The term ‘nasty, brutish and short’ is a phrase often used, half jokingly, for the lives of our pre-modern ancestors. It wasn’t always, but in many cases, life in the Middle Ages could be harsh–especially in regards to illness and injury.

A recent assessment of skeletons discovered in Cambridge at three separate sites shows this clearly. Of the people buried in the regular cemetery, 44% had bone injuries, most probably obtained whilst performing heavy agricultural work. Surprisingly, at the graveyard of the Augustinian Friars, over 30% of the monks also had bone injuries, showing that they were had been active in daily lives beyond their friary. The least amount of injury found was to the skeletons of those buried near the medieval hospital; however, hospitals at that time catered to the elderly and poor as much as the sickly, and many who died there may have passed away from illnesses that left no trace on their remains.

No weapons injuries were found on any of the skeletons, however–showing that although there was strife at various times throughout the Middle Ages, it was not a ‘Game of Thrones‘ scenario for those beyond the circles of the main antagonists. Only one monk appeared to have died by violence–he had a blunt trauma head injury indicating he was bludgeoned from behind, maybe in a robbery. Another friar had met with a nasty accident that proved fatal–he appeared to have been run over by a cart. His neck and legs were broken in injuries similar to what one would see on a car crash victim.



Bourgeois, Peter Francis, 1756-1811; Funeral Procession of a White Friar
Funeral Procession of a White Friar

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