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The Face Of A Man Who Died 700 Years Ago Is Revealing How The Poor Lived In Medieval England

by Penn Collins

March 21, 2017

As a collective civilization, we’ve made some strides in how we care for the poor and frail but, even in the 21st century, the indigent are often relegated to both anonymous lives and anonymous deaths. So when scientists were able to re-create the life of a man who lived 700 years ago from his remains, it offered a tremendous insight, not just into his life, but into the lives of the countless impoverished citizens of medieval England. 

This face—and the man—are known by the clinical and cold moniker Context 958, one of several hundred buried corpses exhumed from graves behind the Old Divinity School of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, around 2010. The subject was presumed to have been a ward of the hospital or church, likely poor and/or ill, at the time of his death in the 13th century.

C. Cessford

Here’s the subject’s body as it was found, buried facedown, which was rare during this time: 

C. Cessford

Subjects such as Context 958 were likely forgotten by the world as they lived, so documentation of their struggle and lifestyle is lacking. But with Context 958’s reconstruction, archaeologists and anthropologists from both Cambridge and Scotland’s University of Dundee have more insight into the daily life of this large, but unstudied historical population. 

Using Context 958’s bones, the scientists haven’t just recreated his appearance, they have ascertained information about his diet, career, and even violent activity during the subject’s life. 

So this: 

Laure Bonner

Becomes this: 

University of Dundee

Which in turn becomes this fleshed-out visage: 

University of Dundee

Judging by the bone structure, wear on the bones, and posture of the man, the researchers estimated Context 958 was about 40 years old when he died, having worked as a laborer with intermittent access to nutritious food. Judging by the two disruptions in the growth of his tooth enamel, it’s thought that he survived two widespread famines during his difficult life. 

The biological evidence in Context 958’s remains allowed the scientists the opportunity to further postulate on his social and familial life, with Professor John Robb of Cambridge University stating:

“One interesting feature is that he had a diet relatively rich in meat or fish, which may suggest that he was in a trade or job which gave him more access to these foods than a poor person might have normally had. He had fallen on hard times, perhaps through illness, limiting his ability to continue working or through not having a family network to take care of him in his poverty.”

There was also an indication of blunt-force trauma on the back of Context 958’s skull that had healed prior to his death. 

The study of the subject’s remains is the first in a bigger, well-funded study known as “After the plague: health and history in medieval Cambridge,” which serves to share with the world the lives of the marginalized lower class throughout this era. Says Dr. Robb: 

“The After the Plague project is also about humanising people in the past, getting beyond the scientific facts to see them as individuals with life stories and experiences.”

“This helps us communicate our work to the public, but it also helps us imagine them ourselves as leading complex lives like we do today. That's why putting all the data together into biographies and giving them faces is so important.”

The lives of the wealthy and privileged are relatively well-documented throughout history, so a glimpse at the lives of the unstudied masses can offer new insight unavailable prior to the exhumation, reconstruction, and analysis of bodies. 

“Most historical records are about well-off people and especially their financial and legal transactions—the less money and property you had, the less likely anybody was to ever write down anything about you. So skeletons like this are really our chance to learn about how the ordinary poor lived.”

As was done with Context 958, future subjects will be studied and ultimately given biographies to get a broader look at the lives of the poor in medieval England. 

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The Face Of A Man Who Died 700 Years Ago Is Revealing How The Poor Lived In Medieval England