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History in Bones

The Black Death. Even today the phrase strikes a chill to the heart. In the years 1346-53, millions died and society was transformed for ever. Nearly seven centuries later the death and horror are still well-remembered. But earlier in the fourteenth century another horror had visited Europe, and this one isn’t well-remembered.

It was the Great Famine and it was caused by too much of a good thing: rain. Without rain, crops fail. But they also fail if there’s too much. That’s what happened in the Great Famine of 1315-17, when the skies poured week after week of heavy rain during the vital growing times of spring and summer. In those days many people went hungry even after a good harvest. Bad harvests were a catastrophe and no harvest at all meant starvation for millions.

Perhaps if the Black Death hadn’t struck later in the century, the Great Famine would still be well-remembered. As it is, it’s familiar mostly to specialists and students of the period. But even if all records had been lost, we would still be able to work out that an agricultural disaster had struck Europe at about that time.

This is because malnutrition leaves its marks on the skeleton. It stunts growth and creates distinctive patterns in the teeth that can be read by archaeologists for as long as the teeth last. That’s what’s happened recently in a study conducted by a team at the University of Sheffield. They excavated the grave of a priest at an abbey in nearby Lincolnshire. His name was recorded on the gravestone: Richard de Wispeton, or Richard of Wispington, as this Lincolnshire town is known today. And there was a date of death: 17 April 1317.

Names and dates are rare on graves from that period, so Richard must have been an important and well-respected man, honoured and loved in the abbey where he had worked. But those who buried him all those centuries ago would never have guessed how much more the scientists of the twenty-first century would be able to learn about the man they had laid to rest.

First of all, they could use his bones to estimate his age at the time of his death. He was in his late thirties or early forties. The gravestone tells us he died during the Great Famine, perhaps because he was exhausted by caring for its victims or had been infected by one of the epidemics that often strike when people are in poor health because of malnutrition. But he had experienced malnutrition himself during his childhood, as patterns on his teeth revealed. He had also performed hard physical labour at one time, building strong muscles that had left marks on his bones.

Not only that: long before his death he had been struck violently on the back of the head, leaving a permanent depression from what must have been a serious and painful wound. What are we to make of all this? Malnutrition, physical labour and violence don’t seem to fit well with the privileged and peaceful life of an abbey. That’s why the archaeologists think Richard may have risen from humble origins to the position he occupied at the time of his death: from peasant to priest, you might say.

So his bones contain information not only about his own life, but also about the society he lived in. People did not have to stay in the class into which they were born. It was impossible for a peasant child to enter the aristocracy, but the ranks of the clergy were open to clever boys of humble origins. Perhaps Richard taught himself to read and was given a chance to do even better. We can only guess about that, but his bones have further information to reveal. The DNA preserved there could tell us what he looked like, from the colour of his hair and eyes to the shape of his nose, and might even tell us what he thought like. In the Middle Ages, history was written in books. Today we know that it’s also written in bones.