South Cambs plague victims buried individually and with care, major study finds
- Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit/Mark Gridley
There has been a major advance in archaeological knowledge surrounding medieval plague victims - after a significant discovery was made in our area.
The study by the University of Cambridge's archaeology department, published in the European Journal of Archaeology. saw victims of the Black Death discovered in the lost medieval village of Clopton - once joined with the existing South Cambridgeshire village of Croydon.
Dating from 1349 and 1561, the remains were from individuals who died of plague during the second pandemic - which started in the mid 14th century and killed between 40 and 60 per cent of the population.
Remarkably, most of the discovered victims come from individual burials, rather than mass graves. While it has long been suspected that most plague victims received an individual burial, this has been impossible to confirm until now.
According to the study: "This pattern represents a major advance in archaeological knowledge, shifting focus away from a few exceptional discoveries of mass burials to what was normal practice in most medieval contexts.
"Detailed consideration of context allows the authors to identify a range of burial responses to the second pandemic within a single town and its hinterland. This permits the creation of a richer and more varied narrative than has previously been possible."
Plague kills so rapidly it leaves no visible traces on the skeleton, so archaeologists have previously been unable to identify individuals who died of plague unless they were buried in mass graves.
By studying DNA from the teeth of individuals who died at this time, researchers from the Wellcome Trust-funded After the Plague project, based at the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, have identified the presence of Yersinia Pestis, the pathogen that causes plague.
These include people who received normal individual burials at a parish cemetery and friary in Cambridge and in Clopton.
Lead author Craig Cessford, of the University of Cambridge, said, “These individual burials show that even during plague outbreaks individual people were being buried with considerable care and attention. This is shown particularly at the friary where at least three such individuals were buried within the chapter house."
The Cambridge Archaeological Unit conducted excavations on this site on behalf of the University in 2016-2017.
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The individual at the parish of All Saints by the Castle in Cambridge was also carefully buried; this contrasts with the apocalyptic language used to describe the abandonment of this church in 1365 when it was reported that the church was partly ruinous and ‘the bones of dead bodies are exposed to beasts’.”
The study also shows that some plague victims in Cambridge did, indeed, receive mass burials.
Yersinia Pestis was identified in several parishioners from St Bene’t’s, who were buried together in a large trench in the churchyard excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit on behalf of Corpus Christi College.
This part of the churchyard was soon afterwards transferred to Corpus Christi College, which was founded by the St Bene’t’s parish guild to commemorate the dead including the victims of the Black Death. For centuries, the members of the College would walk over the mass burial every day on the way to the parish church.
Mr Cessford concluded: “Our work demonstrates that it is now possible to identify individuals who died from plague and received individual burials.
"This greatly improves our understanding of the plague and shows that even in incredibly traumatic times during past pandemics people tried very hard to bury the deceased with as much care as possible.”
In the Middle Ages, Croydon and Clopton were two communities of above average population. Clopton even had a market in the 12th century granted by Robert Hoo, Lord of Clopton in 1292, meaning it would have been given the status of a town at that time.
The union of the two villages can still be seen at the Church of All Saints', which is still recognised as covering the parish of Croydon-cum-Clopton.
The parishes were joined in 1561. Saints Clopton is a lost village although its site can still be visited by following the bridleway that extends westwards from Croydon High Street.