobility, clergy, merchant class and the peasantry - were ‘without precedent’ in the English language, according to historical sources.
Similarly, the skeletons of St Gregory’s were also telling stories about their class and how it shaped their lives.
“Going back so many centuries in time was really unique. Here we had access to a vast cross-section of society whose bones were revealing what people in different classes ate, how they lived and how this lifestyle affected their health,” said Miszkiewicz.
No bones about it, Justyna found that class has a devastating impact on health.
“The bone samples from people buried in the low-class section of the cemetery suffered from significantly poorer bone health,” she said.
“These would have been your farmers, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. The everyday people at the bottom of the feudal class system who couldn’t afford high-protein foods that strengthen bones,” she said.
In contrast, people from the more privileged classes had much bigger and healthier bones.
“Not only did they have bigger bones, but significantly higher bone density, meaning much stronger bones,” said Miszkiewicz.
“In fact, some high-status individuals showed evidence of an over-indulgence in red meat and rich foods to the point of adversely affecting their bones.”
Dr Miszkiewicz said when compared to modern bone health, many of the issues identified in the medieval skeletons can still be seen in today’s populations.
“We can virtually draw a line from these medieval people to ourselves today where socio-economic factors still determine how our bone forms and what risk of bone health issues we might get,” said Dr Miszkiewicz.
“Weaker bones meant these people from the Middle Ages were more susceptible to fractures, breaks and conditions like osteoporosis later in life, just the same for us today.
"The fact that life expectancy was comparatively short meant these people, for the most part, avoided these conditions by dying.
“But our modern populations are continuing to age, and with increasing costs to the health sector, the ability to identify those most at risk of bone fractures, osteoporosis and hip replacements will become ever more important.
“History is telling us that looking at the socio-economic influences on people’s skeletons is key to this.”
Dr Miszkiewicz said knowledge of the effects on ancient skeletons in the feudal system would be useful for today’s clinical practitioners dealing with patients suffering bone health issues.
She suggests her findings be included in clinical and educational information offered to at-risk individuals.
“I think there would be some comfort to be gained from hearing that your bone health issues were not caused by something you were or were not doing, but rather from the accident of your birth and this had been the same for people down the centuries where status was determined at birth.
“While bone health is a complex issue, people today can break free of their socio-economic roots to improve their bone quality with changes to diet and exercise.”
Dr Miszkiewicz's ground-breaking research, the first of its kind, has given science an ancient data base which can be drawn on for future research.
“This research is extremely valuable because it would have been almost impossible to undertake on living people.”
Dr Miszkiewicz’s research is discussed in an article published in Clinical Reviews in Bone and Mineral Metabolism, and a co-authored Springer Medicine book Bone Health: A Reflection of the Social Mosaic